A towering monument less than an hour’s drive west of Reno in California’s High Sierra is a landmark for drivers along Interstate 80. The crest of Donner Summit, one of the most snow-rich mountain passes in the West, is less than 10 miles farther west and roughly 1,000 feet higher.
Most people assume that it memorializes the ill-fated Donner party, whose emigration from the East and Midwest to California is one of the most infamous chapters of American history. The over-optimistic and undersupplied party, which had already split into feuding factions, made some fatal miscalculations. Plagued by bad judgment and bad luck, they were eventually bogged down near Donner Lake by October snows that continued through the fierce winter of 1846-47. By April when rescuers arrived, fewer than 50 of the splintered group’s 90-some original members survived the ordeal, some by cannibalizing those who perished.
The common assumption is that the 22-foot-high stone base topped by a bronze sculpture of a pioneer family memorializes the star-crossed Donner Party. The assumption is wrong. The height of the base represents the snow depth that terrible winter, but the monument in its entirety is a tribute to all the emigrants who headed west across the mountains. To find a memorial to the ill-starred Donner Party, head out on snowshoes and follow the summer Nature Trail half a mile from the Pioneer Museum in the Donner Memorial State Park visitor center. Or better yet, take a ranger-guided interpretive snowshoe walk. It’s not that you need a guide to find the main site, but you do to listen to the story told by someone who for whom it is painfully close.
On a gray day with thick clouds overhead, Ranger Don Schmidt led a group of us to one of the few remnants of the tragic episode and the most accessible one not buried in snow. We gathered in a small semicircle in front of a 10-foot-high boulder that had served as one wall of a primitive cabin built by one of the families. You can still see black streaks from their fires on the rock. Attached to it is a plaque containing the names of 90 Donner Party members. Forty-two who died are shown on one side; 48 who survived are on the other side. Historians have found various sources with slightly different numbers and aren’t sure about the exact totals, but those 90 names are cast in bronze. Schmidt told the Donner Party’s poignant story with knowledge and passion, but added that Ranger Susan Greene usually leads the interpretive tours and knows the tale better than he does. Hard to imagine!
Schmidt says that in addition to history, he tries to instill a respect for those who perished by making schoolchildren, who arrive by the busload, keep off the cabin site itself, though he knows the story – especially the cannibalism part – makes them want to come closer. He also knows that if it weren’t for the cannibalism, the Donner Party would be a historian’s footnote and not an infamous name. “”It it wasn’t for that,” he says with characteristic understatement, “I’m not sure too many people would remember these folks.”
The 1.9-mile loop route to and beyond the cabin site, also the summer Nature Trail, is designated as a snowshoe trail in the winter, because most visitors, including school groups, go only as far as the cabin site and then return to the visitor center. We continued on the loop trail, setting off with heavy hearts over the long-ago tragedy. But soon, the pleasure of snowshoeing on a lovely route that follows and then crosses Donner Creek before recrossing it on our return to the visitor center lifted everyone’s spirits. We walked beside the slow-flowing water, through the second-growth forest and across an open area that in summer is a campground and picnic site. We played in the snow. We took photographs, but when all was said and done, the story of the Donner Party stayed with us.
In addition to the short loop, a second designated snowshoeing trail called the Snowshoe Adventure Trail is a 2.9-mile loop paralleling the Lake Loop Ski Trail that reaches the shores of Donner Lake. Two other winter trails are designated on the map for cross-country skiing. Check at the visitor center whether width or conditions make them suitable for snowshoeing too. And of course, you can always veer off-trail and explore. If you stay within the perimeter of the winter trails, you will eventually reach either a snowshoe or ski trail and can follow it back to the trailhead at the visitor center. If you venture on to any of them, stay off the ski tracks.
Deep snow is not an anomaly around Donner Summit, although for us, it is a recreational bonanza rather than life-threatening. As I was writing this, Lake Tahoe’s North Shore had received 2 ½ feet of snow in less than two days, bringing the season’s snowfall total to 30 feet by early March. This assures adequate cover for snowshoeing well into spring.
For More Information
Donner Memorial State Park, 530-582-7892, www.parks.ca.gov. Parking fee, $8 per vehicle. No trail fee. The Emigrant Museum is open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, and features Donner Party artifacts and other exhibits. Free ranger-led hikes are concentrated weekends and perhaps two midweek days as well; contact the park for the current schedule. Bring your own snowshoes or rent in nearby Truckee.
Colorado-based Claire Walter (www.claire-walter.com) is the author of two snowshoeing books, Snowshoeing Colorado (a trails and resources guide) and The Snowshoe Experience (a primer for new snowshoers). She includes snowshoeing in her blog, http://nordic-walking-usa.blogspot.com.
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