Donner Pass scene of pioneer tragedy


Donner Lake marks the easiest Sierra Nevada crossing

The Sierra Nevada, by all rights, should be the border between California and its eastern neighbor Nevada. But the border was drawn by senators way back east, so one of the most obvious geographic features in North America is reduced largely to irrelevance. I love the Sierra, having been over every pass from Tioga northward, as i criss-crossed the range, weaving my way back north. (Way back north. I was headed for Jasper, Alberta!] The air is dry and very crisp at the higher elevations, smelling of pine forest.

The Sierra were obviously a major barrier to pioneers headed westward, the last climb before they, as the Donner party hoped, to look down to the fertile valleys of central California. For Jacob and Mary Donner and their large entourage, already delayed by poor guidance from a man named Hastings, a fatal barrier. Crossing the range in late September, they were caught by an early storm which was soon followed by another, with snow drifts up to nearly a dozen feet. Not particularly intrepid travelers, they sort of just sat there until they started to starve to death. A party sent out ('the 'forlorn hope') to try and find help resorted to Cannibalism before they found a settlement weeks later; by the time rescue parties got back the main camp had started to nibble at a few cheeks as well (yes...i have seen that movie too about those guys in the Andes). There is a state park and memorial in the town down below. The climb itself is not that intimidating, with fine views such as this as you ascend. As the lowest Sierra crossing you share the valley with the railroad and interstate 80; but this leaves the old road largely to the cyclist.

Because the Sierra are a tilted block of granite that slopes west, the climbs up from the east side are short and steep; the descents down to california valleys are long, long and gentle.
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