Winter Trip Report: Donner Lake Rim Trail to Drifter Hut

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Donner Lake Rim Trail

We headed up Tahoe Donner to the Glacier Way trail head late Sunday morning, just as the snow storm was beginning to bear down. 

We don’t always get to pick the timing or weather of our trips, and we’ve learned to kit up and make do to make the most of our time available. 

We know this trail well, having taken it many times this past summer.

Parking at the Glacier Way Trail Head, we realized we wouldn’t be alone on the trail as two other cars were already there.  Gotta love dedicated Tahoe residents!

We began to make our way down the access trail, over light snowfall on the ground.  As we made our way up the first incline we felt the brunt of the wind beginning to pick up, knowing that the wind would be in our face until the first bend in the trail.  We swapped our sunglasses for goggles, zipped up our jackets and continued on.

Reaching our first breaking point, the picnic bench at Negro Canyon Overlook, we could barely make out Donner Lake below and I-80’s traffic moving up Donner Summit through the snow and clouds.

The wind was strongest at this point, and we briefly hesitated before deciding to move on towards the Drifter Hut.  Knowing we would be heading toward an indoor location (no matter how basic) made it easier to push through the steady strong wind and stronger gusts.

On we went, stepping through the shallow snow accumulation, which became snow drifts every so often.  We each pulled up our wool buffs to cover our faces, tucking under our goggles. 

While the wind was intense, my shell protected me, and the air temperature hovered in the low 30s.  Stopping behind a large tree I de-layered, removing my insulating puffy and moving forward with my base layer underneath my shell.

Being familiar with the trail, we knew where we were headed and knowing made us more confidant along the trail through the intense wind and snow.  We knew as soon as the trail began to drop and lead away from the mountain’s edge that we were close.  One hundred yards through a meadow, the first area we questioned if we should break out the snow shoes, and we were at the hut.

It’s funny how uplifting a simple little hut can be in intense cold, driving wind and snow.  Stepping inside, as the wind ceased, I was struck by the realization of how loud the wind had been in my ears.  I removed my shell, while Chris stayed bundled up.  We took off our packs, laid down our poles and took a seat on the benches.  The three large windows overlooking the Johnson Canyon helped to make the small room feel giant.  We turned on our radio, and listened to the local station for a bit before checking the weather to ensure no major updates.

Drifter Hut

We hung out in the hut for almost two hours, watching the snow pile up and the wind blow ever stronger, before deciding to head back.  Our little mountain oasis, as no one else ventured out as far on this day.

Drifter Hut

We packed back up our packs, opened some new chemical hand warmers and suited up to head back into it.

Snowshoe Donner Lake Rim TrailHaving carried in our brand new snowshoes, we knew we wanted to give them a try on the way out.  On the way in there hadn’t been sufficient snow to avoid damaging the snowshoes along most of the route, aside from the meadow just outside of the hut.  We expected to snowshoe through the meadow and then pack back up the shoes.  However, we were pleasantly surprised to find the snow piles didn’t end after the meadow.  We continued along the trail’s ledge, snowshoeing our way back.  It felt great to feel so stable and firm in piles of powdery snow.  We were making tracks, thinking of how miffed those who might head out early tomorrow morning may be to find our tracks in the ‘fresh’ snow.

Never having snowshoed before, it was a surprisingly easy feat.  Stepping just a touch wider than usually ensured I didn’t step over myself.  Powdery snow ensured any falls that may come would be softened by pillows.

Snowshoe Donner Lake Rim Trail

The picnic bench at the overlook came faster than expected. The snowshoeing lent a new sense of adventure to an activity my mind and body know well: hiking down a trail.

Turning the bend onto the access trail toward the trailhead saw the wind die down, and the snow rate slow.  With still plenty of snow on the ground below, we continued with our snowshoes. 

With the trail now as wide as a road, we were able to snowshoe side by side.  With the wind having let up, we were able to take off our goggles and pull down the buffs off of our faces.


Suddenly it felt downright spring-like, compared to what we had trekked through.

As we approached the parking lot, we were greeted by two very happy huskies whose owner decided the break in the storm was as good a time as any to get his dogs outside.  After playing with our trail greeters for a few moments we made it to the car, feeling happy and accomplished.

After the extra-day winters we’ve seen over the past few years we’ve been in the Tahoe area, it was great to break out the snowshoes so early in the season.