Imagine you’re a climber on a trip to conquer the many walls of Donner Summit. You got an alpine start, you’ve been out all day, you’re covered in chalk, your hands are raw and you’re exhausted.
So, you travel back to the lodge you’re staying at where a family style meal is being served in the cafeteria, someone is playing the piano in the main room and cheering and jeering over a board game comes from the library. Everyone there has been out all day hiking, mountain biking or like you, also climbing, and while you don’t know anyone else, the mutual love of sport and nature bonds everyone.
Lake Tahoe and Truckee are filled with fancy hotels and five-star resorts but in a world of luxury, the Clair Tappaan Lodge aims to be a dirtbag haven.
The Clair Tappaan Lodge, located on 19940 Donner Pass Road, near Sugar Bowl, was hand-built in 1934 by the Sierra Club as a retreat for hikers, skiers and mountain bikers.
A 1935 article in the Donner Summit Historical Society’s archives describes the moment the idea for the lodge was born.
“In February 1934 a bus was hired for a trip to Soda Springs and Norden. Passengers paid $3.50 round trip. Food cost so little ‘the whole trip was almost cheaper than staying at home.’ The skiing was fine but it was the trip home that changed local history. They talked of skiing, technique, and equipment of course but the most lasting subject was ‘where to spend the night on future trips. The obvious answer was a ski-lodge, owned and operated by the Sierra Club, and the Clair Tappaan Memorial Lodge’ started to take shape in their minds,” the article stated.
The lodge was named after California Superior Court Judge and one-time Sierra Club president Clair Tappaan. It was designed by architect Walter Ratcliff, who had already designed the Hutchinson Lodge, now owned by Clair Tappaan, in the area in 1925.
The Sierra Club was able to quickly obtain property rights from the Forest Service and construction began in late May 1934.
According to DSHS, “Construction began the weekend of May 19-20 when five men arrived with a tool box consisting of six shovels, three axes, two picks, two mauls, a two man tree saw and a hammer.”
An article in the DSHS archives describes a diary entry from Lewis Clark, a member of the Sierra Club. “Lewis’ first summary of work began with the word ‘build.’ Realizing perhaps that he was already ahead of himself, he crossed that out and wrote this plan instead: ‘Layout, clear, excavate road… to SC lot, Build log bridge over stream, Corduroy across swamp, Drain Swamps, Fell a number of trees dead & dying around Site, Burn cuttings, Discuss site layout, Fight Mosquitoes.’”
The lodge successfully operated until 1949, when it was condemned due to fire hazards.
“This was coupled with an alarming financial report: the lodge was now officially operating at a loss due to competition from other commercial ventures with better ski lifts. Questions about the future of the lodge swirled in the air and the club discussed selling it altogether. This led to a time of reflection and change for the Sierra Club as they began to reevaluate their presence at Donner Summit and to question where the lodge fit into the values of the club as a whole,” DSHS stated.
After much discussion, the Sierra Club realized they still believed in the lodge and doubled down on the mission to introduce people to outdoor recreation.
It continued to be a haven for lovers of the outdoors until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut-down most lodging and recreation centers.
It sat dormant for nearly two years until locals Christopher Marlatt and Mark Gaines were brought in to breathe new life into the historic lodge.
“We reopened the beginning of April  to the public and it’s been my duty to kind of really get this place up and running again. I think during COVID, a lot of things went by the wayside and so we’ve been working hard and getting the facility up and organized,” Marlatt said.
On top of minor changes, like getting new bedding, the lodge had some major fixes that needed to be addressed. In December 2022, snowstorms had caused Highway 80 to close, preventing the lodge and the local community from getting gas deliveries. Clair Tappaan ran out of gas for the generator, causing the pipes to freeze and burst.
“The environment that we have here, it’s very inhospitable. It’s very inviting folks who love the outdoors so it’s such an amazing and special place up here but we had 13 feet of snowfall in December,” Marlatt said. “So it’s been a little bit of an uphill battle to get this place reopened. There was also some deferred maintenance that needed to take place here and so I committed to taking this job with the idea that there would be a reinvestment in this place and we would try to bring it back to some of his former stature. It’s a special place, it’s a really cool and unique building.”
It’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time while visiting the lodge. When Tahoe Magazine toured the lodge, so much snow had fallen that most of the bottom floor was not visible. To enter, steps in the snow were cut to walk down into a snow tunnel before reaching the large, wooden front door. The power was out and the snow was covering the windows so the entry hallway was dark. An employee was playing the communal piano in the main room, making me feel like I’d entered the past when I walked through the front door.
Marlatt and Gaines have put a ton of love and elbow grease into the Lodge.
“So we have been going through and fixing, painting, and working on repairing things. The boiler has given us some headaches in the last month but you know, that’s to be expected when you have a unique historical and rustic Lodge such as this one,” Marlatt said.
Gaines added that he’s been working on revamping the reservation system, “keeping the historical and community vibe to this place while still having some like some better operation in the background to help it run a little easier.” Gaines said.
The Clair Tappaan Lodge tagline is “Hostel style lodging, family style meals.”
The lodge has a 140 bed capacity spread over several rooms. There are mens and womens lofts and group rooms that sleep five to 12 people. There are also private rooms with two twin sized beds.
None of the rooms have bathrooms, there are recently remodeled male and female bathrooms.
The lodge also has a shared living room, the Lewis Clark Room, named for one of the founders of the lodge. It has a large dining table, a piano, couches and a huge fireplace that staff keep stocked with firewood.
There is a library with couches and a smaller fireplace. The room is full of books, puzzles and games. There is a hot tub in a room with large wooden shutters that allow soakers to enjoy a sunset or for brave souls to roll in the snow before getting back into the hot tub.
Staff are currently in the process of remodeling a game room which has pingpong and foosball tables. There is an equipment rental room that rents backcountry skis and snowshoes during the winter.
A favorite amenity is the free onsite laundry room that is stocked with free detergent. With the proximity to the Pacific Crest Trail, Marlatt says they get lots of through-hikers stopping by for a nights sleep in a bed, shower, hot tub soak and laundry.
While a lot of these amenities are typical of a traditional hostel, the family style meals sets Clair Tappaan apart.
The kitchen has two professionally trained chefs, Mark Ilk and Le’Tia Haltiwanger, that provide a lot of diversity in terms of the meal. The chef can also accommodate for diet restrictions. The meals are all included in the price of the stay.
The dining room walls are covered with photographs from famed landscape photographer and environmentalist, Ansel Adams.
“There is a rumor Ansel Adams has washed dishes in this kitchen,” Marlatt said. “Certainly based on the timelines, of proximity to where he did most of his photo work, it could be a possibility that he stayed here.”
Adams didn’t wash dishes because he couldn’t cover his bill, that hands-on attitude is part of the culture of Clair Tappaan. Guests, while not required, are highly encouraged to volunteer while staying at the property, whether it’s doing dishes or yard work. A chore sheet is left on the wall for the guests who want to contribute during their stay.
While Marlatt and Gaines take pride in the lodge itself and the work they’ve done to repair and refurbish the inside, the real draw of Clair Tappaan is everything surrounding it.
“This place clearly was when it started, and we hope now still is, a hub for outdoor recreation opportunities around here,” Gaines said. “[The lodge] is a lovely place, we have great, communal meals but we’re basically telling people to leave and go do outdoorsy stuff.”
Gaines went on to say that his hope is that on a nice day, the lodge is basically empty during the day. The lodge even provides guests with a sack lunch to take with them on their activities.
During the winter there are great winter sport opportunities. Sugar Bowl, Royal Gorge, Donner Ski Ranch, Soda Springs and Boreal are all ski locations within driving distance.
If guests don’t want to brave the winter roads, the Clair Tappaan property has miles of cross-country trails. On the 70ish acres of the property, there are nearly 14 km of groomed trails.
During the summer, the area is world renowned for its climbing opportunities and mountain biking. The lodge is adjacent to the PCT and there are several surrounding alpine lakes to hike to.
“For the budget- conscious consumer, I think we offer a really great opportunity to get out and recreate,” Marlatt said. “There’s tons of Alpine lakes around here and lots of little offshoot adventures that so many people just drive right past because they’ve got to be in Tahoe. They’ve got to go to the big show but they’re missing what maybe made Tahoe so special, little off the beaten path, little quieter.”
In addition to the Clair Tappaan Lodge, guests can also stay at the Hutchinson Lodge or one of their four backcountry huts.
The Hutchinson Lodge is an un-staffed lodge situated in the woods next door to Clair Tappaan Lodge. The lodge has a fully equipped kitchen, two sleeping lofts with bunk beds, an 8-person sauna, showers, and toilets, as well as two efficient wood-burning stoves.
The backcountry huts, named Peter Grubb, Benson, Bradley, and Ludlow, are located in the Donner Summit/Lake Tahoe area for year-round recreational use. Each hut provides rustic accommodations for about 15 people (12 at Benson) and includes a sleeping loft, wood stove, and outhouse. Each hut can be reached in one day or less from the nearest road by an average group with good weather.
With the art on the walls, the views from the balconies, the unique architecture has to be experienced in person, which we highly recommend you do.
To book a stay at Clair Tappaan, the Hutchinson Lodge or the backcountry ski huts, visit www.clairtappaanlodge.com.
They are also hiring and offer staff free on-site lodging and meals.