A Historic Crossroads
Donner Pass has served as a critical gateway across the Sierra Nevada for much of the last three centuries. Even before the arrival of Euro-American immigrants, Native Americans living east and west of the Sierra Nevada used 7,200-foot Donner Pass as a travel corridor and as a place to meet and trade goods. In 1844, the Stephens Party became the first group of immigrants to find a way over the Sierra Nevada with their oxen and wagons, literally hauling their wagons up the rock faces above Donner Lake. The lake and pass were subsequently named for a less fortunate band of immigrants who, two years later, failed to cross the Sierra before the early arrival of winter snows.
The nation’s first transcontinental railroad traversed the Sierra Nevada at Donner Summit in 1869, opening the beauties of the High Sierra for the first time to travelers and wonder seekers from the world over. One of the most famous was American painter Albert Bierstadt whose canvas, View of Donner Lake, immortalized the lake in the public’s imagination. The painting, one of several the artist made after traveling to Donner Summit with railroad baron Collis Huntington in 1871, drew hundreds of viewers daily when it was displayed in San Francisco in 1873.
Conservation of Donner Lake
Not surprisingly, Donner Lake’s remarkable beauty and proximity to the easiest route across the Sierra Nevada attracted many to settle on its shores. Today, much of the lake is ringed with homes, but surrounding lands at higher elevations remain largely unspoiled. The Truckee Donner Land Trust (TDLT) initiated its Donner Lake project in 1995, beginning negotiations with private property owners of historic and scenic landscapes like Schallenberger Ridge, Emigrant Canyon, Summit Canyon, Lakeview Canyon and Coldstream Canyon. Since then, working with The Trust for Public Land, the Land Trust has acquired over 2,100 acres adjacent to Donner Memorial State Park. In addition to preserving the historic Emigrant Trail, these protected lands provide habitat for numerous species, including bald eagles, northern goshawk, mountain beaver, and black bear.
Donner Lake is a recreational paradise and becoming more so every year. The Truckee Donner Land Trust continues to make strategic acquisitions around the lake and is working to complete the 23-mile Donner Lake Rim Trail. The trail will encircle the peaks around Donner Lake giving hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians stunning views of Donner Lake, Mount Rose and the Pacific Crest. Trails will run from downtown Truckee to Donner Summit and connect with existing trails, including the Summit Lake Trail, the Hole-in-the-Ground Trail, and the trails leading into the proposed Castle Peak Wilderness. Little by little, these conservation investments are permanently preserving the natural and historic values of Donner Lake and expanding opportunities for all of us to enjoy this magnificent landscape.
Directions from Truckee
Donner Lake lies below and east of Donner Pass. It is reachable via Old Highway 40 from Donner Summit or by traveling west along Donner Pass Road from Truckee. To visit Summit Canyon, the Truckee Donner Land Trust’s most recent acquisition at Donner Lake, head towards the west end of Donner Lake and up Old Hwy 40. Four hundred feet past the winter closure gate, turn left into the parking area. The trail is open for biking and hiking. For further information about accessing the Donner Lake Rim Trail, go to: Donner Lake Rim Trail Access Directions