Chinese Catfish Pond: Mountain Myth?

If you live in or visit the Tahoe Sierra long enough, you’ll hear just about every far-fetched scheme or story imaginable. For a long time, people shared with me anecdotal accounts of seeing a small Chinese catfish pond near Old Donner Pass, just north of Highway 40. The pond, located near elevation 7,000 feet, is a small body of water isolated from any surface feeder streams. Most winters the pond is buried in deep snow before thawing out in late spring. During the scorching summer months, the rock-bound liquid is sunbaked to a soupy green that can warm to 80 degrees F or more. Even though catfish are one fish species that can survive in warm, oxygen-depleted water, I was still skeptical of this mountain myth — especially since my dog-eared copy of “Sierra Nevada Natural History” indicated that there are no indigenous catfish in the High Country of the Sierra.

WATCH a video of Mark feeding the catfish

There are several ways to approach the elusive catfish pond, but all of the closest trailheads are to the north of Donner Pass Road near the old summit. Some people attempt to find the catfish pond via the Pacific Crest Trail where it heads north above Rainbow Bridge and the Donner Lake overlook. This section of the PCT travels about 4 miles north to Interstate 80. To reach the catfish pond via the PCT, however, requires negotiating some steep switchbacks and then off-trail rock scrambling that makes finding the pond more difficult.

I prefer parking at Donner Ski Ranch and walking east on Donner Pass Road about 100 feet past the electric substation next to the ski ranch’s parking lot. You’ll first see the substation’s gravel maintenance road, but go a little further to a dry streambed that drains spring snowmelt and start here.

The trailhead is unmarked, but if you follow this general direction north-northeast you should find your target. Make your way up the wide sand and gravel trail past stunted juniper trees and alpine wildflowers such as fiery red Indian paintbrush and vivid blue lupine. You can make short side-excursions to your right (east) to scope out views of Donner Peak with its concrete railroad snowsheds, charming Donner Lake and Mount Rose in the far distance. If you pay attention to the glacially polished granite, you’ll notice embedded chocolate-chip xenoliths along with sills and dikes, which are veins of quartz-like rock injected into the granite during its formation when it was still soft like pudding.

After 15 to 20 minutes, the trail becomes less apparent but continue in the north-northeast direction. At this point there is a rock cairn with a brush-covered rise in front so walk to the right and scramble up the rocks. The catfish pond will appear right in front of you, a small body of water suspended in a granite basin. The rock here is full of xenoliths, the chips being remnants of the original Sierra range that fell into resurgent molten magma just as it was cooling. I usually bring a couple pieces of bread with me to chum the murky water, which brings small catfish by the score right to my feet.

As far as the source of the catfish, we know that in the 1860s, during construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, Central Pacific Railroad supplied their Chinese workers with fresh seafood such as abalone and other dietary items that the laborers preferred. It makes sense that the Chinese cooks would stock a local pond with tasty catfish to supplement what the railroad provided. It’s more surprising that the fish have managed to survive for 150 years in this little pond that is frozen and covered with snow for up to seven months a year. In the early 1900s, the Chinese catfish pond was dammed to provide water for the nearby Hutchinson Lodge and a small dock was built. During the 1930s, it was a popular hangout for members of the Sierra Ski Club for summertime swimming and picnicking.

There is another trail about 80 feet west of the pond that returns to the upper Donner Ski Ranch parking lot. If you have time, meander 200 yards further west to gaze on beautiful Lake Angela, a drinking water reservoir for the Donner Summit community. |

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.