Home » 2015 Yosemite and Northern California

Truckee, CA

Thursday, September 3, 2015 - 9:15am by Lolo
200 miles and 4 hours from our last stop - 5 night stay


The second pre-planned stop on our five-week long trip (the first being Tuolumne Meadows) was meeting Andrew, Tommy, and Celeste in Truckee for a long Labor Day weekend of climbing.

Since Labor Day weekend is an especially busy time in climbing areas, we had made our reservations at the Prosser Reservoir Campground, about 6 miles north of Truckee, well in advance.

Donner Memorial State Park, Rainbow Bridge, and Snowshed Tunnels

Rainbow Bridge and Donner LakeRainbow Bridge and Donner LakeThe kids had been to Truckee before, but we hadn’t, so we were excited, as always, to see something new. Since they wouldn’t be arriving until late Friday night, we had all day Friday to explore the area on our own, and, as per Andrew’s instructions, to scout out climbing areas they hadn’t been to as yet.

We started out day at the Emigrant Museum in Donner Memorial State Park, on the eastern end of Donner Lake just south of I80 and 3 miles west of downtown Truckee. The park is named for the infamous Donner Party, a group of pioneers that met a tragic end on their 1846 journey west in this very spot of the eastern Sierras.

When the boys were little, they (and me) used to love playing a computer game called The Oregon Trail, where we took on the role of covered wagon leader, with all the responsibilities and difficult decisions that involved – how much and what type of food to bring, where and how to ford a stream, whether you should eat one of your oxen or have it pull your wagon, etc. I was usually lucky if my party made it out of Missouri.

Donner Party MemorialDonner Party MemorialThe game was very realistic and showed just how courageous and adventurous these pioneer families were. They left their old lives and most of their possessions behind them and entrusted their safe passage to their wagon leaders and trail guides. All along the way, they had critical decisions to make – having played the Oregon Trail game from the safety of my den, I felt for them.

One of the major decisions the Donner Party had to make was whether or not to take a recently discovered shortcut to California, which crossed Utah's Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert. It was advertised as saving 350 – 400 miles on easy terrain. Unfortunately, the route had never been tested.

Instead of quickening their passage, the difficult journey through the mountains and desert delayed them and depleted their supplies. Things just got worse and worse. When they finally reached Donner Lake in late October, a storm dropped 5 feet of snow. They were 12 miles shy of the Sierra Pass. They tried to make the pass through the snow, but had to retreat back to the eastern end of Donner Lake and hope that conditions would change.

Rainbow Bridge and School RockRainbow Bridge and School RockTwo more attempts were made to get over the pass in 20 feet of snow, but they finally realized that they had to hunker down for the winter. Over the next four months they huddled together in cabins, make shift lean-tos, and tents. On November 29th, they killed the last of their oxen for food.

By the end of the winter, 40 members of the party had died, and 49 survived, many by resorting to cannibalism of their less fortunate family and friends.

The Emigrant Museum, which is on the very spot where these horrible events occurred, does a great job of telling their story, through compelling exhibits and an excellent movie.

Just outside the Visitor Center there is a stone pedestal commemorating the tragedy of the Donner Party. The stone marker is 22 feet tall, marking the height of the amount of snowfall during that fateful winter. Atop the pedestal stands a family of pioneers gazing west towards Donner Pass.

Besides preserving the emigrant experience, the museum also has exhibits that tell the story of the monumental challenge of the construction of the transcontinental railroad through Donner Pass. In 1868, after five years of a grueling construction effort by mostly Chinese laborers, the Sierra Nevadas were finally conquered by the Central Pacific Railroad when 1,659-foot Tunnel #6 through Donner Pass was completed.

All in all four tunnels, several miles of snowsheds, and two “Chinese Walls” were necessary to breach Donner Summit. Conquering Donner Summit was by far the most difficult challenge of the entire Sacramento to Ogden Central Pacific Railroad route.

Snowshed Tunnel and Donner LakeSnowshed Tunnel and Donner LakeI had always known that tunnels were needed to cut through the mountains, but I had never heard of snowsheds before, perhaps because on the East Coast, railroads don’t have to deal with avalanches and 20 feet of snow falling on their tracks.

We spent the rest of our day exploring the tunnels and snowsheds located along Donner Pass Road, west of Donner Lake, many of which we could walk through. There was a lot of brightly painted (obscenity-free) graffiti on much of them, but I would have to surprisingly say that that made them even more interesting.

A third topic of historical interest commemorated in Donner Memorial State Park is early motorcar travel and the construction of the Lincoln Highway (historic Route 40), which passed over Donner Summit on its route between Atlantic City and San Francisco. During the 1920s, the beautiful concrete-arched Rainbow Bridge was built to allow motorcars to get over the Pass without having to drive up and down steep 18% grades.

I am not sure which was more beautiful – the bridge itself or the views of Donner Lake and the surrounding mountains from it. Herb found a spot along the road above the bridge where he could get both in one frame, with the bridge nicely framing the lake in the background.

As we promised Andrew, we checked out two potential rock climbing areas: School Rock right near Rainbow Bridge and Snowshed Wall, located as you would expect, near a railroad snowshed, a short distance below the bridge. Both looked good, both in terms of climbing, ease of access, and tremendous views.

Lolo Photographing Snowshed TunnelLolo Photographing Snowshed TunnelWhen we got back to Prosser Reservoir Campground, I decided to go for a run on the dirt trails that veered off to and around the reservoir. Herb didn’t want to come, so I set off on my own and managed to get pretty lost – which I would have thought was impossible, except for the fact that I am very definitely spatially impaired. If I had only brought my phone, I could have looked on Google Maps where I was.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t starting to get dark. With my adrenaline pumping, I think I was running 4-minute miles in my attempt to get back to Herb and the motorhome in daylight – well, maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. Anyway, I made it back, just as he was starting to worry about why I was gone so long.

Andrew, Tommy, and Celeste arrived around 11 pm. Usually they stay with us in the motorhome, but since they had other friends along this time, they camped in tents with them on the other sides of the campground. It was going to be a pretty chilly night for them – down around freezing. Nights like that really make me appreciate the motorhome even more.

Rock Climbing at Big Chief

Andrew Leading Pow WowAndrew Leading Pow WowTommy knocked on our door early the next morning, sent by his brother on a mission to borrow a coffee mug. “I forgot how nice and toasty it is in here,” he said breathing out smoke from the cold air. He proceeded to sit down on the back couch, pretending to be interested in the educational video we were watching, totally forgetting about the purpose of his visit.

“Don’t you have somewhere else you’re supposed to be,” I finally said, and off he reluctantly went back out into the cold.

Later that morning, their friends left to go mountain biking, and we went with Andrew, Tommy, and Celeste to a climbing area called Big Chief, about 9 miles south of Truckee. Andrew suggested we take the Subaru Forester, because the last time he drove there in his Honda Civic, it almost bottomed it out several times on the bumpy dirt Forest Road that you have to go on for 5 miles to get to the trailhead.

Tommy Leading Pow WowTommy Leading Pow WowThere are several crags in the Big Chief Area, but they like the Center Wall, because it has climbs for climbers of all abilities, from 5.7 to 5.13+, most of which are sport routes. They thought this would be perfect place for all of us – even me – to have some fun. The other great thing about this wall is that it is in the sun for most of the day, so they would be able to thaw out from their chilly sleeping conditions.

There were so many good climbs that we spent the entire day there. I even managed to complete two 5.9s called War Path and War Paint. They did some more difficult ones, including a 5.11a called Pow Wow. I was starting to notice a theme here.

I really like climbing on volcanic rock because it tends to have a lot of features to hold onto. However, climbing outdoors does still intimidate me a bit, so I have to admit that I am happy when I am done for the day – especially after successfully completing a challenging climb.

I could very much understand why they liked this climbing area so much – volcanic rock, plenty of sport routes, a wide range of grades, afternoon sun, and great views.

Rock Climbing at Snowshed Wall

Herb Flailing on Pow WowHerb Flailing on Pow WowAlthough tempted to go back to Big Chief for another day of climbing, we decided to explore one of the climbing areas near Donner Pass that we had scouted out the day before they arrived. Plus, I thought that they would be interested in seeing Rainbow Bridge and the tunnels and snowsheds along the old Transcontinental Railroad line.

The area we selected was called Snowshed Wall, appropriately named because of its location just beneath one of the snowsheds.

The approach was much easier than Big Chief – both the drive and hike in. Not that the Big Chief approach was a big deal. In fact, the hike in was quite nice. However, Snowshed Wall was visible from the parking access on Donner Pass Road and the walk in was less than 5 minutes.

Although they (not me) got a few climbs in, I would have to say that they very much preferred Big Chief.

After climbing, we parted ways – the kids drove down to King’s beach on Lake Tahoe to play beach volleyball with their friends, and Herb and I went back to Prosser Reservoir Campground to go for a run.

I tried to repeat the run that I got lost on, so I could figure out how I got so screwed up. Funny,
I didn’t realize how hilly it was at the time – probably because I was too worried about finding my way back to think about it. Maybe that’s a good training tip.

Secret Cove Beach

Lolo Chilling at Secret CoveLolo Chilling at Secret CoveHere we were again – back at our favorite Tahoe Beach. We were starting to feel like one of the regulars that we see every time we come here. Practically everyone had just come back from Burning Man, so it was interesting listening to them share tales of their experiences at this rather unique annual gathering in the desert.

However, the highlight of my day occurred when Herb struck up a conversation with someone we had met the last time we had been here. “Do you like Smashball?” he asked Herb. Before Herb even got a chance to answer, he handed Herb a paddle and started hitting a ball at him. I don’t think this was exactly how Herb planned on spending his time at the beach, but darn if he wasn’t pretty good at it. I was so proud.

Around 2:00 pm, just like last time, the winds picked up and the water that had been like glass all morning, got rough and choppy. They even have a name for this wind – the Tahoe Zephyr, and it appears every day like clockwork. No more dips for me.

Before leaving, Herb got roped into one more Smashball session, breaking their previous record of 50 consecutive hits. I think he is ready to go pro.

After such an active weekend with the kids, it was so relaxing to just hang out at this pristine beach – reading, taking a dip in the chilly water, chatting it up with the locals, reading some more, etc.

From here the trip was pretty much done – just the drive back to the Petaluma KOA and then prepping the RV for storage and flying home.


Downtown Truckee Flying A Service StationDowntown Truckee Flying A Service StationThe town of Truckee is located about 100 miles east of Sacramento just off I 80 and 11 miles north of Lake Tahoe. The historic downtown is steeped in Old West history. Back in the 1800s, railroad workers and lumberjacks frequented its many saloons, brothels, and gambling hall's. Although replaced today by trendy restaurants and boutiques, the downtown area is still fun to walk though.

Truckee is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise with abundant recreational opportunities, such as skiing, hiking, and rockclimbing. Donner Memorial State Park is a wonderful place to learn more about this area’s fascinating history.

Nearby Prosser Reservoir Campground, just 6.5 miles north of Truckee, is a great place to camp. The 29-site campground is located at 5,800 feet on the west shore peninsula of the reservoir. There are no hookups.

Donner Memorial State Park

The park, which is located just south of I80 3 miles west of downtown Truckee, preserves the history of the area and the people who came to this part of the Sierra, including the infamous Donner Party and the Chinese builders of the transcontinental railroad.

Lolo Hiking by the Snowsheds with Purple CatLolo Hiking by the Snowsheds with Purple CatThings to see and do:

  • Visitor Center and Emigrant Trail Museum

    This interesting museum features compelling exhibits that tell the stories of the Emigrant Experience, the Donner Party, and the Chinese construction of the transcontinental railroad, as well as early motoring adventures over Donner Pass.

  • Pioneer Monument

    Adjacent to the Visitor Center stands a stone pedestal commemorating one of the darkest moments in American pioneering. In the winter of 1846-47, a group of 89 pioneers were en route to California when they encountered a severe snowstorm near Donner Pass, forcing them to spend the winter on the east side of the mountains. All but 49 of the party perished, and some of those that survived did so by resorting to cannibalism. The stone marker is 22 feet tall, marking the height of the amount of snowfall during that fateful winter. Atop the pedestal stands a family of pioneers gazing west towards Donner Pass.

  • Tunnels and Snowsheds ot the Transcontinental Railroad

    In 1868, after five years of a grueling construction effort by mostly Chinese laborers, 1,659-foot Tunnel #6 through Donner Pass was completed. The Sierra Nevadas had finally been conquered by the Central Pacific Railroad. All in all four tunnels, several miles of snowsheds, and two “Chinese Walls” were necessary to breach Donner Summit. Conquering Donner Summit was by far the most difficult challenge of the entire Sacramento to Ogden Central Pacific Railroad route.

    Today, these tunnels and snowsheds can be explored by visitors. They are located along Donner Pass Road, west of Donner Lake.

  • Rainbow Bridge

    During the 1920s, this concrete-arched bridge near Donner Summit was built as part of historic Route 40, the primary highway for motorists traveling between Atlantic City, NJ and San Francisco before the construction of I80 in 1964. From the bridge the views of Donner Lake, the surrounding mountains, and the town of Truckee are spectacular.

  • Donner Lake

    Beautiful 2.7-mile long, 1-mile wide Donner Lake is popular for power boating, water skiing, sailing, kayaking, swimming, and fishing. From the lake, you can look up at rugged Donner Pass with the ill-fated party struggled to haul their wagons up the granite cliffs.

Truckee location map in "high definition"

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