Exploring Donner Summit
By Tim Hauserman
While the Donner Party didn’t exactly find Donner Pass to be shangra la in October 1844, you might find the top of Old Highway 40 to be a much more hospitable fall playground. You will find spectacular views of Rainbow Bridge, Donner Lake, Truckee and the distant Mt. Rose. You can hike along the PCT, explore off trail, ride your road bike, or take a fascinating journey into no longer used railroad tunnels.
Hike the PCT
Heading south, you can hike the six mile long Mt. Judah Loop, which takes you to the top of Mt. Judah and Donner Peak, as well as to Roller Pass with views to the south of Anderson Peak and Tinker Knob. North on the PCT, brings you to fascinating rock formations where you can see expert climbers at work. A bit of off-trail jaunting on the north side brings you several lakes and a pond, where the catfish you see are the progeny of those stocked by Chinese railroad workers 150 years ago.
Ride the Road
The ride from Donner Lake to Cisco Grove over Donner Pass is one of the region’s favorite road rides. It’s about 40 miles out and back, with two pretty good climbs, but the views are worth the sweat, and the road is lightly traveled.
Explore the Tunnels
The transcontinental railroad was built over Donner Summit in the 1860s, mostly by those Chinese laborers described earlier. In 1993, after building a longer tunnel through the mountain about a mile south of Donner Pass, the tunnels visible from Highway 40 were abandoned. Now, you can walk explore them and it is an interesting experience. Park at the China Wall parking area, and make your way up to the tunnels. On the way, keep your eyes open for petroglyphs that were created by Native Americans.
Enjoy the Views
Feeling lazy or just busy? You can drive up to the viewpoint just below the Rainbow Bridge and ponder the amazing panorama of Donner Lake. Don’t mind a bit of walking? Head up to the top of Donner Pass, and walk north on the PCT just a few hundred yards to the same view, but higher up and with the addition of Rainbow Bridge in the foreground.