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Exploring Our Backyard: Elevation change worth view at Donner Summit Canyon trail

View from the lookout point on the Donner Summit Canyon trail in the winter. (Shannon Kelly/NSN)

While summer will soon come to an end, there’s plenty to do outdoors in our area when cooler weather arrives.

I was planning on going for a hike this week near Donner Lake, but with the poor air quality due to the recent wildfires in California, I figured it was best to hold off until the smoke cleared. Per our chief meteorologist Cassie Wilson, the air quality in Washoe County on Wednesday was the worst it’s been since the Rim fire in 2013 and King Fire in 2014, so it's smart to stay inside if you can.

For this week's Exploring Our Backyard, I thought it would be a good time to reminisce on one of my favorite hikes in the Donner area. It’s a trail you can hike year round. It's the Donner Summit Canyon trail. I’ve only been there in the fall and in the winter to snowshoe, but both hikes were just as scenic. I would have never guessed this trailhead was if I was making a day trip to the lake.

Getting there

The Donner Summit Canyon trail is a 3.9-mile loop, so it's not very long. To get there, head west on I-80 and exit at Donner Pass Road. Make a left once you get off the freeway, go under I-80 and head towards Donner Lake. Continue on this road and drive past the lake. Once you see the West End Beach Park, the destination is just up ahead on your left. You’ll see a small parking lot on the left hand side of the road where the trailhead begins. The easiest way to find the trail head is to search “Donner Summit Canyon” on All Trails website or app because it will take you directly to this parking lot, and there’s some construction in that area right now, so you may have to take a detour depending on when you go.

The trailhead

Both times I hiked this trailhead, it was carved out pretty nicely. We got a little lost on the trail while snowshoeing because it was hard to tell exactly which path to take in the snow, and we weren’t using the All Trails map at first, either. Once we got back onto the trailhead, it was smooth sailing from there. So I recommend using the All Trails app, just in case you don’t want to get lost. About a mile into the hike, you can either head toward the lookout point to see Donner Lake or take a right and head toward the trail junction. Since the entire hike is a loop, you will ultimately finish at the same point, depending on which trail you take.

During the fall, we hiked the entire trail, but in the winter we decided to head toward the lookout point. It’s a relatively steep walk to the lookout point in snowshoes, so I recommend carrying poles with you, and throughout some parts of the trail I was glad I had poles to use. We went last January after a recent snowstorm, so we had our work cut out for us, but I didn’t feel too overwhelmed either time. There was a decent amount of shade throughout the trail so you could get out of the sun and take a quick break, which was nice in the fall considering it was still warm outside. There was a picnic table at the top of the lookout when I first checked it out, and I would think that it was covered in snow during the winter, so I'm not sure if it's still there, but it was a nice place to sit and have lunch.

It wasn’t very crowded either time I checked it out, and I was surprised considering we didn’t get there until 10 in the morning for both trips. If you hike relatively often and don’t mind a challenge, then this is the hike for you. I broke a sweat both times, but didn’t feel overwhelmed. I wouldn’t recommend taking kids on it because there are some challenging parts, but the view of Donner Lake at the top of the lookout is definitely worth it. Just wait for that smoke to clear out before jumping on the trail!

Shannon Kelly is a Multimedia Journalist for Nevada Sports Net. You can contact her at or via Twitter @shannonkelly_2.

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