The Simple Things

Little gem, Donnor Ski Ranch1

What Donner Ski Ranch lacks in glitz and amenities, the friendly California resort makes up for in snow, views and back-to-basics skiing.

Donner Ski Ranch, Calif., is no architectural marvel. There's nothing fancy about the modest, slopeside lodge, and its cafeteria and bar are simple and a bit claustrophobic. Outside, the area's 750 vertical feet are accessed by six chairs, the pride of the fleet being a fixed-grip triple.

Although one of the last of its kind in California, the Sierra Nevada resort is far from washed up. Its simplicity, affordability and plentiful snow continue to beckon visitors. It's not unusual for the Ranch to host 2,800 skiers and boarders on a weekend day. From the summit of its highest run atop Signal Hill (7,851 feet) dramatic views descend toward Donner Lake, past the railroad snow sheds and the "Chinese Wall," a foundation built in the latter 1800s for the Trans-Sierra Railroad. The small cache of the Ranch's terrain surprisingly contains a balanced variety of steeps and rolling shoulders, comprising a mighty little mountain.

Situated atop Donner Summit, 90 minutes from the greater Sacramento area, the ski resort opened for skiing in 1937 with a single ropetow. It wasn't until 1961 that the original lift was replaced by a platter pull. Today, the area offers 45 runs and 400-plus acres of skiing that descend 360 degrees from the summit of Signal Hill. Although the majority of the slopes are rated beginner and intermediate, advanced skiers can discover steep pitches, treeskiing and black-diamond runs on The Face and South Palisades.

To better utilize its moderate terrain, Donner Ski Ranch opened its lifts to snowboarders in 1986, becoming the first Sierra resort to do so. Riders now make up about 35 percent of the Ranch's clientele and can typically be found jumping into the resort's well-maintained halfpipe and terrain park.

In addition to its terrain, the Ranch attracts skiers with its back-to-basics skiing. There are no video games in the lodge, nor any other off-slope attractions. The resort remains more of a rarefied mountain outpost where people, bound by a collective independent spirit, happily rub shoulders and revel in the seductive vistas and wonders of nature.

Few areas in North America have averaged more snowfall over the last 100 years than Donner Summit. According to the U.S. Forest Service's Central Sierra Snow Lab in nearby Soda Springs, Donner Ski Ranch averages 408 inches of snowfall annually, making it a powder playground that glitzier resorts' millions can't buy.

Donner Ski Ranch, norden, Calif.
Vital Stats 45 runs, 6 lifts, 400 skiable acres, 750 vertical feet
Annual Snowfall 408 inches
Lift Tickets $15 adult and youth 13-17, Tuesday to Thursday; $25 adult/$18 youth, Friday to Monday.
Information 530-426-3635,
A Good Deal "Anniversary Week," held four times throughout the season: Ski rentals, lessons and lift tickets are rolled back to $10 each.