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Castle Peak

Tahoe National Forest

Tahoe National Forest Links:

December 31st, 1999

6.5 miles
1995 vertical feet
Total Time: 5:20

Rating: 8/10

Directions:   View Driving Map

I'd forgotten to get a Sno-Park parking permit, so on this last day of 1999, Jean and I parked in the Boreal ski resort instead. After walking underneath I-80, we started our hike.

It hadn't snowed in weeks, and we suspected we could get away with just using our hiking boots. So the snowshoes stayed in the car trunk. However, one problem with this using normal hiking boots is dealing with ice. The road leading up to the gate is icy in places, and we had to use our trekking poles for balance to avoid slipping and sliding.

There were a few cars parked up at the gate, but you'd probably need a 4-wheel drive vehicle or nerves of steel to drive over the ice to get there. Once past the gate, it's better, as there is some snow on the ground (and no cars to turn the snow into ice). Still, the ground was hard-packed snow and easy to walk on with hiking boots.

We passed several sets of hikers, most of them coming in the opposite direction. Many of them were returning from Peter Grubb Hut (close to our destination), and some looked like they'd spent the night there. The hut is run by the Sierra Club and appears to be an ideal spot to launch backcountry skiing ventures.

Castle Peak rising above the meadow

The trail is really a forest service road, with conifers on either side. We shortly passed a road for snowmobiles. Then we came to another trail intersection. One road led to the right, into a picturesque meadow backed by Castle Peak to the north. Our path led us to the left, however, skirting the meadow with peek-a-boo views of Castle Peak. We would ascend to a saddle to the left of Castle Peak before heading up the ridge line to the top.

The trail is very gradual until it approaches Castle Pass, about 2 1/4 miles into the hike. The trail heads up steeply for the last hundred yards to the pass. While we were there we encountered as many dogs (at least 4) as people. A couple of cross-country skiers shared the pass with us for a few minutes before heading toward Castle Peak. I thought they were crazy for walking up with their skis on. If I were them I would have taken them off and walked. Their progress was slow-going and we would eventually pass them.

Castle Pass

We took a break at the pass and enjoyed the views of some snow-capped peaks around us. Then we started our ascent for even better views. We soon had a great view of Castle Peak above us. The way looked very steep, with snow on the left (north face) and bare dirt and rock on the right of the ridge line. For some unknown reason, we started off to the left, into the snow. Probably because we saw footprints in the snow and blindly followed them.

Castle Peak from just above Castle Pass

The problem is that we weren't wearing snowshoes. It hadn't been a problem up to this point, but now the snow was relatively deep and we were sinking up to our knees with every step. The forest service road stopped just before the pass, and now we were off on our own, so to speak.

Another problem was that I'd forgotten to acclimatize. Castle Peak rises to 9103 feet above sea level. Normally, I'd set aside at least a day's sleep at altitude before attempting the hike. The fact that it was that high completely slipped my mind, however, and we'd spent the previous night in Auburn at only 2000 feet elevation. Jean was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude, but she took a couple ibuprofen and seemed to be okay. Still, I don't recommend strenuous climbing to 9103 feet (or anywhere above 8000 feet, for that matter) without some acclimatization.

Some snowboarders and cross-country skiers were ahead of us, but they appeared to be using snowshoes. Eventually we realized our folly and waddled over to the ridge to our right. Once on solid ground, our pace picked up remarkably and we made good progress up to the high plateau. We then worked our way around and up to the summit.

View from the summit looking north

Or rather, one of the summits. There are several peaks here. The southernmost one looks slightly higher, and there were a few hikers standing on top if it. But the effort and time required to get there didn't look like it was worth it. We had astounding views from where we were, as it is. A beautiful ridge carved its way to the north. To the southeast we could see Donner Lake far below. To the south, the other peaks. And snow-capped peaks and forest all around.

The south peak

Summit winds had scoured the peak of most of the snow, leaving a thin section on the eastern edge of the peak. In retrospect, we probably walked a little too close to the edge, as it plummets perhaps a thousand feet seemingly straight down the eastern side. The western side is much more forgiving, and would be snowboard-able except for the fact that there wasn't much snow on it. That and the wall of rock pinnacles a third of the way down.

After enjoying a short break, we started down to avoid hiking after sunset. We made great progress, especially since we stayed on the bare ground as long as we could until we had to walk on the snow. We still had to deal with some sections of deep snow, but nothing unbearable.

Descent. Notice the snow line along the ridge.

Just before we reached Castle Pass on our return, we passed the pair of cross-country skiers we'd seen earlier. They'd tried to make it to the top, but hadn't been able to, and had turned around. They said they'd try to ski down from here; I kept looking back, expecting them to overtake us, but they never did. They must have walked instead of skied.

We made it back to the gate just in time to see the beginnings of a gorgeous sunset. The sky was starting to turn a lovely orange color. By the time we reached the Boreal parking lot, the sky was afire with dark reds. Too bad we couldn't stay on top of Castle Peak to watch the sun set -- it would have been an amazing show.

Sunset as seen from the Boreal parking lot just after the hike

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