Historical Donner Pass

  • Distance: 3.0 miles roundtrip
  • Elevation gain: 736 ft
  • Maximum elevation: 7280 ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate (steep climb at top)
  • Start: Rainbow bridge overlook
  • Activities: Hike

Donner Pass is rich in human history from prehistoric times to today. The pass has served as a route through the Sierras for thousands of years and was used as a migratory trail long before the Donner party’s fateful attempt. It became a main artery of modern travel in California when the transcontinental railroad was completed and today Interstate 80 is the busiest highway across the Sierras.

Historical artifacts from past human ventures remain in the pass and can be observed today in a relatively short hike. A convenient place to start the hike is at the Rainbow bridge overlook. After parking and taking in the view of Donner Lake, carefully cross Donner Pass Rd and walk down to the entrance t0 the petroglyph area on large granite slabs. There is an excellent exhibit at the petroglyphs and carefully wandering over the slabs will reveal many of the ancient works of art. Climb up the slabs to the south side of the pass to the China Wall, the large stone wall built by the Chinese as a grade for the railroad. At this point the old roadbed for the railroad that runs through the man made snow sheds can be observed. When the new tunnel under Mt Judah was constructed, the tracks and railroad ties were removed. From this vantage point remnants of the old Dutch Flat-Donner Lake wagon road that was built in 1863 can be seen.

To continue the hike walk to the west in the old roadbed through the snow shed and proceed through the tunnel carved out of the rock by the Chinese workers. It’s a good idea to bring a strong flashlight because the tunnel is dark and littered with large rocks and water puddles. About half way through the tunnel shine the light up to the ceiling of the tunnel. The old access shaft going to the surface above the tunnel can be observed. Continue to the end of the tunnel that comes out in the parking area across from Donner Ski Ranch. Carefully walk along Donner Pass Rd back up towards the summit of the pass watching out for traffic. Keep an eye on the right hand side of the road where there are “rock people” lounging on the rocks. These are the work of a local artist. Continue up to the Sugarbowl Academy and turn right on the road into the parking lot (this is part of the Pacific Crest Trail). Look for the sign commemorating the construction of the railroad and look around for a metal covered cement structure that is the cover over the tunnel access shaft you saw in the tunnel.

The hike can be shortened at this point by carefully walking back down Donner Pass Road to the bridge overlook. To continue the hike retrace your steps back about half way to Donner Ski Ranch and cross the road to a trail entrance (you will again be on the PCT). Climb up the trail to the north toward Lake Angela around the back side of Mt Stephens. The lake will be on the left and there is an open space on the shore where the lake can be observed. Scrambling up the rocks directly to the east will bring you to the small pond where the railroad workers caught catfish for food. At this point the trail becomes sketchy as it retraces the old Truckee pioneer trail through Stephens Pass (look for the marker) used by the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party that was the first party to cross the pass in 1844, 2 years before the fateful Donner Party. It is best to continue north on the trail along Lake Angela and then follow it east through the rocks until it meets up with the trail up to George L. Stewart Peak. Descend the switchback trails down the base of Mt Stephens at Donner Pass Rd. Walk down the road and carefully cross the Rainbow Bridge back to the parking area at the overlook.


Click on the map for an interactive Google map
Elevation profiles – round trip

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3 Responses to Historical Donner Pass

  1. Dave says:

    The old pioneer trail also known as the Donner Lake Wagon Rd is now open to the public from the base of east side of the pass on Hwy 40 (about 1/3rd of a mile after you leave Donner Lake heading west) to the summit. There is a small parking area and signage on the left hand side of Hwy 40 in the forest. Its a short walk to the summit…maybe 2 miles with some scrambling over rocks on the upper third. Enjoy!

  2. Laura says:

    The train tunnels are now closed to use by everyone, by southern Pacfic. See gate at beginning of the tunnels.

  3. admin says:

    Laura is correct about the new gate at the west entrance to Tunnerl 6. Union Pacific put them up in the summer of 2012 after there was an incident in which a pickup truck drove down through the sheds and ended up getting stuck on the active UP tracks down near Schallenburger Ridge. Now I would never encourage anyone to break the law, but it is my experience up here that most no trespassing signs are posted more for liability reasons than a realistic expectation that the signs will prevent people from entering the property. The gate is constructed in a way that it precludes entry by vehicles, but there is no impairment to entry by foot. From what I have observed since the gate went up, there has been no decrease in the foot traffict through tunnel 6. I leave the decision to enter the tunnel to you.