Hiking through time: History underfoot at Donner Pass

t’s ironic so many American success stories happened at a spot named for one of history’s iconic failures. But that’s how it is with the Donner Pass near Truckee, Calif.

The first wagon train to successfully cross the Sierra Nevada squeezed through the tiny granite gap in 1844. In the 1860s laborers built massive walls and 15 tunnels through the pass to bridge the most difficult section of the Transcontinental Railroad route. And in the early 1900s the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental automobile highway, was developed and included a route through the pass on the former Dutch Flat Wagon Road.

It’s the name of the ill-fated Donner Party whose disastrous 1846 journey left them stranded in the area, resulted in dozens of death and prompted some members to resort to cannibalism, however, that defines the region. In addition to Donner Pass there’s Donner Lake, Donner Peak and Donner Pass Road.

“Maybe this is the most historic square mile or two in California,” said Greg Palmer, who’s leading an upcoming public hike through the area. “But on all the maps this is known as the Donner Pass mainly because of the sensationalism of the Donner Party.”

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