6 Day Hikes in Truckee

This content is sponsored by Marmot and ShopStyle — as always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Having lived in Truckee (north of Lake Tahoe in California) for the past three years, I can confidently say one thing: I have barely scratched the surface of the incredible paradise I call home. Most mountain towns have one ski resort at best — my town has SEVEN (I’ve snowboarded at five of them), with many more in close vicinity throughout the entire Tahoe region. All that to say… it’s now mid-November with nary a snowflake in the forecast! Which just means we’re enjoying a gorgeous (albeit freezing) extended Fall. I’ve partnered with my friends at Marmot to share a few of my favorite local day hikes in the region — some more challenging than others, but all will require one thing: dress warmly.

Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti

Temps are beginning to dip below 15° at night, but this time of year, you need a warm jacket pretty much any time of day. I own a lot of jackets I love for varying purposes, but Marmot’s Featherless Collection is my go-to for hiking. The animal-friendly Featherless synthetic insulation performs better than 700-fill down — and at a weight of only 13.5 oz, packs down really well if you need to stick it in a day pack. All I needed on a recent sunrise hike up to Donner Pass was my Avant Featherless Hoody (love the Mallard Green color!), a mid layer, hiking pants, gloves and a beanie and I was incredibly toasty.

Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti
Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti
Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti

Add Marmot’s Featherless Collection to your holiday list, but don’t be surprised on Christmas morning if the box feels like it’s empty — this jacket really is THAT light! Even better: I try to support brands that practice sustainability whenever possible, so I also really love that the 3M™ Thinsulate™ Recycled Featherless Insulation is made with 75% recycled loose-fill fibers. The jacket truly feels just as warm as 700-fill power down, but still perform when wet — now if California could just get some precipitation, I could put it to the test!

If you’re visiting Truckee over Thanksgiving and looking for a hike with incredible views (but not TOO challenging so the whole fam can tag along), I put together a list of some of my favorite local gems.

Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti

Note: if a trail is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend plugging it into the AllTrails app — even if you lose service (which you will), if you keep the app open on your phone it will still tell you where you are on the trail!

1. Donner Pass

Donner Pass is a pinnacle of American history. The series of granite peaks offer innumerable access points to hiking, world class climbing, backcountry skiing in the wintertime, and a chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail. Donner Pass is also where the ill-fated Donner Party met their match and were forced to camp out over the grueling winter of 1846 (the site of one of the cabins is literally across the street from my house). A decade later, drilling through the granite on Donner Pass proved to be the most challenging part of the Transcontinental Railroad’s westward expansion. The first ski resort to allow snowboarding was even on Donner Pass (Donner Ski Ranch)!

Looking for a day hike to explore some of this incredible and historic terrain? Hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail — I recommend deviating off to Mount Judah, which offers spectacular views of the entire Truckee basin — or explore the abandoned train tunnels along the pass. There are still artifacts from the 1800’s scattered through the area, as well as several petroglyphs carved into the granite. See if you can find this swing up on the summit!

Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti
Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti
Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti

2. Shirley Lake

Shirley Lake, located at Squaw Valley, is a surprisingly challenging hike with a lot of vertical gain (almost 2,000’ in only 3 miles). The good news? Once you reach Squaw High Camp, you can take the tram down for free and enjoy amazing views of Squaw Valley Ski Resort along the way — see if you can spot the rock formations that were the source of inspiration behind Walt Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland. Lots of history here too, as Squaw Valley was the location of the 1960 Winter Olympics!

3.   Martis Valley

More of a walk than a hike as there’s not much vertical here, Martis Valley is technically 70 square miles of land with many well-trafficked trails criss-crossing each other. Bring your pup and get out there and explore! The crisp wind has blown all the leaves off the trees at this point, but it’s a gorgeous access point a little earlier in the season to enjoy Fall colors. This is a trail Nick and I run regularly as it’s less than a mile from our office.

Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti

4.   Sawtooth Trail

Sawtooth is a popular mountain biking destination, but it makes for a great day hike, too. With part of the trail bordering Highway 89, there are several points you’ll have views of the Truckee River snaking through the valley below. The single-track trail is a bit narrow, so allow bikers and runners the right-of-way as you hike. Access to the Sawtooth trail system can be a bit hard to find: there’s a small parking lot along the FS06 fire road in the Sierra Meadows neighborhood. There’s plenty signage at the start of the trail, which is a 9 mile loop in total — a perfect mountain biking distance, but you can take a shortcut by cutting over to the fire road back to your car halfway through. Keep an eye out for bears — they’re notoriously active along this trail.

5.   Castle Peak

Castle Peak is undoubtedly Nick’s favorite trail run in all of Truckee. It’s incredibly challenging (I’ve only ran it twice) but makes for a really great hike at 6 miles round-trip. Dubbed Castle Peak for the volcanic formations that resemble a castle when viewing from afar, the trail leading up to the steep spires is part of the Pacific Crest Trail — in summer months, you’ll run into many hikers following Cheryl Strayed’s footsteps. Park right off I-80 in the parking lot, or if you have a 4x4 with good clearance, you can shave off a mile or two by lumbering up the road and catching the trail higher up.

6.   Loch Leven Lakes

Loch Leven Lakes is a series of three alpine lakes along the same trail — a great out-and-back hike that’s 8 miles round-trip if you make it all the way to the third lake. My advice? Skip it and stop at the second lake to enjoy a picnic lunch: it’s by far the prettiest, and is swimmable in the summer (I’ve camped here a handful of times).

If you’re traveling to Lake Tahoe this holiday season, make sure to squeeze in a couple hikes in Truckee — the options listed here barely scratch the surface! Of course we are due for some snow, so depending on when you visit, you might need to bring snowshoes instead of hiking boots. Either way, Marmot’s Featherless Collection will definitely be the right jacket of choice to keep you warm on all your outdoor adventures!

Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti
Marmot Laura Lawson Visconti

The Ultimate Photography Guide to Banff

In September, I joined a handful of phenomenally talented photographers for a trip to end all trips in stunning Banff National Park, courtesy of my friends at Dell. It was my first time to Banff, and it blew all expectations out of the water. If you haven’t been, definitely grab your camera and plan a trip! Winter has already hit the northern Rockies, so if snow isn’t your thing, plan on coming next year when everything has thawed out. We went in mid-September right as the leaves were beginning to turn, and the scenery was truly jaw-dropping. The park was definitely crowded, but I can only imagine how much more crowded it would have been in July or August!

While planning a photography trip to Banff, here are some things to think about:

  • Transportation: you’ll want reliable transportation the whole time — definitely rent a car when you land in Calgary, then make the hour and a half drive into Banff.

  • Where to stay: I didn’t realize the town of Banff was actually pretty far away from many of the iconic spots you’ll be photographing. It makes for a good homebase, but plan on driving a minimum of 2-3 hours per day.

  • Your crew: if solo trips are your thing, perfect. But if you want to bring a friend or significant other, it’s probably best to ensure they’ll be on the same page as you in terms of scheduling. I have done trips with non-photographer friends where I wanted to be shooting the whole time, and it’s frustrating for both parties when expectations are different.

  • Customs: not really something to worry about ahead of time, but good to know when visiting our neighboring country up north. Canada is INCREDIBLY strict at customs and I would not mention “work” at all. Say you’re going on holiday (not vacation) and visiting some friends who live in Banff. Do not mention you’re a professional photographer.

  • Wardrobe: If you’re traveling to Banff during Fall or Winter months, LAYER UP. It gets seriously cold here! My favorite brands to look into: Nau, Marmot, Patagonia… look for great deals on backcountry.com or REI. Don’t forget beanies, scarves and gloves!

  • Photo gear: You’ll be shooting endless epic landscapes in Banff… as a general rule, I tend to not travel with *all* my photo gear as I don’t check a bag, so I just choose 2-3 lenses I know I’ll use the whole time. My go-tos for landscape photography: 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 12-24mm. Your tripod is a must!

  • Post processing: I always bring a laptop when I travel so I can keep up with editing on the road — plus it’s nice to be able to post on Instagram right away! I edit on Lightroom via my Dell XPS 15 2-in-1. This laptop lets me edit photos incredibly fast on the plane or my hotel room while traveling — more on that below!

Itinerary

The key to shooting in Banff National Park (or really any similar landscape-focused location) is planning around sunrise and sunset. This means — you guessed it — lots of coffee! I averaged four hours of sleep per night on this trip, which is pretty standard for photography trips. Bring electrolytes and vitamins to help your body adjust to the lack of sleep (and the altitude), and drink plenty of water (and caffeine of course). Schedule a full “recovery” day when you get home with no responsibilities so you can catch up on those missed zzz’s!

I actually flew into Banff a few days earlier than the rest of the Dell crew to explore on my own, so here is a sample 3-day itinerary compiled from my whole trip:

Day 1

Sunrise: Moraine Lake

Sunset: Peyto Lake

Moraine Lake is iconic Banff — and while you’ve seen a bunch of photos of it before, it’s 100% better in person and worth spending a full morning at. Even though they charge an arm and a leg, I recommend renting a canoe from Moraine Lake Lodge starting at $105. So much fun, and such a gorgeous way to explore the lake (and get away from the crowds)! Peyto Lake, equally as stunning, boasts magical golden hour light. See if you can get away from all the other tripods and find your own unique vantage point on one of the hills nearby!

Day 2

Sunrise: Lake Louise

Sunset: Banff Gondola

Lake Louise is world renowned for a reason — I’m not sure that a more stunning alpine lake exists. It’s almost too good to be true. Again, arrive super early to get set up and beat the crowds. For golden hour, head to the Banff Gondola in the town of Banff for epic views and plenty of wildlife (we saw baby goats and the world’s fattest chipmunks). Great spot to leave the camera behind and simply take in the view, too!

Day 3

Sunrise: Bow Lake

Sunset: Maligne Lake

Bow Lake is an oft-photographed alpine lake about an hour outside of the town of Banff with gorgeous sunrise light. As with all other sunrise locations mentioned in this post, arrive EARLY to get your tripod and gear set up. Play with compositions — see if you can find some interesting foregrounds. After a beautiful morning spent photographing ducks, mist and mountainous reflections, prepare for a 3-hour drive to Jasper National Park to explore Maligne Lake.

Having drooled over innumerable photos of Spirit Island, located in Maligne Lake, I didn’t realize it was not easy to access prior to arriving, so I didn’t actually see or photograph it. It’s a VERY long hike to get there (over 7 miles one-way) and most people kayak or canoe out. I believe you can also pay for a tour to take you out there, but where’s the fun in that?! I still enjoyed a magical sunset exploring Maligne Lake, the largest lake in Jasper National Park, stepping over grizzly scat and swallowing more than one gnat along the way. Hey, where’s the adventure without wildlife encounters?!

Beat The Crowds

Have you ever traveled to a gorgeous “remote” location you’ve seen a million times on Instagram, only to discover that it’s completely overrun with tourists in real life? Yep, this defines Banff National Park. Its beauty and accessibility make it extremely popular (the lakes really are THAT turquoise in real life)! The trick is to arrive at LEAST an hour before sunrise to get set up with your tripod. Most photographers will be pretty respectful (at least they should be) if they already see you in a spot with your gear and will steer clear — of course that doesn’t apply to your everyday tourist that arrives on a tour bus, selfie stick in hand, but they’ll come later in the morning and you’ll likely be finishing up by then!

Moraine Lake in particular has gotten insanely popular (largely due to social media). The parking lot fills up very early each morning — if this is the case, there’s another lot miles away that you’ll be forced to park in, then you’ll pay an obscene amount of cash to a friendly bus driver to cart you up to the actual lake. You can avoid this extra time, money and hassle by simply arriving early (way before sunrise). Keep in mind: everyone else is trying to do the same thing, so allow more time than you think you’ll need. While I had read countless blog posts prior to my trip that advised this, I was still shocked by how many people were at Moraine Lake. Get there early, bring a headlamp, and be respectful of others.

Of course, there are other gorgeous lakes, waterfalls, hikes and vantage points not mentioned in this blog post that are worth checking out and will subsequently be less popular — do your research and see if you can find your own “hidden gem” off the beaten path!

Post Processing

Once you get home from Banff, the fun begins: post processing and giving yourself FOMO over all your photos. My editing workflow has been forever changed with Dell’s new XPS 15 2-in-1 — add this to your Christmas list stat! I can now edit my photos with two hands: one using the mouse, and one pinching the screen to zoom in and out to examine edits in real-time. I use the pen stylus for fine detail retouching, and as a second mouse of sorts. The laptop’s speed is the real gamechanger. My editing truly has seemingly become twice as fast as before — but perhaps even more notable — I’m actually editing better with the laptop’s stellar InfinityEdge screen in 4K Ultra HD resolution (8 million pixels is no joke!) as I’m able to see tones, contrast and colors like never before. With an 8th Generation Intel Core mobile processor with Radeon RX Vega M graphics and 4GB of dedicated High Bandwidth Memory for graphics, this is Intel’s first processor packaged for the next level of processing and discrete graphics performance. Bonus: the size and portability is perfect for travel, and flipping the laptop around to tablet mode makes for a great companion on long flights. Game changer!

Before & after: I edited this photo on my Dell XPS 15 2-in-1:

What about you? Have you been to Banff National Park? What’s your favorite landscape to photograph, and what do you do to beat the crowds?

Post sponsored by Dell. All opinions are my own.

PIN FOR LATER:

Ultimate Photography Guide Banff