Wonder & awe on Roller Pass

Bill Oudegeest has lived on Donner Summit for 37 years. As a member of the Donner Summit Historical Society, he’s an amazing well of information when it comes to the history of the area. We met up recently to discuss the historic Emigrant Trail system and he suggested that I head up to Roller Pass to see the magnitude of what the emigrants endured on their way westward.

Priya Hutner and Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society.

To access the trail to Roller Pass, turn into the Sugar Bowl Academy parking lot off Old Highway 40 and drive down Donner Summit Road. There is a small parking lot and a sign for the Pacific Crest Trailhead (PCT). Follow the signs that denote the PCT. Be prepared because the first part of the trail is rocky. Wear good hiking shoes; many people find hiking poles helpful.

The rocky winding path up the trail offered sweeping views of Donner Peak, Van Norden Meadow and the surrounding mountain ranges in the distance. Wildflowers tickled my ankles.

There are two ways to approach Roller Pass. The first route is via the Mount Judah Loop trail. It is a longer hike and the views are stunning. I’ve accessed Roller Pass this route before but I wanted to take the Pacific Crest Trail route this time. This trek is a 4-mile round-trip hike.

READ MORE: Priya explores the Mount Judah Loop trail

I got lost on my first attempt to hike this route, albeit I had a great time exploring Sugar Bowl’s ski runs sans snow. I decided to hike the trail again the following morning with Abby Polus, co-owner of the Redlight social lounge and hostel in Truckee. She had never been up to Roller Pass and I thought two navigators are better than one.

Views from the Pacific Crest Trail.

It was a lovely, breezy morning. We began our journey around 11:30 a.m. The rocky winding path up the trail offered sweeping views of Donner Peak, Van Norden Meadow and the surrounding mountain ranges in the distance. Wildflowers tickled my ankles along the way — lots of red and orange Indian paintbrush and lovely purple flowers.

The initial leg of the trail is in full sun. As we climbed, Lake Mary came into view beneath us. The trail evened out and we traversed through the woods a bit and eventually found ourselves under the Mount Judah chairlift. A field of mule ears, their leaves brown and dying, gave the first indicators that fall is looming.

Here we came to the first junction about a mile into our hike. If you take a left on the trail, you access the Mount Judah Loop. To continue on the PCT, veer right; the signage is clear. We continued up and about one-tenth of a mile from this junction and spotted two wooden signs encased in glass on the trees posted on the right side of the fire road. One sign commemorates the emigrants and the other sign is an ode to the ski industry. Be mindful when arriving at this juncture in the hike if you’ve never hiked this route to Roller Pass. (If you continue up this fire road, you’ll end up at the top of the Jerome chairlift.)

Cross the fire road and there is a clear trail with no signage. This is the continuation of the PCT trail to Roller Pass. Abby and I found ourselves hiking through a stunning forest with immense bright green moss-covered pine trees that towered above us. It was magical. The shade provided a respite from the sun. I imagined what it must have been like for the emigrants making their way through this area.

We followed the trail and came upon another juncture, 1.9 miles from the trailhead. A sharp left here is the Mount Judah Loop, but to get to Roller Pass you must continue straight on the PCT trail. The trail is not well marked unless you are hiking from the other direction.

We followed the trail another one-tenth of a mile and came upon a small wood sign commemorating the Emigrant Trail and Roller Pass, as well as a larger Donner Summit Historical Society sign that offers a history of this part of the Emigrant Trail.

The trail leads out to the steep mountainside pass dotted with large outcrops of basalt. All I could think was how did the emigrants get up this hill with their wagons? It’s unbelievably steep and rocky. The view here is one of wonder and awe surrounded by the beauty and magnitude of the Sierra outstretched before me. I took a moment and a breath to take it all in. Abby and I walked back down the route we came up.

If you are interested in hiking some of the trails the emigrants forged, you can find maps on the Donner Summit Historical Society’s Web site under the Brochures tab. The folks at the historical society are happy to take groups out for historical hikes and they host the annual Donner Party Hikes on Oct. 14 and 15.

For more information, visit donnersummithistoricalsociety.org. To register for the Donner Party Hikes, visit donnerpartyhike.com.


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Priya Hutner
Priya is a writer, personal chef and meditation teacher. Having moved to the mountains from Sebastian, Fla., she embraces the Tahoe lifestyle and loves to ski, hike, paddle and swim. Priya is the owner of The Seasoned Sage, a business that prepares organic meals and facilitates workshops that promote a health-conscious lifestyle. Priya writes feature articles about music, art, food and recreation. She loves to immerse in story. Whether jumping from a plane, eating obscure foods or hitting the Tahoe-Reno music scene, she is always up for adventure and experience. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience living on an ashram and working on a series of cookbooks.