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Donner Summit

Historic Site or District
Students explore Tunnel 6 – Ben Lawson

The Donner Summit area off of old highway 40 is a spectacular region rich with important historical and cultural sites, stunning views, diverse wilderness, and abundant recreational opportunities.

Historical/Cultural: Take a unique “walk back in time” traversing the history of US transportation and California emigration. You begin with a stroll through the infamous Tunnel 6 “The Great Summit Tunnel of the Sierra Nevada” to the old roadbed of the Colfax wagon route. Tunnel 6 is considered the most difficult to complete section of the Transcontinental Railroad, with over 2000 workers from China labored over 18 months to dig this tunnel in 1866-1867.

From here you can look across to the rugged cliffs that the infamous Donner Party desperately struggled to surpass, and that the lesser known Stevens/Townsend/Murphy Party successfully pioneered two years earlier. Carefully descending off of the railroad grade you will pass the “China Wall” which is a fantastic example of hand hewn – dry masonry, before you drop down to the Petroglyphs left by the ancient Washo peoples who used this pass as a key trading route.

Quotation from the Plaque located above the tunnel: “…The 1659 foot tunnel took over 15 months of Chinese muscle and sweat to build. The Chinese painstakingly hand drilled then blasted the granite rock with black powder and newly invented nitro-glycerine. A vertical shaft took 85 days to complete and allowed construction to proceed from the center as well as from the portals. The most difficult obstacle facing the Central Pacific railroad was overcome when the tunnel was completed in August of 1867.

Petroglyphs: “Archeologists estimate that the petroglyphs in this area were made 1500 to 4000 years ago. They were created by pecking through the surface of the glaciated bedrock using a tool called a hammerstone. Most are geometric shapes – wavy lines, circles, and zigzags. Human and animal forms, such as stick figures and deer or bear tracks, are less common. Although no one knows what the petroglyphs mean, many people believe they have a spiritual or ceremonial significance.”

“Ancestors of the Washo People created these petroglyphs. Like all Great Basin Indians, they were nomadic. The Washo traveled all over the Sierra, and used Donner Pass as a corridor for travel to and from Lake Tahoe. Adapted to life in the Great Basin and the Sierra, they made annual rounds hunting game, gathering and trading food, clothing materials, salt and obsidian. They probably carried dried trout and pine nuts to eat and they would have hunted.”

Natural History: Donner Summit straddles the junction of two important ecological life zones – the Lodgepole Pine/Red Fir Belt, and the Sub-Alpine Belt. Walking through this beautiful region one can observe prime examples of a diversity of tree species, huge mature Red Firs are found in moister areas, large old-growth Lodgepole Pine and the occasional sweet smelling Jeffrey Pine are found in the drier spots. Venturing north from the Pass or south to climb up on Mt. Judah, you enter the sub-alpine belt and find spectacular gnarled old Junipers, some over 1000 years old. Also seen are a few remaining old growth Western White Pines.

Wildlife: These forests provide rich habitat for abundant wildlife. Mule Deer, Coyote, black bear, a variety of species of squirrels, rabbits, voles and mice, and the elusive member of the weasel family, the Pine Marten is occasionally seen.

Birds are numerous and the alert hiker can occasionally see a pair of Osprey that inhabit the nearby wetlands of Van Norden meadow, the Red Tail Hawks and Peregrine that perch on the granite crags, and the smaller variety of year round birds and migrants that fill the forests with song in the warm season.

The diversity of habitat from the adjacent wetland/meadow to the sub-alpine forests support a rich variety of insect life, including an abundance of butterflies. Dr Art Shapiro, of UC Davis, has noted that, "Donner, for area, has one of the richest butterfly faunas documented in North America."

Environmental Education: The Gateway Mountain Center, a local non-profit, provides multi-day field science, environmental education, and mountain adventure programs for school groups ranging from 3rd-12th grade. For information visit

Recreation: Hiking, road biking, rock climbing, back country skiing are all popular activities on Donner Summit.

Hiking: The Pacific Crest Trail cuts right across the summit region making a path from which to explore. The Mt. Judah loop trailhead is found at the summit, and there are a number of fantastic short walking routes to view petroglyphs, small alpine lakes, or summit domes.

Road Biking: Old Highway 40 is a very popular route for road bikers who enjoy the challenge of riding up the pass.

Back Country Skiing and Snowboarding: The slopes and chutes around Donner Summit are popular for skiers and riders who seek the wild snow and terrain outside of the confines of the nearby ski resorts. But Caution! These peaks are serious and avalanche Hazard evaluation and rescue training is highly recommended! Check with the nearby Alpine Skills Backcountry Adventure Center at Sugar Bowl for information, guides and classes.

Rock Climbing: The many fantastic granite cliffs around Donner Summit make this region one of the most popular rock climbing areas outside of Yosemite. The slabs at the aptly named School Rock are perfect for novices and easy top-rope access. Nearby Snowshed wall has a concentration of high quality, mid-range to extremely difficult routes, and provides great viewing for spectators who can watch from the highway. Black Wall a bit further down the pass has some great longer three pitch climbs. North of School Rock and within view of the Pacific Crest Trail is the imposing and severely overhanging Star Walls with a collection of world class climbs in the 5.12-5.14 top range of difficulty. Two great climbing schools and Guide Services operate at Donner Summit: Alpine Skills International and North American Ski Training Center, both provide daily lessons and certified guides.

Time Period Represented


Nearby Places