. Northern California Hiking in North Lake Tahoe - Mt Judah Trail : Budget Travel Adventures

Northern California Hiking in North Lake Tahoe – Mt Judah Trail

Mt Judah Donner Peak Donner Lake panoramicI love hiking in northern California.  While I’ve explored trails from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada mountains, my favorite place to hike is Lake Tahoe.  Although I spend most of my time on the South Lake Tahoe side, I wanted to do something different.  So I headed towards North Lake Tahoe to the Mt Judah trail.

South Lake Tahoe is very close to my house here in Sacramento.  Less than 100 miles away, I’ve hiked Horsetail Falls and Round Top and explored the Fall colors in Hope Valley.

While the North Lake side still surrounds the lake, the views are a little different.  I wanted a change of scenery.

The giants among the clouds

Early in the morning, I headed towards I-80 on the way to Reno.  Traffic was a little heavier than expected but on a hot summer day, people were ready to escape the heat and head to the mountains.

As I drove towards Truckee and headed towards Donner Lake, the mountains looked down on me like giants walking among the clouds.  Their presence was welcoming but it was quite a different look than their mountain kin in South Lake Tahoe.

There weren’t many trees and the steep climbs were a reminder that mountains still rule the area.  As I drove past the exit for Donner Lake, I turned on to Donner Pass Road.

While the Donner Pass Summit has a gruesome history of winter, death, and cannibalism for the early California settlers, this was a hot summer day.  There was no snow to be found and no summits to cross.  This was a Donner Party of one.

I drove along the winding, two lane road past the Sugar Bowl ski resort until I reached the turn off for Old Donner Summit Road.  Winding my way down this road, I came to a parking lot.

The sun was shining but the temperatures were comfortable.  At 8:15 am, a handful of cars in the parking lot meant only a few people were joining me on this early morning hike.  Loaded with water and sunscreen, I found the trail for my hike to the top of Mount Judah.

North Lake Tahoe hiking – the Mt Judah Trail

As I headed to the trail, I met a older gentleman in his 70s.  He was doing this hike for the third time in the last month.  He explained that this was a comfortable 4 hour hike with a little bit of rocks and elevation.  At 5.5 miles, this hike was a moderate half day hike.

The Pacific Coast Trail began at the end of the parking lot with the beginning of the trail clearly marked.  Even for someone like me, I didn’t think there was any chance of me getting lost today.

Pacific Coast Trail Mt Judah trail hiking entrance
As a hiked along the trail for five minutes, I came upon the rocks my older gentleman friend warned me about.  This steep ascent zig zagged over granite rocks with a quick elevation climb.  This turned out to be one of the most difficult parts of the hike.

Pacific Coast Trail hiking trail up the rocks
While the trail was rated as moderate, I didn’t find this hike all that difficult.  I even met families with kids as young as 4 years old hiking the trail that day.  It’s not an easy ascent and you need to be careful with your footing.  However, young kids ages 8 and older shouldn’t have any problems climbing up the rocks.

Pacific Coast Trail hiking rocks
After a 20 minute climb, there were already some good views of the surrounding mountains .  After a few more minutes of hiking along the now dirt path, I came upon a small lake below the hiking trail – Lake Mary.

Pacific Coast Trail Lake Mary
Another 15 minutes of hiking and the scenery changed as trees lined the trail.  Following the trail, the path went in and out of the trees as I slowly climbed up the trail.

Pacific Coast Trail hiking leave Lake Mary

Pacific Coast Trail hiking trees near Sugar Bowl ski lift
Coming out of the woods, a clearing reminded me that winter is the more popular recreational activity as the ski lifts and runs of the Sugar Bowl sat quietly in the summer sky.  While I was hiking on a warm day in August, this trail can provide some beautiful views in early winter or spring – perfect for snowshoes and people watching on the ski runs.

Pacific Coast Trail hiking Sugar Bowl ski lift
Just beyond the ski lifts came a fork in the road.  While the older gentleman recommended I continue up the trail, my trail guide recommended I turn left.  It was here that the Pacific Coast Trail intersected with the Mt Judah Trail.  While I kept walking past the trail, I turned back and decided to follow my guide.

Pacific Coast Trail Mt Judah Trail intersect
An easy climb up the Mt Judah trail led me in and out of some trees as I headed toward Donner Peak.  A few minutes into the trail, a small path just 100 yards away led to a beautiful lookout area over Lake Mary with Lake Angela in the distance.

Mt Judah overlook Lake Mary Lake Angela
I paused with some other hikers to admire the views and take some photos.  And yes, I wear the same shirt and hat on nearly every hike.

Jeremy Branham California hiking
As you continue up the Mt Judah Trail, the climb is gradual but you hardly notice the slight elevation change as you are too busy looking around and ahead to see what comes next.  Another trail leads off the main trail up to Donner Peak.

Donner Peak hiking trail

hike to the top of Donner Peak
Hiking up this small trail isn’t required but it will give you your first peak at Donner Lake.  Even if you don’t go to the top, enjoy the views of the lake.

Or if you are like me, make the steep climb to the top and enjoy the panoramic views from the top of Donner Peak.

Donner Lake Donner Peak hiking trail

Donner Lake between the rocks Donner Peak

Donner Lake from the top of Donner Peak

top of Donner Peak Sierra Nevada mountains
Here’s a panoramic video from the top of Donner Peak so you can enjoy the mountains, lakes, and trees.

Back on the Mt Judah trail, you get a peak of Mt Judah in the distance.  Walking up the trail gives you some great views of Donner Lake and Donner Peak from above.  As you reach the large rocks ahead, turn to your left to head to the lookout or take the trail to the right to go to the top of Mt Judah.

Mt Judah peak and lookout hiking trail
This is the highlight of the hike on the Mt Judah trail.  Take your time and enjoy the views.  While there isn’t any shade up here, this is the perfect place to sit, enjoy the views, and grab a bite to eat.

I spent time hanging out and taking photos until I killed the battery in my camera.  Here are a few photos from the top of Mt Judah and the lookout.  I even took a few panoramic shots as well.

Donner lake mountains from Mt Judah lookout

Donner Peak Donner Lake mountains Mt Judah

Mt Judah lookout Lake Angela mountains

Lake Angela Mt Judah panoramic

Mt Judah Donner Peak Donner Lake panoramic

Donner Lake lookout panoramic
As you survey the mountains and trail below, you may not believe you are still in California.  For a brief moment, I imagined I was somewhere in the Andes of South America.

Mt Judah trail Sierra Nevada mountains

Mt Judah hiking trail Sierra Nevada mountains
Head towards to the Mt Judah lookout and begin your hike down the trail.  The climb down descends quickly, first zig-zagging down the mountain and then quickly descending down the trail.

descending down the Mt Judah hiking trail
After 20 minutes of hiking, you leave the Mt Judah Trail and intersect with the Pacific Coast Trail once again. After hiking another mile and a half, you connect with the trail again at the ski lifts near the Sugar Bowl resort.

From there, you hike down the trail and back down the rocks to where your hike started.

Tips for hiking the Mt Judah Trail

After hiking the Mt Judah Trail, there are a few hiking tips I recommend for this 5.5 mile trail loop.

Bring lots of water

While the temperatures here are comfortable during the summer, there are long stretches on the trail where there is no shade.  From Donner Peak to Mt Judah and the climb back down, there is no shade at all from the sun.  On a hot day like I had, this can be brutal, especially if you aren’t used to the elevation.

Wear sunscreen

Because of long periods without shade and the high elevation, wear sunscreen and re-apply every couple of hours.  I applied twice during my hike and still got a little sunburned

Turn left at the Mt Judah Trail

When you reach the turn off to the left for the Mt Judah Trail, take it.  The climb is much easier and it’s more rewarding to enjoy the views of Donner Lake early in your hike rather than later.  On my climb down from Mt Judah, the descent was tough.  I met a few hikers who were climbing up and were out of breath.  Going down is much easier than going up.

Be careful on the rocks

While young kids can handle that early climb up the rocks, be careful.  Some of the rocks are bigger and there are plenty of them.  The rocks will move underneath your feet so walk slowly.  Any fall on these will hurt.

If you are like me and want to enjoy hiking in Tahoe, try the North Lake Tahoe side just past Donner Lake.  I was surprised at the panoramic views and scenery on the Mt Judah Trail.  Unless you are hiking the higher peaks in South Lake Tahoe, you don’t get many views like this.

This isn’t a difficult hike and it can easily be done in just a few hours.  Unlike the early California settlers, hiking the Mt Judah Trail is one Donner party anyone can enjoy.

The Mt Judah Trail is a moderate 5.5 mile hike beginning on the Pacific Coast and continuing on the Mt Judah Trail before returning to the Pacific Coast Trail.  The total elevation change is around 1700 feet with a peak elevation of 8243 feet at the top of Mt Judah.  To get to the trail, take I-80 towards Reno and exit on 174 Silver Lake Road.  Drive towards Sugar Bowl Ski Resort on Donner Lake Road for 3.8 miles.  Turn right on Old Donner Summit Road and follow the road to the parking lot where the trail begins.

Enjoy a few more photos from my hike on the Mt Judah Trail.  For more hiking tips and destinations, check out my northern California hiking guide.  Sign up for the newsletter below to get more hiking stories and tips.

Donner Peak squirrel

I’ve got friends in high places

Pacific Coast trail hiking mountains Lake Mary

Donner Peak climb

Donner Peak

hiking trail to Donner Peak

Jeremy Branham Donner Peak view of Donner Lake

On top of Donner Peak


Relaxing Donner Peak

relaxing on top of Donner Peak

hiking to the Mt Judah lookout

Jeremy Branham California hiking Mt Judah

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Filed Under: CaliforniaDestinationsFeaturedHiking


RSSComments (15)

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  1. When I drove through California, I remember stopping and taking a picture of Donner Lake, so wherever I was had to be close to this trail. Wish I knew about the hiking at that point, but that was pre-internet. Beautiful pictures of the mountains and mountain lakes. Between you and Active Explorer, I am ready to check this area out.

    • Yes, you were definitely close! I’ve done a number of trails in the Tahoe area and have barely scratched the surface! I love hiking around here. Lots of different scenery with mountains, lakes, and a variety of views. I only wish I had more time to hike!

      If you ever get out this way, I can take you to a few places!

  2. Bruce says:

    This is a great hike with sweeping views. Great place for pictures and you took some nice ones.

    • Thanks for checking it out Bruce! Normally, I spend my time on the South Lake Tahoe side hiking. However, I loved the views on the Mt Judah trail. I love hiking and try to spend a few days every year exploring as many trails as I can in northern California. I’m always looking for recommendations so if you have any, please let me know!

  3. Laurence says:

    That looks like my perfect day out! I’ve only ever seen this region covered in snow, but it looks just awesome for hiking too. Great photos too, especially the one of the squirrel!

    • I have a recent history of taking photos with squirrels these days. Wonder if that means anything? Honestly, I love the Tahoe area much more in the summer and Fall. I rarely go in the winter.

  4. Beautiful views. Remind me of hiking in Jasper National Park in Canada. I spent a winter at Mammoth Mountain and drove through the Tahoe area a couple of times during winter. Summer looks amazing though!

    • I rarely spend time in Tahoe during the winter but I love it during the summer. For me, there’s so much more to see and do in the summer and you get to see how beautiful this area really is.

  5. The views here are breathtaking. I can see why that gentleman had done the it 3 times in a month.

  6. Amanda says:

    Wow, those photos from the top are stunning!!

  7. Have to say, I love the amount of helpful detail you give about the hikes and trails you cover–can kids do it? Do I need sunscreen? How long does it REALLY take?. Etc. You bring every trail to life in ways that readers can really use. Here’s to inspiring more people to lace up their boots!

  8. Turtle says:

    Looks like an awesome hike – you really do bring it to life. Although I’m not sure I really need to do it myself now, after seeing all your great photos!! :)

  9. Megan says:

    How long did the hike take you round trip?

  10. Jeff Stinson says:

    That is one really good post. I have visited California twice for company work. I never got time for my first love hiking. May be next time I might spare some days for this wonderful experience :)

    • Hiking in California is awesome. There are so many trails in the Tahoe area. However, you can pick places all over the stat and find some great hikes. I like to hike a lot in the summer so should be doing some more trails in California this summer.

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