Donner Party Hike: Back to the roots of early pioneers

Judy DePuy and Bill Oudegeest
Special to the Sierra Sun

The unforgiving Sierra Nevada winter of 1846-1847 began unexpectedly early. The onslaught of storms set the stage for what was to become an incredibly agonizing story of human desperation and determination.

Though the Donner party set out for California in April 1846, a series of errors, mishaps and tragedy followed in their footsteps.

An early winter storm came in just as the emigrants reached the base of the Sierras making it impossible for them to cross the mountains. They were forced to stay put for the winter, sealing their fate. The group was split into two camps, one at the base of now Donner Lake and the other at Alder Creek. The emigrants faced unimaginable perils and had to make difficult decisions. Help did not arrive until March 1847 finding few of the original party still surviving.

Experience and explore the area that held the Donner Party and other explorers. Through interpretive walks and hikes you can almost hear the sound of wagon wheels and the clip-clop of oxen as the emigrants scaled the mighty Sierra in search of a better life. Learn about the success of the Stephens Party, the tragic events of the Donner Party and the importance of the Transcontinental Railroad in opening the West to the rest of the country.

The Donner Party Hike is a weekend of fun interpretive hikes and talks (Sept. 14-15) that explores the rich history and spectacular scenery of Donner Summit and Donner Party camps. Choose from seven unique hikes on Saturday, followed by lunch, music and a historical talk that ties all the hikes to the history. This year’s speaker is Ethan Rarick, author of Desperate Passage, one of the best books written on the Donner Party. Mr. Rarick will not re-relate what happened but delve into the human factor and the fateful decisions the parties made. His stories rely on new archeological evidence as well as research on starvation, snowfall and more.

Sunday begins with an easy but informative walking tour at the Donner Party’s Alder Creek site. Here you will learn about the grueling travel and horrific misfortunes of the Donner Party. The tour continues at Donner Memorial State Park to view the Murphy Cabin Site, Pioneer Monument and enjoy the movie documentary and Emigrant Trail museum.

For more information and to register for this unique experience with local historians, go to


The seven Saturday hikes on Sept. 14 offer a variety of experiences. Choose the Saturday hike that best suits your interest and preferences from the list below.

Summit Valley (Easy, 4 miles) — Hikers skirt by Lake Van Norden and learn of the history of Van Norden dam, Native American grinding rocks and mortars, basalt flakes, the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Rd., the sheep industry and various cabin foundations.

Railroad Snow Sheds and Tunnels (Easy, 4-6 miles round trip) — Theodore Judah said snow was not a problem on Donner Summit. He was wrong as the snow sheds attest. Explore the intricate system of snow sheds needed to keep the train running through Sierra winters. Learn about the path of the Transcontinental Railroad, walk through Tunnel 6 (1659 feet of solid granite, taking two years to build at the rate of approximately 14 inches/ day), see tool marks left by the Chinese workers 150 years ago. Learn about the amazing feat of building China Wall and toll marks that are still there.

Summit Canyon/Dutch Flat Wagon Road (Moderate, 3.5 miles) — Explore the Dutch Flat Donner Lake wagon road and the Lincoln Highway. You will pass petroglyphs 2,000-4,000 years old, 100-year old roadside ads painted on rocks, Chinese Railroad workers camp and China wall, wagon train routes, location of multiple “firsts” over the Sierras (Transcontinental Railroad, highway, air route, automobile, and bicyclist), scenic views and more. This walk is all downhill with hikers bused back to Sugar Bowl Mt. Judah Lodge.

Donner Peak/Coldstream Pass (Moderate, 4.5 miles round trip) — Donner Peak epitomizes Sierra granite. After a walk up the Pacific Crest Trail you find yourself on granite slabs and are rewarded by standing in a notch 1,000 directly above Donner Lake. Experience what it looked like in 1910, stories about the Emigrant Trail, marking of the trail, Coldstream Canyon and Coldstream Pass, and a full history of Theodore Judah, the first rope tows on Mt. Judah, and how Mt. Judah got its name.

High Sierra Lakes (Moderate, 6 miles round trip) — This hike enjoys incredible vistas, highlighting the beauty of the area seen by emigrants as they passed through the treacherous High Sierra. Walk on the summit to Catfish Pond, Lake Angela, Lake Flora, and Lake Azalea.

Roller Pass/Mt. Judah Loop (Moderate/Strenuous, 6 miles round trip) — This hike starts at 7100 feet ending at Mt. Judah at 8200 feet. There are a lot of stories on the way to Roller Pass, discovered in 1846. Sierra Junipers, Johnny Ellis and his rope tows, Sugar Bowl, Theodore Judah, the Emigrant Trail, Sierra Crest Trail, Weddell markers of the Emigrant Trail, the first locomotives over the summit (they did not go on tracks) and why, Chinese RR workers’ camp, Red Mountain, the first air route, and then on top of Mt. Judah – wow, what a view.

Historic Donner Pass (Difficult, 2.5 miles roundtrip) — Circumnavigate historic Donner Pass, often called the most historic spot in California. North of Old Highway 40, enjoy spectacular views and its history: remains of the first transcontinental air route weather station; Sierra Junipers, the same juniper that Mary Ann North painted in 1884; Lake Angela’s history; Starved Camp of the Donner Party and the Donner rescues; Catfish Pond; overview of Donner Summit history; Central Shaft of Tunnel 6 and more.

Judy DePuy is a retired civil engineer, entrepreneur, and an active volunteer for the Truckee-Donner Historical and Railroad Societies and the Donner Summit Historical Society. Judy enjoys hiking, skiing and giving back to the community. Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than forty years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits the Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, leads hikes, etc.

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