Summit Canyon | A trail to history, Part I

By Mark McLaughlin  ·



Along the Summit Canyon trail  ·

Donner Pass is arguably one of the most historic square miles in the United States. Its legacy encompasses Native American travel and trade, pre-gold rush pioneers, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad and highway systems, as well as the vanguard of cross-country aviation.

Over the years, there have been many bold schemes to develop parts of this unique area, from a new downhill ski resort to large housing complexes, but those days are over. Through the efforts of the Truckee Donner Land Trust and its many donors and volunteers, significant tracts of land have been purchased by the trust, including most of the land surrounding Donner Lake and the Royal Gorge tract west of Donner Peak.

These important parcels also include Summit Canyon, a 260-acre jewel west of Donner Lake and just east of Donner Summit. The largest tributaries to Donner Lake are located in this canyon; Summit Creek and Billy Mack Canyon Creek. This 2010 acquisition of a critical watershed by the Land Trust was transferred to California State Parks in 2012 and is now part of Donner Memorial State Park. The Land Trust’s purchase has permanently protected an important ecosystem that is now freely accessible to the public for exploring and recreation.

Summit Canyon offers season-based activities like fishing, birding, mountain biking, camping, rock climbing, and cross-country and back-country skiing. For the casual hiker or history buff, the best part of this land acquisition is the opportunity to walk and explore the original right-of-ways for the first roads to ever snake over Donner Pass. Forgotten trails like the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road, The Rutherford Highway and Highway 40 ( the country’s first transcontinental road), have left their ghosts in this historic canyon for us to explore amid the scenic grandeur of the High Sierra.

To start your tour of discovery, drive west along Donner Lake on Old Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road) past South Shore Drive and up the mountain about one-third mile. The trailhead with a small parking lot is on the left. It’s about 3 miles from the trailhead to Donner Pass with a 1,000-foot elevation gain. There is much to see, especially along the upper portion of the route, including gorgeous mountain scenery, 2,500-year-old Indian petroglyphs, the Sierra China Wall and massive railroad snow sheds. Explore as little or as much as you want; make it easier with a car shuttle or start from the top instead.

The Summit Canyon property originated as a Land Grant to the Central Pacific Railroad in 1862 as part of the Pacific Railway Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The top four executives and investors of Central Pacific Railroad, known to history as the Big Four or “the associates,” were unwavering anti-slavery activists who had participated in the 1856 formation of the first Republican Party in California. The associates were headstrong, ambitious Golden State businessmen: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker.

They had strongly supported Republican candidate Lincoln’s successful 1860 campaign for president and afterwards the new federal government approved legislation to provide an incentive for construction of a long-awaited transcontinental railroad to California. This legislation obligated the United States to issue bonds to finance the huge project; 30-year notes that paid $16,000 per mile of track across low-elevation plains, $48,000 per mile in rugged mountains, and $32,000 per mile across Nevada and Utah.

In addition, the act gave Central Pacific and its rival Union Pacific Railroad alternating 10-mile land grants in a checkerboard pattern along the right-of-way that could be sold to raise capital for construction. The two companies also were awarded the right to take timber and stone from the public domain when demand warranted it.

The Summit Canyon trail partially follows the traces of the first improved road over Donner Pass – the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road. This former toll road, built by Central Pacific Railroad, has a controversial and tragic past. The Big Four knew that once the transcontinental railroad was completed they would control virtually all transportation and shipping into northern California and Nevada. But they also realized that, in the meantime, they were missing out on the lucrative stage and wagon-hauled freight between Sacramento and the Comstock mines that were using Carson Pass.

In 1860, there was a rough, little-used wagon road over Donner Pass, but Huntington envisioned a well-surfaced toll road from the west slope town of Dutch Flat to Donner Lake, and then onward to the Carson Valley. Huntington believed that a direct, quality route would monopolize the mining traffic and take business from the primary commercial road via Carson Pass.

Huntington encountered resistance from Central Pacific’s Chief Engineer, Theodore D. Judah, who initially supported such a road but later feared that its construction would siphon money from the trans-Sierra railroad effort. Judah, a leading advocate for a railroad over the Sierra, also was concerned that the directors might decide to lay track only as far as Dutch Flat, where it would meet the heavy, toll road traffic coming from the Nevada mines. CP would make huge profits from fees levied against all trade and commerce using the new wagon road, and their railroad company would earn additional money by carrying passengers and freight between Sacramento and Dutch Flat.

Judah worried that the directors might become satisfied with their earnings from the toll road and become reluctant to push the track east into the more challenging and difficult terrain of the High Sierra. This plan would make the businessmen rich without the risk and expense of constructing a railroad.

The Big Four incorporated the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road Company in 1863 while Judah was in Washington D.C. lobbying for Central Pacific. When the engineer returned to California that summer, he discovered that the directors were searching for a better route over the mountains, which Judah took as their lack of faith in his surveying skills. The mistrust galvanized Judah’s effort to try and obtain his own East Coast investors to take over the railroad.

In late 1863, Theodore Judah and his wife, Anna, boarded a steamer bound for Panama on the first leg of a journey to New York. Tragically, two weeks after their arrival in New York City, Judah died of Yellow Fever, just four months shy of his 38th birthday. Stay tuned for Part II next week. For more information on Summit Canyon, visit


Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You may reach him at [email protected] Check out Mark’s blog at