Exploring the Donner Pass area; one historic and scenic square mile!

One historic and scenic square mile; exploring the Donner Pass area

Most readers have crossed Donner Pass on Interstate 80 dozens of times, headed to Reno and destinations east. Far fewer have taken the Norden exit onto the old Donner Pass Road/historic Highway 40 to discover one of the state’s most significant square miles in its history.

View from Donner Pass, looking east from the Rainbow Bridge overlook (that is Donner Lake in the distance).

This old Donner Pass Road section, centered on the pass, highlights Native American history, the first horse and wagon crossings of Donner Pass, the pioneering First Transcontinental Railroad, First Transcontinental Highway and first Transcontinental Air Route. In addition to all of this evocative history, scenic hikes and spectacular Sierra vistas come with the territory.

Make your first stop at the Donner Summit Historical Society, at intersection of Donner Pass Road and Soda Springs Road. Here Society guru Norm Sayler (former owner of Donner Ski Ranch), presides in a tidy building jammed with artifacts from railroad, early skiing and highway history, reflects on the good old days before Interstate 80 bypassed the area, and offered a variety of informational flyers. Norm happily spins yarns for visitors young and old.

The historic Rainbow Bridge was the first US concrete bridge to feature a compound curve; it helped speed lumber delivery from the Tahoe Basin into Sacramento.

Native American history is represented by petroglyphs spread throughout the Donner Pass area, offering insight into Native American life some 800 to 1500 years ago. You’ll find one significant petroglyph area just below the historic Rainbow Bridge, an easy hike off old Highway 40.

The first horse and wagon train road was blazed in 1844 by the Stephens-Murphy-Thompson party, the first wagon train to reach California and cross Donner Pass. At the party’s camp in Big Bend on the Yuba River, a few miles west of the pass, the first Caucasian baby was born in California, Elizabeth Yuba Murphy. With the discovery of gold at Coloma in 1848, the gold rush would greatly accelerate traffic on the wagon road, as well as other Sierra passes.

The old Summit Tunnel was part of the Transcontinental Railroad, and is located just below the Donner Ski Ranch, just off Donner Pass Road.

By the mid-1860s, the First Transcontinental Railroad was blasting its rugged path through the Sierra, as thousands of Chinese workers braved avalanches, accidents and average 35 foot snowfalls to build one of the most hallowed rail routes in the world. The railroad opened in 1869 and, suddenly, it took only days to get to California, instead of months.

On both sides of Donner Pass, just off old Highway 40, you’ll find both the current rail line (covered by miles of rugged snowsheds) and remnants of bypassed sections of the old transcontinental railroad. The historic Summit Tunnel, just 400 feet below Donner Ski Ranch, offers a 3/8s mile-long tunnel that can be hiked through (take a flash-light). Don’t worry, it was bypassed by a newer route, though the old tunnel impresses visitors, realizing the several years it took to blast through solid Sierra granite.

By the early 1900s, automobiles were beginning to make their appearance in California and Nevada, and the old wagon Road was improved, to become part of the first transcontinental highway in 1913. The nation’s first coast to coast road, the Lincoln Highway included a jaw-dropping stretch through Donner Summit Canyon. Find remnants of the old wagon road and improved sections of the Lincoln Highway, just off old Highway 40.

Railroad snowsheds trek along the Sierra crest; you’ll also find sections of the old highway in the same area. Once, autos would use one of the rail tunnels, having to listen carefully to avoid a car/train disaster!

Stop to admire the Rainbow Bridge, built by the US Forest Service in the 1920s (at eastern end, a lovely viewpoint, complete with informational plaques). It was the first concrete compound curve bridge, a significant engineering feat at the time, and helped speed lumber from the Tahoe Basin region to Sacramento and points west. The improved and paved road soon began to bring more tourists to the Truckee and Lake Tahoe area, as well.

The First Transcontinental Air Route also used the Donner Pass area. Though no longer in place, a beacon and small building housing a weather station once sat atop Signal Mountain just above Donner Ski Ranch. Its roof was marked one side with “Donner”, the other, “SL – SF”, marking the air route between Salt Lake City and San Francisco, long before radar existed.

Serious hikers can trek a marvelous historical trail, starting at the Pacific Crest Trail head on Donner Summit. Take the Sugar Bowl Road turn off to the old Donner Summit Road and drive up to the PCT trail head. The hike is 3.5 miles downhill with many photo opportunities (including petroglyphs, the old wagon road and transcontinental railroad) and picnic spots, taking one down almost to the shore of Donner Lake. If time, the Donner Memorial State Park lies at the east side of Donner Lake, offering mute testimony to the 81 travelers, only 47 of whom survived when stranded in deep snows in 1846.

Places to stay: The Soda Springs/Norden area hosts several rustic old lodges; but for style, check the Clair Tappaan Lodge, a rustic retreat run by the Sierra Club (open to the public). Truckee, just two miles east, offers a host of new and old hotels, motels and B&Bs (we’ve enjoyed stays in the old Truckee Hotel, four floors, no elevator!).

Food, drink: Summit Haus, offering food, drink and craft beers at top of Donner Pass; and the Soda Springs Store, on Donner Pass Road, just west of Soda Springs Road (with a good variety of sandwiches, sides, drinks for take-out).

For more information, Donner Pass, donnersummithistoricalsociety.org; Clair Tappaan Lodge, clairtappaanlodge.com; Truckee, truckee.com.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com; follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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