Donner Pass

Donner Pass (I-80)

MOST SEEN STRETCH OF THE SIERRA

HIGHEST ELEVATION: 7,239 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: No
ALONG THE WAY: Auburn, Donner Lake, Truckee

WHAT TO DO NEAR DONNER PASS

Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

  • Connector.

    Even if you’re in a hurry, take a minute to pull off I-80 and gaze at the “other lake” in the greater Tahoe region. Like Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake is a natural wonder, not a reservoir. It was created when glacial debris created a natural dam.

  • Connector.

    Get a taste of early Sierra road trips and head off the Interstate for a more scenic drive on Old Highway 40. Let the Donner Summit Historical Society’s 20-Mile Museum of interpretive signs serve as your history teacher along the way.

  • Connector.

    For the up-close view of the vista from I-80, make the trip on Old Highway 40 to picturesque (and curved!) Rainbow Bridge, where you can — and should — also walk on retired Transcontinental Railroad tracks through the snow sheds, see Indian petroglyphs on the rocks and marvel over the craftsmanship of the Chinese railroad workers who built the China Wall.

  • Connector.

    If you’re a ski bunny/bum and a history buff, hit the slopes at Sugar Bowl. This is where California got its first ski lift.

The Sierra’s Super Highway

While Yosemite Valley, Lake Tahoe and several other points in the Sierra are more iconic, the Donner Pass has to be the Sierra spot seen by the highest number of people. It’s been a prime trans-Sierra transportation route for pioneer wagons, trains chugging across the first Transcontinental Railroad and automobiles.

Drivers first came across here via the Lincoln Highway. This was the first road to stretch across the United States, and it was routed across the Donner Pass in 1913.

Today, thousands zoom through the Donner Pass daily. The only freeway crossing in the Sierra starts its ascent in the foothills near Auburn and continues on over “The Hill” to Truckee and its famed ski resorts and eventually Reno on the other side. It carries some 30,000 vehicles daily, including a steady flow of eighteen-wheeler trucks.

Hundreds more take in the views from the rails as passengers on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, which follows arguably the most beautiful train route in the country along its journey between Chicago and San Francisco.

First Sierra Wagon Crossing

The stage was set for this to become the Sierra’s prime transportation corridor back in 1844 when the first wagon train to reach California used this route. The Stephens Party made their way over the mountains here in November 1844 — two years before the notoriously ill-fated group of pioneers for which the pass is named.

But before they did, they had to navigate the almost surreal series of potentially spirit-crushing obstacles that would confront early settlers attempting the journey West. The Sierra was the final test, but there was another major one before it, namely a vast desert with no water in sight. When they reached where the Humboldt River peters out into the Humboldt Sink in Nevada, the Stephens Party was at a loss for how to proceed.

But they had the good fortune to encounter the Paiute chief who would be known in history as Chief Truckee (who also guided John C. Fremont during his 1843–1845 expedition to California). The chief’s name was actually Tru-Ki-Zo, but one popular historical account holds the Stephens Party as responsible for rechristening him Truckee because of the language barrier. When the pioneers heard the kindly chief repeatedly say “truckee,” they thought it was his name and not the Paiute term “trokay,” meaning “all right.”

Chief Truckee offered crucial assistance when he pointed the way toward the river the group would later name for him. Located some 40 miles across the sandy expanse, not only was the Truckee River the next available water source, but it could be followed into the mountains to Donner Lake, providing a path toward what is now Donner Pass.

That the travelers were able to get through the terrain with their possessions is a testament to their determination. After crossing the desert and climbing toward Donner Summit, they had to cross back and forth through the river’s deep, cold waters, hoist their wagons up the crest piece-by-piece using ropes and, after reaching Emigrant Gap, complete a reverse process to lower themselves by rope into Bear Valley. But they somehow managed it, thus establishing this leg of the California Trail.

Others followed their path, but later began avoiding the Donner Summit portion in favor of nearby Roller Pass, which opened in 1846. It was also taxing, but somewhat easier. The route still required that wagons be emptied, but there were chains and a log roller system to help maneuver the load that final 400 feet of the steep slope.

The Cannibal Story: The Donner Party’s Horrific Sierra Winter

Though the Stephens Party accomplished something incredible, it’s the Donner Party far more people remember.

George and Jacob Donner led a group of more than 20 wagons along the same path in 1846, with horrific results. After taking a “shortcut” that delayed their arrival in the Sierra, they were trapped by late-October snow near Donner Lake and forced to settle there for winter as they waited for the pass to become manageable. It turned out they had missed their window of opportunity — the winter of 1846-1847 was one of the Sierra’s worst, and the snow was relentless.

As food ran out, snow continued to bury them and desperation rose. In December, a small group of 15 strapped on crude snowshoes and attempted to reach Sutter’s Fort. This is where the Donner Party’s grisly legacy formed. After becoming lost, some of them died. With no rations left, the survivors had nothing to eat but the bodies, which sustained seven of them until they managed (barely) to reach Sutter’s Fort a month later.

It would take another month for the rescuers to reach those who had waited behind near Donner Lake. Several had starved to death and there was evidence that cannibalism had been a survival tactic here as well.

Historical accounts vary as to exactly how many people were in the Donner Party when they became stranded, but it was a group of roughly 90. Only 49 survived.

Donner Memorial State Park now stands where the Donner Party settled in for the winter. The Pioneer Monument, located at the site of one of the cabins built by the group, stands on a base 22 feet tall — the depth of the snow that trapped the group in the mountains. A pioneer family of statues stands above it, atop the symbolic snow line.

Sierra Cement

The Donner Party unfortunately became one of the most vivid cautionary tales about the power of Sierra winters. Donner Summit is actually one of the snowiest spots in the country, averaging 415 inches (nearly 35 feet) each year. UC-Berkeley has a special research facility here that is devoted to studying the white stuff. It’s called the Central Sierra Snow Lab.

The Sierra’s snow is a special breed when Pineapple Express storm systems move in from the Pacific Ocean. Called “Sierra Cement,” it’s known for being very heavy and very wet, but California skiers and snowboarders still flock to the ski resorts in Soda Springs, Truckee and the rest of Tahoe, as well as Mammoth and June Mountain, and Yosemite’s Badger Pass. And they can rejoice that as Sierra Cement melts and refreezes through the winter, it becomes excellent corn snow come spring.

Moisture-packed Sierra Cement is a vital water resource for the state, yielding much more H2O as it melts. The formal measure is Snow to Liquid Ratio and Sierra Cement’s average is 5:1, meaning five inches of the stuff yields one inch of water. “Normal” snow has a ratio of 10:1, and drier, fluffier powder like the kind found in the Rockies has an even higher ratio. In Colorado and Utah, it can be in the neighborhood of 15:1 or higher.

A Second Trailblazer: The Transcontinental Railroad

Though pioneers continued to use Donner Pass after the tragedy in 1846/1847, once alternative paths were established, most avoided it. Carson Pass became the favored route and later the Johnson Cut-Off by Echo Summit, which was also called the Placerville Route.

And yet despite the difficulties encountered by those who’d traversed it, Donner Pass would somehow still go on to become the major transportation corridor through the mountains.

As California grew under the steam of Manifest Destiny, it was obvious that a railroad was necessary to support western expansion. It was the only way the Sierra could be conquered so that people and goods could travel across California faster. And year-round. Other routes were considered, but Donner Pass won out. One of the most important considerations was that there is only one crest where the track was laid. Much of the Sierra has a double ridge that would require trains to navigate two summits on their trip across the mountains.

It took six years to build the final leg of the Transcontinental Railroad. Workers in both Sacramento and Omaha laid track toward Promontory Summit, UT, where a ceremonial golden spike was driven on May 10, 1869, to link the new Central Pacific railroad with the Union Pacific. Doing so created the first cross-country rail line, vital for westward expansion in the United States.

Creating a route over the Sierra that could be conquered by train required blasting 15 tunnels through the mountains at Donner Pass. The key achievement was Tunnel Six, the Summit Tunnel. Spanning 1,659 feet, it was the longest and took 15 months to build. The Chinese workers brought over to do the toiling had to bore into the rock with hand drills before using explosives to clear the granite. A vertical shaft was created at the center for efficiency. Workers could tunnel inward from both ends as well as outward from the middle.

The Chinese also built a massive and impressive retaining wall so that the railroad would have a steady grade as it moved between two of the tunnels near the summit. Called The China Wall, it’s 75 feet tall and was built with no mortar by hand-stacking the rocks (debris from the tunneling). Remarkably, it supported the weight of trains passing on top for 130 years.

The Snow Sheds

Establishing a railway across the imposing range at Donner Pass was a remarkable feat, but questions lingered in its first days as to whether the mountains had in fact been conquered.

In the final phases of the second major transportation landmark at Donner Pass, its snow wreaked havoc once again. Chief engineer Theodore Judah was sure that locomotives outfitted with plows could easily blast through even High Sierra accumulations, but he was wrong. Huge drifts proved the victor in such contests, bringing trains to a halt.

The solution was snow sheds, wooden tunnels over several stretches of track along Donner Summit. They protected the tracks from snowdrifts and avalanches and also offered cover for Donner Pass residents to avoid the harsh elements. There was such a vast inter-connected network that people could move between various buildings without ever going outside. Various accounts of the time describe them as “mole people” living beneath the snow.

But snow sheds weren’t a perfect solution by any means.

They became fire hazards in the summer when sparks from the trains ignited the wooden structures. Blazes were common enough that the railroad established a dedicated fire crew as well as a fire lookout in 1876 to help protect its investment. Seeking a vantage point with prime views of most of the tracks along Donner Summit, it chose a site near Cisco on Red Mountain (also known as Signal Peak).

This is actually thought to be the first fire lookout in the country. The US Forest Service didn’t begin building them until after 1910 when the Big Blowup burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana.

The Red Mountain lookout was also at the forefront of technology in its early days. A year after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, it had one so that crews could quickly respond to any problems spied from the perch. A stone building was erected there in 1909 and though long abandoned, it still stands.

Another issue also made the snow sheds problematic.

The railroad was important to move freight, but it also created tourism to California. Riders knew they were passing through picturesque country, but they couldn’t see it, complaining bitterly that the view resembled the inside of a barn and not alpine splendor. With 40 miles of snow sheds along the route, “Railroading in a Barn” even became a popular expression to describe the Sierra train ride.

Today, riders of Amtrak’s California Zephyr have a very different experience across the Sierra. The pricy-to-maintain wooden sheds started being removed as better tactics were devised for clearing the snow. Many were already gone or replaced with more modern (and fire-resistant) concrete versions by the 1950s. Rerouting put others out of use, leaving them abandoned.

Forsaken Railroad Relics: Summit Tunnel Turns Hiking Trail

Upper tunnels along Donner Pass met the same fate as the snow sheds.

In 1993, a span of track along the summit was taken out of service to cut costs, namely maintaining the tunnels and snow sheds that allowed trains to pass in winter. Trains were instead rerouted to a second track that had been added through Donner Pass in 1925. Its massive Judah Tunnel, called “The Big Hole,” spans nearly two miles, passing through the mountain in one stretch at a lower elevation, thus maintaining a more consistent grade.

Once the track was pulled, Summit Tunnel and others within a few miles around it grew quiet and no more trains passed over China Wall. Today hikers (and graffiti artists) trek to the area to explore the abandoned structures (and also see Indian petroglyphs nearby).

The Third Donner Transportation Wave: Lincoln Highway

When the Lincoln Highway was officially dedicated in 1913, it represented the first coast-to-coast road for autos (running between San Francisco and New York). Though it was called a highway and hailed as a modern travel route, it was a far cry from Interstate 80 that now follows its path along Donner Pass.

Lincoln Highway actually split into two over the Sierra. The way through Donner Pass was considered the main leg, but there was a second “scenic” route called The Pioneer Branch that went through Echo Summit for any who wanted to see Lake Tahoe.

The much-heralded coast-to-coast highway wasn’t a new road at all, instead encompassing several existing roads across the country. It was a rough ride intended for an average speed of 35 miles an hour in a car. The full cross-country trip took between 20 and 30 days. An Official Road Guide prepared by the Lincoln Highway’s earliest boosters offered advice for traveling the route. Some of its tips were to have someone in your party wade through water to gauge its depth before attempting to drive through and to wear shoes that weren’t new.

Donner Pass proved a challenge to these travelers just as it did the pioneers and rail workers before them. Along this stretch, vehicles had to not only maneuver through the changing elevations, but share the road with horse-drawn coaches and, even scarier, trains. (Drivers had to cross the railroad tracks through the snow sheds at times and risked being flattened if they didn’t get out to check for oncoming rail traffic.) And winter drives were, of course, impossible. Businesses around Donner Summit waited impatiently for the snow to clear each season so that tourists could again come through.

When the Victory Highway was commissioned in 1921 to establish another trancontinental road passing through St. Louis, it followed the Donner Summit course of the Lincoln Highway. As a result, Lincoln Highway eventually became known as such.

A third name change came after the US highway system came into being in 1925.

By then, there was a growing network of named roads (e.g., Lincoln Highway, Victory Highway), and they were marked using colored bands on telephone poles. To avoid confusion, a numbering scheme was developed, and Lincoln Highway eventually became Highway 40 in 1928. Much of it followed the same path as Lincoln/Victory Highway and more importantly, the route was upgraded. Paved Highway 40 would be the major east-west route across the Sierra for more than three decades. (It finally became all-season in 1932.)

Then the Interstate came through Donner Pass, securing its role as major California thoroughfare. President Dwight Eisenhower championed the cause and signed off on the ambitious federal endeavor to create fast routes across the country in 1956. As work began to convert Highway 40 into the freeway that is Interstate 80, one of the priorities was to ensure that a faster, safer route to Tahoe was ready in time for the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley. The stretch over Donner Summit was finished later, opening to traffic in 1964 and completing the I-80 leg through California.

Though Interstate 80 took over the majority of Highway 40 and it is officially no longer in service in California, parts of the original road remain in spots were the freeway took a different alignment. Some stretches are marked with signs noting the old historic highway and serve as a scenic alternative to the Interstate or a destination for those who like to hunt down the obsolete highways of days gone by.

Modern Winter Perils: Chains & Stuck Trains

Even as a modern highway, Donner Pass maintains its legacy of wintry danger.

Given that snow can be heavy both in terms of amount and density, keeping the way clear and safe year-round remains a major undertaking. Besides massive snowfall, storms can bring ice to the Interstate thanks to the high water content of that Sierra Cement. White-out conditions with zero visibility, too. Add the steep grades, heavy big rig traffic and out-of-town travelers inexperienced with mountain driving and it’s prime conditions for accidents.

National Geographic even chronicled the modern Donner Pass dangers in a documentary called Hell on the Highway. Filmed in winter 2011/2012, it followed tow-truck operators, transportation crews and highway patrols as they responded to accidents and stranded travelers.

“Chain monkeys” also play an important role on Donner Pass in winter.

Slick conditions necessitate tire chains even on the major Interstate at times. The professional installers — who are independent operators but must have a permit from California’s Department of Transportation — are stationed at the roadside checkpoints when I-80 is under chain control. There they will put on and remove chains for anyone who wants help, for a fee. (Besides carrying your chains, having cash to pay for any assistance you might need is another sound winter-driving tip in the Sierra.) This was once highly lucrative seasonal work for those willing to brave the dangerous and uncomfortable conditions, but the popularity of SUVs has proven a game-changer. Because four-wheel drive vehicles are not required to chain up as often as other vehicles, chain monkeys have seen their client base shrink.

Trains have also succumbed to screaming Sierra winters in modern times. The 1951/1952 one was a doozy for snow, dumping 65 feet at Donner Summit. In January of that year, a luxury passenger train called City of San Francisco became stranded near Donner Pass with more than 200 passengers and crew members onboard. Conditions were so brutal that it took three days for rescue crews to reach them.

A similar scenario played out in 2008 when one of Amtrak’s California Zephyr trains and 150 of its passengers spent a February night motionless on the Sierra’s mountain tracks. It wasn’t snow that blocked them, but a snowplow that fell through a trestle and blocked the way until it could be cleared the next morning.

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