Expansive views from Donner Peak

Donner Peak | Mark McLaughlin

The Donner Summit Historical Society calls it the most important historical square mile in California — and they’re probably right. Donner Pass is where the first westbound covered wagons crossed in 1844 to open the California Trail. The harrowing tale of the Donner Party entrapment occurred at the east end of nearby Donner Lake just two years later.

In the 1860s, Central Pacific Railroad blasted tunnels through obdurate Sierra granite and hard-working Chinese workers constructed a tenacious right-of-way on cliffs for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The convenience and economics of rail put an end to the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake toll road that existed to support wagon freight traffic between Virginia City, Nev., and Sacramento. Next came gravel and then paved roads to accommodate the booming popularity of the automobile in the early 20th Century. After airplane engines were beefed up during World War I, aviation took flight over the pass in 1919, establishing coast-to-coast airmail for the first time.

A train emerges from the tunnel on China Wall. | Courtesy Mark McLaughlin

Amazingly, much of this transportation history is still visible on the hike to Donner Peak, along with the magical addition of colorful wildflowers, alpine landscapes and stunning views. No wonder hikers give this moderate, 7.5-mile, round-trip excursion a five-star rating.

The best way to access the trailhead for Donner Peak is to drive up Donner Pass Road westbound past Donner Lake. When you reach the entrance to the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, turn in there and in about 100 yards make a left on Old Donner Summit Road (Pacific Crest Trail). Follow this for about 200 yards and then park on the north side of the road. The PCT trailhead for Donner Peak and points south is at the east end of this short dirt road.

The hike starts with a steep staircase climb on a trail cut into granite talus. It’s your first signal that sturdy walking shoes are recommended, along with the usual necessities such as hat, sunscreen, water, etc. When I was there in early July, patches of snow increased in size and frequency as I gained altitude. From the trailhead to Donner Peak, the elevation gain is nearly 1,000 feet. At that time, the approach to the summit itself required a traverse over snow for about 700 yards.

Picturesque Donner Lake lies at your feet and to the east, Mount Rose and its ancient volcanic ridge loom in the distance.

Be aware that mountain snow packs melt rapidly during summer months and rushing streams of water are often hidden under the thinning veneer of snow. It’s easy to hurt a leg or ankle breaking through the snow. Also remember that stream flow is more robust in the afternoon heat. A trail that was dusty dry on the way up can turn muddy and slick on the way down, while a skip-along stream crossing earlier in the day may become more challenging on your way back to the car.

Hikers along the Donner Peak trail. | Mark McLaughlin

It’s a bit of a scramble over broken rock to the peak itself, but once you’re there you’ll experience a 360-degree view of Sierra beauty. Picturesque Donner Lake lies at your feet and to the east, Mount Rose and its ancient volcanic ridge loom in the distance. The city of Reno is on the other side. Look to the west toward Lake Van Norden and the lush meadows that surround it.

It’s easy to imagine covered wagons scattered across the rare flat terrain as pioneers let their exhausted livestock gain strength on the verdant grass in preparation for the final push down the west slope of the Sierra Nevada into the Sacramento Valley.

For more thrills and to extend your hike, you can follow the Pacific Crest Trail south along the ridgeline toward Roller Pass. Roller Pass was blazed as an alternative to the rock-strewn, cliff precipices that challenged the Stephens Party and made Donner Pass such a bear for westbound wagons before 1846. Roller is 800 feet higher than Donner, but California-bound emigrants created a system where teams of draft animals were chained to wagons hundreds of feet below the ridge. From there they pulled the loaded wagons up the steep incline. The ropes/chains that connected the yokes of oxen to the wagons slid over tree trunks that had been cut and positioned to keep the makeshift cable off sharp rocks that would fray and weaken them. Thus, the name “Roller Pass.”