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Tahoe Nugget #85:

Top 10 Tahoe Hike: Donner Pass
June 19, 2006

Donner Pass is named for the emigrant wagon train that was trapped by deep snow on the summit in 1846. The pioneers were forced to spend the winter at two encampments east of the Sierra crest without adequate provisions. Ultimately, 36 of the 81 people snowbound in the mountains died from starvation, exposure and exhaustion.

But for today's visitors, there is much to enjoy in and around the summit area. Just west of Donner Lake, a drive along old Highway 40 (which parallels modern Interstate 80) provides easy access to glaciated granite and Indian petroglyphs, the original tunnels of the nation's first transcontinental railroad, the China Wall, hiking and rock climbing adventures, as well as spectacular views of Donner Lake and the Mt. Rose range to the east.

Blacksmith Elisha Stephens led a small wagon train through here in the fall of 1844. The terrain is so rugged that they had to dismantle their wagons and haul them up the cliffs in pieces. The pioneers persevered, however, and managed to get half their wagons over the pass and all 50 of their members safely to Sutter's Fort. Their heroic effort opened the long-sought California Trail.

This area is where Union Pacific Railroad runs its freight and passenger trains through the Sierra Nevada crest. The original right-of-way (much of it along steep granite slopes) was built with black powder and Chinese labor in the 1860s. A second route directly through the guts of the mountain range was blasted with dynamite and new excavation technologies in the years just before and after World War I. Over the years, the wooden snowsheds that protected exposed sections of the line from drifts and avalanche were replaced with concrete.

After the 1990s merger of Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, a portion of the 19th century right-of-way was closed. The tracks were pulled and the route opened to hikers, bicyclists, and occasionally private automobiles which can access it from near Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. A movement is currently underway to close the pathway to private cars, an effort which I support.

Photo #1: View of Lake Van Norden (Elevation 6,769 feet) and the backside of Donner Peak (far left in background) and the Pacific Divide. The meadow in the middle distance is called Summit Valley. During one of the Donner party rescue efforts in March 1847, a group of emigrants was trapped here for five days. The fire they built to keep themselves warm melted the snow and created a hole in the snowpack about 24 feet deep. Another relief party found most of them alive at the bottom of the deep fire pit.
Photo #2: Union Pacific freight train climbing the grade east towards Donner Pass and the tunnels through the Sierra.
Photo #3: Looking east from Donner Pass. Note that rails have been pulled and the SUV parked on the right-of-way. Reno, Nevada is located on the other side of the mountain range in the far distance.
Photo #4: In place of a wooden trestle to facilitate train traffic across this ravine, Chinese laborers constructed a supporting wall of granite cubes. The China Wall is an easy walk about 200 yards from Highway 40.

Nugget #85 A Lake Van Norden Donner Peak

Nugget #85 B Eastbound freight train Summit copy

Nugget #85 C RR tunnels and Donner Lake copy

Nugget #85 D China Wall000-01 copy

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