Tahoe Nugget #215:
Top 10 Tahoe Hike: Donner Peak
September 24, 2011
Old Donner Pass is rich in pioneer and transportation history, and the best place in the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region to physically interface with the early dynamics that built the American West.
Donner Peak atop a sheer wall of granite towers over the concrete snowsheds built by Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1980s. The cement sheds replaced original wooden sections that were prone to damage
and expensive to maintain.
There are abandoned railroad tunnels and concrete snow sheds to explore and walk-able sections of old
highway built for the Model T era. There is also large-scale infrastructure constructed by thousands of Chinese
laborers hired 150 years ago to build the western portion of this nation's first transcontinental railroad. (Check out Nugget #85)
Although it was early September, I encountered an abundance of wildflowers still ablaze in color, and passed a long patch of snowdrift that was nearly 15 feet deep. Pine trees were just emerging from the
Popular with hikers, cyclists, rock climbers and history buffs, the pass is where an 1844 wagon train under the
leadership of Captain Elisha Stephens successfully hauled a few of their covered wagons up the granite cliffs
that Chief Truckee had told them led to the Mexican province of California. Their tremendous effort proved that wagons could indeed be pushed and pulled across vast deserts and the mighty Sierra Nevada. The
achievement by the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party resulted in the opening of the Overland California Trail.
A loop trail accesses nearby Mt. Judah via the Pacific Crest Trail. Judah's summit is 130 feet higher than Donner Peak and adds about 1.4 miles to the hike.
Unfortunately, two years later the Donner Party tragedy made headline news when a significant portion of
their 1846 wagon company starved to death (some resorted to cannibalism of dead bodies). The tragedy established Donner Pass as a man-killer, and many of the terrain features in the area adopted the Donner name
, including Donner Lake, Donner Creek, and Donner Peak, the granite monolith that towers over the pass, lake and railroad sheds below.
After 1850, long lines of covered wagons paraded across Summit Valley heading west for California. Today dammed water in Lake Van Norden covers a portion of the valley. Note active railroad line on right.
A couple of weeks ago I hiked to the top of Donner Peak, a magical place at 7,988 feet that I hadn't been to in
25 to 30 years. The rock outcroppings that cap the mountain offers grand views of Donner Lake, Mount Judah, and vistas to the south and west over the Sierra Range.
hoto #5: Views of Donner Lake through the granite ramparts atop Donner Peak. Note Interstate 80 cutting across the north side of the lake.
Accessed from a trailhead off Donner Pass Road near Lake Mary west of Sugar Bowl ski area, the hike is
only 3.6 miles roundtrip, but an elevation gain of 1,011 feet in the thin atmosphere and the occasionally rocky trail conditions places this short roundtrip walk into the moderately difficult category.
The Pacific Crest Trail heads south from Donner Peak and follows the Pacific Divide where depending on which side of the crest it falls, rain and snowmelt head either for the Great Basin or Pacific Ocean.