Summit Valley is a beautiful subalpine meadow that is host to 20 species of mammals, at least 100 species of birds, more than 500 species of plants, and numerous species of butterflies. The trailhead is at the parking area off Soda Springs Rd. just beyond the railroad crossing. When you come into the parking area, park near the dam.

This trail can be hiked in either direction but this description is based on a clockwise route. From the parking area, climb up to the top of the dam to the left of the spillway. From here you can see Lake Van Norden, a shallow lake only a fraction of the size that it was before being lowered in 1976 by its then owner, PG&E, due to concerns over what an earthquake would do to the rammed-earth dam. There is evidence of the South Yuba River being dammed in this area as far back as 1870.

At the top of the dam, turn left and follow the trail along the top of the dam. Observe how far beneath the dam the water level is. This gives you some idea of how much water it used to store. As the dam ends, angle slightly to your left and you will come to a primary dirt road, the Lake Van Norden Rd. In a short distance along the road, you’ll come to a concrete bridge that crosses Upper Castle Creek. About a hundred yards beyond the bridge, turn right onto an old track. In a couple hundred yards, you’ll come to the West Van Norden warming hut, which is used in the winter in connection with the Royal Gorge cross-country ski operation. Follow the Royal Gorge signs for the Bill Patterson Loop eastward through the meadow. You should see some semblance of an old trail heading to the east; stay on it. This trail is a remnant of the old Overland Emigrant Trail used by thousands of pioneers as they headed west to the lush valleys of California. Feel free to wander off the trail into the meadow – there are beautiful displays of wildflowers around some of the larger rocks as well as artifacts from the Native Americans that spent their summers in the valley.

As you continue across the meadow, you’ll see another warming hut to the east, the East Van Norden warming hut; this is your next way point. Shortly before reaching the warming hut, there is an intersection with another old track. Turning left on the track takes you to the remains of a sheep corral which was used each season to ship out as many as 2,000 sheep that had grazed in the valley. There is a TD Land Trust kiosk at the corral and a commemorative plaque honoring the major contributors to the campaign to acquire the Royal Gorge property. Retrace your steps back toward the warming hut and continue on the old track for a few hundred yards to a bridge that takes you across the South Fork of the Yuba River.

Just beyond the bridge, turn right at another sign for the Bill Patterson Loop trail, which generally follows the South Fork of the Yuba River. In about a half mile, you’ll come to a small forested, rocky peninsula. This is an area used by the Native Americans of the Martis Culture. By exploring around the peninsula, you may find grinding rocks and one or two metates. The Bill Patterson trail continues west from this area for a half mile or so, when it bends to the left away from the river. At this point, the trail follows along the edge of PG&E electrical transmission lines. In a half mile or so, the trail bends right, away from the transmission lines, crosses a small seasonal creekbed, and continues toward the dam through the forest between the transmission lines and Lake Van Norden. The rocky areas along this section of the trail are other places where the Native Americans of the Martis Culture came in the summers to harvest nuts and seeds and where they would grind them into flour. This grinding into the granite resulted in mortars several inches deep. Similarly, metates were areas on the granite where rounded stones were used for grinding the seeds into fine flour.

For a more detailed explanation of the Martis Culture on the summit, stop at the Donner Summit Historical Society, located at the flashing light in Soda Springs, or visit their website to access their brochures on the subject, at

As you continue your hike west towards the Lake Van Norden dam, you should see several varieties of bird life on the lake including white pelicans, Canada geese, and others. As you get closer to the dam you will have to detour from the shoreline into the woods and along the side of Soda Springs Road a short distance to the area where you parked your car. Alternatively, depending on the amount of water flowing over the dam, you could walk across the dam to your car.

Maximum elevation: 6748 ' | Elevation gain: 391' | Difficulty: Easy | Distance: 4 miles