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Donner Pass
Donner Pass kingp052.jpg
Donner Pass in the 1870s
Elevation 7,085 ft (2,160 m)
Location Nevada County, California,  United States
Range Sierra Nevada
Coordinates 39°18′57″N 120°19′17″W / 39.31583°N 120.32139°W / 39.31583; -120.32139
Traversed by Lincoln Highway
US 40 (until 1964)
Southern Pacific Transportation Company (now Union Pacific Railroad)
I-80 (Indirectly, See below)

Donner Pass (el. 7,085 ft (2,160 m)) is a high mountain pass in the northern Sierra Nevada, located above Donner Lake about nine miles (14 km) west of Truckee, California. It is a narrow pass with a very steep approach from the east, and a gradual approach from the west.

To reach California from the East, pioneer emigrants had to get their wagons over the Sierra. In 1844, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party followed the Truckee River up into the mountains. At the head of what is now called Donner Lake, they found a low notch in the mountains and thus became the first overland emigrants to use the pass.[1]

The pass received its name, however, from another group of California-bound emigrants. In early November 1846, the Donner Party found the route blocked by snow and was forced to spend the winter on the eastern side of the mountains. Of the 81 emigrants, only 45 survived to reach California; some of them resorted to cannibalism to survive. [2]

In 1913, the Lincoln Highway, the first road across America, was routed over Donner Pass.

On January 13, 1952, another group became stranded about seventeen miles (27 km) west of Donner pass at Yuba Pass on Track #2 adjacent to Tunnel 35 (Track #1) at about MP 176.5. Southern Pacific's passenger train City of San Francisco was en route westbound through the gap when a raging blizzard slowed the train to a halt. The passengers and crew were stranded for six days until help could arrive.[3]


Railroad & Donner Pass

Summit Tunnel, West Portal

In the spring of 1868, the Sierra Nevada were finally "conquered" by the Central Pacific Railroad after almost five years of sustained construction effort with the successful completion at Donner Pass of its 1,659-foot (506 m) Tunnel #6 (aka the Summit Tunnel) and associated grade thus permitting the establishment of commercial transportation en masse of passengers and freight over the Sierras for the first time. Following a route first surveyed and proposed by the CPRR's original Chief Engineer, Theodore D. Judah (1826-1863), the construction of the four tunnels, several miles of snowsheds, and two "Chinese Walls" necessary to breach Donner Summit constituted by far the most difficult engineering and construction challenge of the entire original Sacramento to Ogden CPRR route.

CPRR Engineers L.M. Clement & T.D. Judah

Principally designed and built under the personal, often on-site direction of the CPRR's Chief Assistant Engineer, Lewis M. Clement (1837-1914), the original (Track #1) summit grade remained in continuous daily use from June 18, 1868, when the first CPRR passenger train ran through the Summit Tunnel, until 1993 when the Southern Pacific Railroad (which operated the CPRR-built Oakland-Ogden line until its 1996 merger with the Union Pacific Railroad) abandoned and pulled up the 6.7 mile (10.7 km) section of Track #1 over the summit running between Shed #41 at Norden (MP 192.1) and the covered crossovers in Shed #47 (MP 198.8) located about a mile East of the old flyover at Eder. Since then all East and Westbound traffic has been run over the Track #2 grade crossing the summit about one mile (1.6 km) south of Donner Pass through the 10,322-foot (3,146 m) long Tunnel #41 (aka "The Big Hole") running under Mt. Judah between Soda Springs and Eder. Then operator SPRR made this change because the railroad considered Track #2 and Tunnel #41 (which was opened in 1925 when the summit section of the grade was finally double tracked) to be far easier and less expensive to maintain and keep open in the harsh Sierra winters than the Track #1 tunnels and snow sheds over the summit.[1]

Donner Lake (left) and the now abandoned original CPRR (later SPRR; UPRR) Track #1 grade over Donner Pass. The Lincoln Highway can be seen in the middle of the photo, climbing the pass, to the left of the railroad bed.

In conjunction with major ongoing upgrades and expansions being made to the Port of Oakland in order to better accommodate the rapidly growing North American trade with Asia and the Pacific, the cooperation of the UPRR, the Port's principal rail partner, has been sought to "construct a second track and raise tunnel clearances over Donner Pass for container trains linking California with the rest of the country."[2] To accomplish this objective would likely require the UP to either drive a second parallel tunnel next to Tunnel #41, or to restore and reopen the summit section of Track #1 between Sheds #41 and #47. Either infrastructure upgrade would increase the route's overall capacity, considerably simplify traffic management, and effectively eliminate delays currently caused by having to run all east and west bound traffic between Norden and Eder over a single track. [To fully eliminate the grade's "bottleneck" delays the now single track 7.1-mile (11.4 km) section between Switch #9 (MP 171.9) and Shed #10 (MP 179.0) just west of Cisco would likely also have to be restored to double track.] Increasing tunnel and snow shed clearances on the Sierra grade would also permit the use of double-stacked container cars which now can only be run via the UP's Feather River grade.[3] Extensive infrastructure upgrades were completed on the Sierra grade in November, 2009, including increasing 18,000 lineal feet of tunnel clearances in 15 restricted tunnels between Rocklin and Truckee and upgrading 30 miles of signals to CTC, although the original Donner Pass grade (Track #1) was not reopened as part of this project. [4]


The historic Lincoln Highway, the first road across America (later U.S. Route 40 and now named Donner Pass Road), crosses Donner Pass. Interstate 80 was constructed through this area in 1960. While I-80 generally parallels the old route of US 40 through the Sierra Nevada, I-80 crosses the Sierra crest at the Euer Saddle, approximately two miles north of Donner Pass. Euer Saddle is also commonly called "Donner Summit"; at 7,240 feet (2,210 m), it is about 150 feet (46 m) higher than Donner Pass, but it is much wider and has a gentler approach that aided construction to Interstate Highway standards, which do not allow the switchbacks used by the Donner Pass Road to approach its crest. The original concrete highway has been preserved as a scenic alternative to I-80.

Approaching Donner Pass from the east on Lincoln Highway / old US 40, April 2007 (Robert E. Nylund)


Winter weather in Donner Pass can be brutal. Precipitation averages 54 inches (140 cm), most of which falls as snow. At 415 inches (10.5 m) per year, Donner Pass is one of the snowiest places in the United States. To take advantage of the heavy snows, the Boreal Ski Resort was built to the north. Ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area report an average of 300 to 500 inches (7.6 to 13 m) of snowfall per season.[4] Winds in the pass can also become extreme and wind gusts in excess of 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) are common during winter storms. Winter temperatures in the area drop below zero several times each year; the all-time record low for California of −45 °F (−42.8 °C) was recorded at the Boca Reservoir (east of Truckee) in January 1937.

The winter of 1846-47 was especially severe, and this is generally cited as the single most important factor in the disaster of the Donner Party.

Snowboarder at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort located near the top of Donner Pass


Summer and winter offers a wide variety of recreation and lifestyle sports such as backpacking, alpine and cross-country skiing, rock and ice climbing. The region became world famous during the early 1990s from snowboard films by Fall Line Films (FFL) and Standard Films for its easy access to frontcountry and backcountry terrain. However, its fame and quick access from Old Highway 40 or nearby Sugar Bowl Ski Resort has led to a large number of avalanche fatalities including professional snowboarder Jamil Khan.[5] [5]

Popular Culture

Albert Bierstadt painting "View of Donner Lake" (1871-72).[6]



  • Margie Powell, Donner Summit. A Brief History, Cottage Hill Publishing, Grass Valley, CA 2003, ISBN 0-9658240-4-7

External links



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