Explore historic Donner Pass

Great views from Donner Pass. | Mark McLaughlin

The Donner Pass region is at the crossroads of a nation, where Native Americans traveled for millennia, emigrant wagon trains made their way to California and where the country built its first transcontinental railroad and highway.

READ MORE: about the Donner Party cannibalism

The train and auto traffic sustained an ice-harvesting industry and tourist hotels. It also gave birth to alpine skiing and winter sports. Even the country’s first transcontinental telephone line went over this storied pass, as well as the first airplane routes over the Sierra. It’s no wonder that the Donner Summit Historical Society calls it the most important historical square mile in California.

It was 1844 when pioneers first successfully hauled wagons over this rugged hump of granite, an extraordinary feat that opened the legendary California Trail.

This low point along the Sierra crest was heavily traversed by American Indians trading goods between Pacific and Great Basin tribes. Despite harsh terrain and a desiccating arid climate, an estimated 50,000 people lived in the Great Basin region before 1600, compared to nearly 700,000 in resource-rich California. Obsidian arrowheads, beads, moccasins, medicinal plants, hides and food items were traded over the mountain pass. Pacific coast sea shells discovered along Great Basin trade routes date to about 7,000 years ago.

1844 Stephens Party crossing Donner Pass. | Courtesy Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Pass is an historic gateway into the Golden State. It was 1844 when pioneers first successfully hauled wagons over this rugged hump of granite, an extraordinary feat that opened the legendary California Trail. Nearby Stephens Peak commemorates Elisha Stephens, captain of that spunky group. Two years later, a company of emigrants known as the Donner Party were trapped by early snow at the lake east of the pass. Nearly half of the party’s members starved to death that winter; 25 resorted to cannibalism to survive. The notoriety of that tragedy inspired the naming of the pass, lake and peak: Donner.

In the 1860s, thousands of ethnic Chinese contract laborers hired by Central Pacific Railroad, shoveled, picked and blasted their way over Donner Summit. The explosive work changed the physical character of the pass forever, but the bright, glacially-polished rock is still host to cryptic Indian petroglyphs and geologic xenoliths; a towering wall of stone blocks assembled by Chinese workers in 1867 using no mortar or cement and primitive roadbeds dating back to the 1866 Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road. You can hike traces of the 1913 Lincoln Highway, when Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T automobiles were all the rage.

China Wall interpretive plaque. | Mark McLaughlin

A few yards west of China Wall is an underpass that provided a safe route under busy railroad tracks. Prior to its construction, intrepid drivers had to steer their vehicles into a dark, wooden snow shed where collision with a speeding train engine was a distinct possibility.

To reach Donner Pass from Truckee, take Donner Pass Road west past Donner Lake. Stay right as the road climbs up to the Rainbow Bridge lookout. It’s a perfect location to get your bearings to see which areas you would like to explore. To your right looking east over Donner Lake are concrete sheds covering the right-of-way for the transcontinental railroad. This section of track was abandoned in the 1990s and tracks and ties removed so there is no traffic today.

To reach the petroglyphs and China Wall, backtrack down Donner Pass Road 200 yards and walk onto the flat granite and petroglyphs plaque. The railroad right-of-way is designated private property by Union Pacific Railroad, but visitors frequently explore the abandoned tunnel system starting from this location.

Once you’re standing on the level train roadbed, to the west there is the brief Tunnel No. 7 followed by Tunnel No. 6. Tunnel No. 6 is the highest along the railroad line and, at 1,659 feet, also the longest of 15 Sierra tunnels. The progress of blasting and chipping away the obdurate rock was so slow that a vertical shaft was chiseled out at the midway point to create four tunnel excavation leads. Completion of the Summit Tunnel still took two years.

Summit Tunnel is dark. Better to head east into Tunnel No. 8. A flashlight is not really needed. Walk into the tunnel for 10 minutes and there will be an open door in the concrete wall on your left. Step out into the sunshine and enjoy unique views of Donner Lake and the transportation history of the Summit area.

For more information on Donner Summit, visit donnersummithistoricalsociety.org.