Echo Summit (US 50)
THE TAHOE SHORT-CUT
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 7,382 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: No
ALONG THE WAY: Placerville, Apple Hill, Kyburz, South Lake Tahoe, Stateline
WHAT TO DO NEAR ECHO SUMMIT
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Pretend you’re a Pony Express rider and stop at the Strawberry Lodge. While you’re there, check out the stuffed grizzly (Alaskan, not Californian, alas) and, if you’re not overly modest, a bathroom with some very short stall doors.
When you’re done, investigate Lovers Leap to see where world-class climbers have trained in Tahoe.
Instead of whizzing through in a second, stop and take a picture of the Kyburz Lodge.
California’s First Highway
Echo Summit has the distinction of being the first official California highway, which is notable in a state known for its love of driving.
As a pass, it climbs into the western foothills near Eldorado Hills. From there it ventures through Placerville and the farms and ranches of nearby Apple Hill and later begins tracing the South Fork of the American River and going through the historic way stations of Kyburz and Strawberry. It reaches its highest point at Echo Summit (near where the American River originates) and then begins its descent to South Lake Tahoe and Stateline, NV, where it skirts the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe and then crosses the Carson Range down to Carson Valley.
Trimming Sierra Travel Times From the Start
Highway 50 is today known as the fastest route between Tahoe and the Bay Area (while the Carson Pass is considered the more picturesque, scenic route).
In tiny Kyburz, a sign on the now-closed Kyburz Lodge alludes to the fast-moving nature of the travelers passing through. One side reads “Welcome to Kyburz,” and the other says “Now Leaving Kyburz.”
But this route has been a path for people who want to get across the mountains quickly since its beginning. Prospectors used it to rush between the Mother Lode in Gold Country and the later-discovered Comstock Lode in Nevada. The Pony Express also followed it to bring communications and packages to and from the newly settled West Coast at the brisker pace the new mail service promised.
John Calhoun Johnson is credited with blazing the trail that would become this road in 1852, and he did so expressly as a short-cut compared to the area’s established routes (the Carson/Mormon Emigrant Trial and Truckee River Route through Donner Pass). First known as Johnson’s Cut-Off, the name came from the direct nature of the path, which eliminated the need to traverse much of the Carson Valley, thus “cutting it off” from the trip. It also avoided the treacherous river crossings on the Truckee Route.
Johnson’s motivation at the time was his job. He was a letter carrier — with a huge route. He delivered post between California and Nevada, so he was keenly aware of the need for an easier trans-Sierra crossing point. Importantly, the route he chose also had a lower elevation. That meant less snow, which primed it to later become one of the Sierra’s few year-round passes.
Comstock Lode or Bust: Gold Rush Traffic Jams
The trail would get more and more popular in the coming years — even stage coaches were using it by 1857. But it wasn’t a main thoroughfare. The people flooding into California after gold was discovered in Coloma largely kept to the surrounding western Sierra foothills and used the Truckee and Carson trails to get there.
That changed in 1859, the year silver was found near Virginia City, NV. As Gold Rush movements quickly shifted to the east, what is now the Highway 50 corridor would become a prospector’s short-cut as well. Scores of them sped over the mountains here for a chance at the East Side’s untapped riches. The route would soon become known as the “Roaring Road,” and wagons would sometimes have to wait hours to pull onto it due to traffic jams.
The Mail Must Go Through
While mining would draw more and more people along this route, the postal system would also continue to be an important factor in making the Echo Summit one of the most-used Sierra passes.
Snowshoe Thompson: Mail-Carrying Hero on Skis
After Johnson gave up delivering mail to pursue other professions (going on to become one of the state’s first lawyers and a member of its legislature), Snowshoe Thompson took over, using the Johnson Cut-Off. Though Johnson did the job before him, it is Thompson who is widely recognized as the first trans-Sierra mail carrier due to his impressive winter deliveries.
The first to figure out how to traverse through the heavy Sierra snow effectively, he remembered “snow skates” from his childhood in Norway. He made his own version out of wood, fashioning long boards and using a pole to balance as he carried loads of mail and supplies that weighed nearly 100 pounds across the mountains. (A monument by the Boreal ski resort near Donner Pass shows him in unconventional stance.)
His ingenuity allowed the still-new mail service to maintain timely deliveries. Finding an alternative route with less snow would have delayed deliveries by several days. Instead, Thompson managed the entire round-trip in five — three to get from Placerville to Genoa and two going the other way.
This established regular winter contact between the west and east sides of the Sierra that hadn’t been possible before, and that was critical to the emerging mining scene in Nevada. It was Thompson who carried early Comstock Lode ore samples to Sacramento for assaying and brought the type and newsprint that allowed Nevada to print its first newspaper. (The Territorial Enterprise is where Samuel Clemens began using his pen name Mark Twain.)
Besides earning a place in history as the man who brought skiing to California, Thompson earned a heroic reputation on his twice-monthly mail trips along his 90-mile route. Carrying limited provisions, he stopped rarely to rest, encountered wolves, and more than once came to the rescue of people who’d fallen victim to wintry danger. On one such occasion, he carried three stranded men several miles on the backs of his skis to bring them to safety.
The Pony Express: Orphans Racing Over the Sierra on Horseback
The Pony Express began using the route in 1860, the speed and all-season accessibility of it an important consideration in its pledge to bring mail and packages from the Midwest to the West Coast in a matter of days as opposed to the month or more that was typical for deliveries via ship or stagecoach. With the Gold Rush in full swing and the population of California growing rapidly, it became imperative to find a faster way for the East Coast and Midwest to communicate with the rising number of West Coast residents and stay abreast of the dramatic events taking place in America’s new frontier.
The mountain short-cut played a key role in ensuring that the Pony Express could live up to its motto that “The Mail Must Go Through,” and quickly at that. The Pony Express Trail extended from Missouri to Sacramento — a 1,900-mile journey — and the average time to complete it was 10 days. (The record was a little over seven to bring news of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.)
To ensure speed of delivery, there was a mandate that riders be light, with a weight limit of 120 pounds. Those chosen for the dangerous job — Indian attacks were common — also had to pledge that they would not swear or drink alcohol. In addition, the Pony Express preferred employees without family ties. A well-known job advertisement noted “orphans preferred” for the “young, skinny, wiry fellows” it sought.
Pony Express horses and riders raced through the Echo Summit route regularly until the service was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph system 18 months after its launch. At its peak, there were nearly 200 Pony Express stations along the trail, most between 10 and 15 miles apart (the distance a horse could gallop without tiring).
One of them was Strawberry Lodge, which still operates alongside Highway 50. Though the restaurant and hotel standing there today is not the original structure from Pony Express times, it has many historic photos and a gigantic stuffed grizzly inside. The current Strawberry Lodge also has interesting architectural roots. It was designed in the style of Idaho’s Sun Valley Lodge, which was one of the buildings masterminded by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the architect of many landmark national park lodges, including The Ahwahnee in Yosemite and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Lodge.
Changing Fortunes and the Road to a Modern Highway
Despite the heavy use, the Echo Summit route remained more a rugged trail until 1860 when it became a private toll road with funding for maintenance. In the years following, a steady flow of wagons, coaches, horses and people passed through and helped the towns along the way to prosper.
But by 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was up and running over Donner Pass, and traffic slowed to a trickle. El Dorado County purchased what was then known as the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road in 1886 and deeded it to the state, making it California’s first state highway. It was eventually paved in 1923.
Lovers Leap: Tahoe’s Climbing Scene
Much of the Sierra Nevada calls to rock climbers, from the High Sierra’s fourteeners, to El Capitan, Half Dome and other Yosemite crown jewels, to Bishop’s boulders. Tahoe is seemingly a less obvious destination for these sorts, but many of them consider it to be just as alluring. Most notable is Lovers Leap, a 600-foot wall near the Strawberry Lodge that has served as a training ground for more ambitious climbs.
Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Dan Osman & the New Guard
Among those who practiced their craft here were Royal Robbins and Warren Harding — icons from the period between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s that is considered the golden age of Yosemite climbing. The two made many first ascents there. To name just a few of their accomplishments, Harding led the first team to conquer El Capitan and trail-blazed the popular route now called “The Nose.” Robbins, meanwhile, is credited as the first up Half Dome’s northwest face with a team of his own. Robbins in particular was taken with Lovers Leap, and for a time even had a climbing school here called Rock Craft.
The next generation of climbers has been drawn to the area, too. After dropping out of Berkeley’s engineering program, Alex Honnold got on his way to becoming a legend in the modern climbing scene by making his first free-solo climbs at Lovers Leap.
Another thrill-seeker who made Tahoe his climbing turf was Dan Osman. He made a ropeless 400-foot ascent up the Bear’s Reach route of Lovers Leap in less than five minutes, captured in the Masters of Stone video series. Later, he would become more interested in jumping off mountains instead of climbing them when he became an avid rope jumper. The pursuit is a variation on bungee jumping that swaps climbing equipment for bouncy bungee cables to suspend falling jumpers before they reach the ground. But it would kill Osman at age 35. In 1998, he took an ill-fated plunge of more than a thousand feet off the Leaning Tower formation near Yosemite’s Bridalveil Falls, and his gear somehow failed him.
Olympic Training Ground
Other athletes have tested their ability along this road as well. Just as Mammoth Lakes on the Sierra’s East Side has become a popular high-altitude training ground for Olympic runners, Echo Summit has been used for a similar purpose.
The pass’s highest point is where high-altitude Olympic Trials for men’s track & field where held in preparation for the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City (where the elevation is above 7,000 feet). The track that was constructed among the trees here (and later moved to a Tahoe school) helped to choose a team that won 12 gold medals.
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