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