Can you match these people back in 1886, hiking from Donner Lake to Lake Mary, then to Donner Peak and back in one day--for fun. Notice the reference to "the summit road"--this is the DFDLWR.
Our January 2009 snowshoe hike along the Donner Trail
(during a snowstorm)
Our snowshoe group only made it up about 1/3 the distance from Old Highway Drive to the summit. We turned around seeing more dark clouds coming in and the temperature quickly dropping. Trekking through the fresh snow was not easy, even with our modern snowshoes. But the most difficult part was crossing Summit Creek, about 15' wide and one foot deep of rushing freezing water. We removed our snowshoes, boots, and socks so we could cross the stream--the same stream the Donner Party and all others would have had to cross, along with some smaller streams before it. We were probably doing exactly the same thing they did, realizing it would be better to remove our boots while crossing the stream than to get them wet and freeze on our feet.
Picture yourself sitting in snow on the bank of the stream, removing your boots and socks while snow is coming down, walking across the stream carrying your snowshoes, boots, and socks along with whatever else you're carrying, carving out some type of steps on the 4-foot vertical bank of snow on the other side while standing in the freezing water in bare feet, climbing out and then sitting in the snow to put on your socks and boots. By the time we crossed it again coming back down and trekking back to Old Highway Drive, we were worn out. It's easy to see why the Donner Party wouldn't have wanted to tackle that again after their first attempts, yet the mostly successful snowshoe group tried again several weeks later on December 17, 1846, in even more snow. We could also see the other problem (really the main problem) the Donner Party had--losing track of the trail in the mostly flat area under 4-6 feet of snow, where we are shown above near the creek crossing--it was only because we had seen it so many times without snow that we knew where to walk. Staying on the trail is essential even in summer. If you deviate from it, you may be able to walk a few yards, but you'll soon run up against vertical walls or a mass of trees.
Our hike was a definite learning experience, and it was certainly scenic.
But in the summer, it's a totally different world:
13 summer photos along the trail, thanks to Don Rucker
Along the trail in the mostly flat area halfway from the lake to the summit.
This is the point where the "northern route" and the "southern route" split on the way up to the summit. The 1915 state highway surveyor noted as he passed this spot that the "abandoned" (the northern) road went to the right. The yellow ribbon indicates the junction.
Both routes cover a quarter-mile section of travel midway to the summit. The northern route is the older road built sometime between 1849 and 1863. Proof that it was built before the 1863 southern route is this Anthony photo below which shows no road going to the right (compare this photo to the old photo near the bottom of this page to see the difference).
Notice the construction box at the bottom edge--probably part of the 1863 DFDLWR construction and the bridge construction around the corner.
Above, the pre-1863 northern route in 2010, showing 30-foot high vertical supporting wall, with Jack Duncan, author of "From Donner Pass To The Pacific."
The northern road was (and is) steep, rough, and dangerous in spots. Neither route was the trail used by the Indians and the Stephens party (and Donner party survivors) and other early pioneers, since blasting of steep granite walls was needed to create portions of the roadway for both routes and Indians didn't build roads like this (for wagons with wheels)--they had no need to since they had never invented the wheel.
The Indians and earliest pioneers probably used another route in a dip between the two routes which requires a steep yet somewhat smooth climb and joins into the point where the other two routes join together. This dip is shown below, with the edge of the northern route on the left.
The old painting below appears to be in the same spot.
In 1863, the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road builders (aka the Central Pacific Railroad) realized the northern route was too steep and carved out an easier route across the valley to the south, allowing extra length for a more gradual climb. That route required a small bridge (about 12 feet long and 10 feet deep) near the western point where the two joined up again. That wooden bridge was probably replaced several times (the 1915 state surveyor noted as he passed the bridge that the boards needed replacement) and finally washed out in 1960 and has never been replaced, although the stone footing is still in original shape. Therefore, the southern route, which was also the official state highway from 1909 to 1926, has been unused by regular vehicles since 1960 and some of it is overgrown with brush and small trees.
Both routes continued to be used and show up on all old maps beginning in 1866. Below is a detail of the 1866 survey, the first known survey of the area, labeling the Dutch Flat And Donner Lake Wagon Road (highlighted in pink). It is not very exact but it clearly shows both the northern and southern route with the southern route being the DFDLWR, which opened two years before the physical survey for this map. The northern route is shown with the 3 dashes going to the right between the two "n" letters in the word "Donner" (compare to the map at the top of this page). Hard to read words are "Dry beds of stream" and "Dry beds of Cr(eek)" and "Charles Coombs House (a "house" was a term for a station or small motel) and "Henry Witherspoon House." The dot next to "House" indicates the place. This was also known as Witherspoon Station, owned by John Henry Witherspoon. He was a civil and mining engineer by profession, and was in charge of the building of the DFDLWR. He and his family lived at this spot for three years. He was married to Elizabeth Halligan. Their son Henry Eugene was born here June 30, 1866 (the year of this map). Two other sons died in infancy. Henry Eugene later became a famous water and mining attorney in SF. John Henry, the father, was believed to have been killed by Indians in Arizona. The site is just to the left of the next 3 photos below--notice the dry creek bed.
From 1864 until Highway 40 opened in 1926, the older northern route probably continued to be used in the winter and spring when snow and risk of avalanche made the main southern route impassible since it was right up against the mountainside, while the sun melted the snow weeks earlier on the northern route.
Nearly all of both routes go through US Forest Service land, however, the Forest Service does not own any part of the old 1909 state highway and has no authority over it (they cannot "close" it nor "open" it). Just as with old Highway 40, all of the old 1909 state highway, including the pre-1914 over-the-tracks route, is a 50-foot wide strip of county property (Placer and Nevada) and Town of Truckee property with the State of California retaining "latent" stock-trail ownership. In addition, since the 1800s, 200 feet on either side of the railroad track bed that isn't the county road is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad.
After about 300 feet south of the junction (the yellow ribbon in the earlier photo)--hikers need to cross a bumpy 50 feet or so where a spring stream flows (photos right and below)--it's the same creek in the same spot as the 1873 Montague & Clement map shows (see Maps page). It has washed away the top layer of road over the years and created two minor gullies (1-2 feet deep).
Head for the huge boulder (left--written about in the 1903 article below). Once you've passed the gullies, the road will be easy to walk from there on, with a few spots where you need to navigate through some small trees (but much less brush than last year, thanks to some recent cleanup work).
Notice that on nearly all of the road, there are the original one-to-two foot boulders lining the edge of the road, and creating a drainage channel on the uphill side of the road (photo right). The older northern route doesn't have this design.
This section of the old road is right up against a granite mountainside, which has avalanches of small and large size during the winter. In the winter of 1864-65, two "wagon road repairers" were buried and killed by a slide in this area, the same area where a year later "at Tunnel No. 10, some 15 to 20 Chinese were killed by a slide" while working on the tunnel. They weren't uncovered until spring. The photo above shows this area that is mostly unchanged since that time.
After about a quarter mile west of the huge boulder, you'll reach the point below. As you walk on the southern route around this granite bend, notice the engineering compared to the northern route. It was built in 1863 as part of the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road at a cost of over $300,000 (in 1863 dollars), and when it opened, was one of the best mountain roads anywhere.
Above, looking north today along the old State highway that hasn't had regular traffic since 1960. The road and the supporting rocks have been here since they were built in 1863. This is the most pristine section of the old highway--with virtually no change over 146 years. The washed out bridge is just around the bend. Four different routes can be seen in this photo. If you know where to look, you can see the northern route across the ravine, going up to the left at an even angle, and above that road is old Highway 40--look for the guardrail. Also, the original Indian/early pioneer route is in the right one-third of the photo, going up at a 45-degree angle (just the other side of the supporting rocks--look for the yellowish brush and the straight line of boulders placed across the road). This spot is about 1/2 mile down from the summit. The US Forest Service owns the surrounding land in this photo.
Keep an eye out for what used to be the bridge--you could walk right off the edge if you're not looking and take a 10 foot drop.
There is a walking path a few feet to the west of the old bridge.
Back at the junction, you could take the northern route (photo above and below)--the rough and steep older route--never used as a state highway. Notice the little hiker with her mom.
Notice old Highway 40 above this road
Above, this is close to where the two routes connect up again. The southern route can be seen across the ravine. If you look closely, you can see the footing of the old bridge, just the other side of the tightrope walking wire strung across the ravine.
Below, this photo shows the two routes connecting at the "Y." The northern route is in the foreground and the southern route is in the background. The bridge footing is right behind the tree behind the red pole. After the stream dries up in early summer, there is a walkable route about 40 feet next to the bridge footing (the summit side of the bridge). You need to cross the stream bed, which can sometimes be done even when water is flowing.
My theory (since I've never heard anyone else say this) is that the original Indian/earliest pioneer route was probably in the dip between the two routes and joined in just left of the red pole (there are boulders placed across this dip to keep vehicles out--although they look like erosion control but with no obvious need since water doesn't seem to flow in this dip--only in the creek where the bridge is). The only other possible travel route would be in the creek bed itself, but that is very rough and narrow.
The red and yellow poles mark the natural gas pipeline and fiber optic line.
Below is a rare pre-1926 photo which shows the bridge. There are many old photos of this "Y" but not many showing the bridge.
Notice the small white sign on the the tree at the "Y". It probably had some information about the two routes.
That tree is the same one as the one above behind the red pole.
Notice no guard rails on the bridge. There were no such things as guard rails back then, even on the high dangerous curves in this area. You took your chances with what was there.
Notice all the utility poles. This small area channeled people and utilities to and from California then and now, with current natural gas lines and ATT's fiber optic lines going through this narrow strip, along with Old Highway 40 a few feet to the left of the photo.
Looking back at Donner Lake on the northern road near the "Y."