Sierra Ski Ways

This article appeared in the Historical Society's December, 10 Heirloom.

Art Clark, an avid hiker and back-country skier, first noticed an orange metal sign with the markings "Sierra Skiway Castle Peak-Norden" while he was hiking near Castle Pass. Naturally curious, he asked around to see if anyone knew about the markers. Several members of the Nordic Skiers of Nevada County mentioned that they had seen one or two of the signs while out skiing but didn't know much about them. Art began to look for the signs when he was out and found a few more signs in the Big Bend area over the next year. Some of the signs were similar orange triangles, but there were also larger wooden triangular signs. The wooden signs were deteriorating and some of the trees that they were nailed to were falling over. Noting the urgency to discover something about this bit of skiing history before it disappeared completely, he began to traverse the Sierras near Donner Summit in search of Skiway signs. Art saw that first sign in the fall of 2007. He has now found 110 sign locations.

But finding the Skiway signs may not have been as difficult as finding some information about them. An afternoon at the Western SkiSport Museum at Boreal, though fascinating, yielded no information about the Skiway. Then during an internet search, Art came across the Donner Summit Historical Society's extensive website. In their newsletter archive for April 2009 he found a copy of a 1936 "Tahoe National Forest Service - Donner Trail Recreation" map. A short time later Bill Oudegeest recalled a Serene Lakes newsletter he had written years before. It described "large triangular orange and black signs" in the Donner Trail Area system of 34 miles. And Janet McMartin found mention of the trails in a Sierra Club Bulletin from the 1930s. Armed with the 1936 map, Art now had an idea about where the trails were located and he began to actively search the routes that were indicated on the map.

By making slight alterations along ski routes they had used for years, Art and his ski companions began to see more of the old signs. Art carried his GPS and camera so that he could accurately identify each location and photograph each sign. It became common to find 4 or 5 signs in a day of skiing. And then on a trip to Fisher Lake a record-breaking 10 signs were found. Norm Saylor mentioned seeing signs near Clair Tappaan Lodge and that led to a hike toward Lytton Lake where several signs were found. But other days were disappointing. Art would find no signs whatsoever, even though he was adhering closely to the map route. Had signs been there at one time? There were any number of explanations for the absence of signs in certain areas: severe mountain weather, lumbering, fires. And sometimes signs were found that just didn't seem to be on the map route. A second map was located which had slight variations from the 1936 version. This prompted new searches.

The 1936 map has revealed that the trail system is much more extensive than originally thought. Certain areas such as the route from Big Bend toward McIntosh Hill and the trail near Loch Leven Lakes are well represented by signs. In other areas, however, sign coverage is quite sparse.

To find the 110 signs, Art has logged in 230 miles and countless feet of elevation gain. One thing is certain, though. Art will be out there skiing this winter and he'll be searching for Skiway signs! You can see three pages of pictures of the signs that Art has found at this link. You can also see the 1936 map noted above and its reverse with the key to the trails at these links.