Donner Pass and the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Last week I had an opportunity to travel to Donner Lake, which is located in the mountains of Tahoe National Forest. Along the way, I stopped at a couple of vista point “exits” off of Interstate 80 and took a number of photos of the mountains.

Selfie Time
This view is from one of the vista points located along Interstate 80.
Soda Springs General Store
I stopped in Soda Springs for lunch. Soda Springs originally was called Summit Valley; the name change occurred in 1875. It is located 3 miles west of Donner Pass. The elevation here is 6,768 ft.

Lunch Time

The Tahoe National Forest was originally established in 1899 and named Tahoe Forest Reserve. In 1905, the name was changed to Tahoe National Forest and controlled of the National Forests was changed from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service; President Theodore Roosevelt was in office during this time. His presidency consisted of pushes to conserve our Nation’s natural resources. President Roosevelt, actually established the US Forest Service, signed into law the creation of five National Parks, and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, which created 18 National Monuments.

Sierra Mountain Range
This is a view of some of the mountains along Interstate 80. This is the view from on of the vista points along the interstate. Maps are unclear but I think this view is looking at the general location of the Donner Pass. The elevation of Donner Pass is 7,056 ft.

View from Vista Point 1

The Tahoe National Forest includes parts of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The mountain range has been created by a geological activity called plate tectonics (movement of plates that make up the crust of the Earth). In particular the creation of these mountains was caused by a “subduction zone,” where one plate moves beneath another plate and as that happens magma is created from movement, that slowly cools down and the magma rocks created at the zone build up to create these mountains. It takes a very long time. The plates that helped make the Sierra Nevada Range are the Pacific and North America plates. This geological activity began somewhere between 400-130 million years ago but the range as we know it, really was created until between 20-5 million years ago. That means the Sierra Nevada Range would have been around when dinosaurs walked around North America. Parts of the mountains have also been created by the weight and movement of glaciers during the ice ages; “U” shaped valleys are a geologic indicator of this. I just want to give a shout out and thank you, to my basic 9th grade Earth Studies class, where I learned geology….oh, and I guess those geology courses I took at SUNY Potsdam.

Vista Point No. 2
This marker was at the second vista point I stopped at along Interstate 80.
Mountains
This is the view from that second vista point! It was really pretty!

So that’s some real brief history of the Tahoe National Forest and it’s geology. There’s a lot more that could be added but let’s keep it simple and move on to the juicier stuff.

Next up. Cannibalism!

Sooooo, Donner Lake and Donner Pass are named after a very, very, very ill-fated pioneer wagon train that tried to cross through Donner Pass in 1847. Let’s back up a little bit before 1847, to 1846…not that far back in comparison to 1847… when nine families left Springfield, Illinois in April of 1846 to head west to California. The families were organized by James Reed and George Donner was the captain of the wagon train. The nine families met up with other families headed west creating a large wagon train. Everyone stopped at Fort Bridger, which was located in modern day Wyoming, to resupply and get ready for the long haul to California.

While at Fort Bridger, 87 members of the much larger wagon train decided to set off on their own to travel a new route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This group is known as the Donner Party and consisted of the group first organized by James Reed and headed by George Donner. Reed had learned of a new route through a pass in the Sierra Mountains near a lake (known today at Donner Lake). With that information, Reed assumed that if the Party took this route, they would arrive in California sooner.

James Reed got some real bad information.

The Donner Party arrived at the summit of the mountains at the lake around October 28, 1846. By that time, there was already 6 feet of snow and this stopped the Donner Party dead in their tracks. The different families set up camp around the lake using their wagons and other materials for shelter. The families technically were trapped by the snow- they couldn’t go forward or even back the way they had come by late fall. In the middle of December a group of 15 people left the encampment to travel the rest of the way to California in the hopes of getting help. Only 7 people survived the trek into California and reached Sutter’s Fort, where they were able to get much needed help. During that time the Donner Party went through most of their supplies and livestock. People starved and froze to death, and some of the survivors turned to cannibalism to survive. There was a total of four rescue parties that went to Donner Lake from Sutter’s Fort. Of the original 87 pioneers that got stuck at Donner Lake, only 48 survived and made it to California.

Donner Lake, Looking West
Donner Lake is located in the Truckee, California. Donner Pass is located about 9 miles in this general direction.

Donner Lake, Looking East

This information sign is located at that gravel “parking lot”/extended shoulder.
This is a view of mountains and Interstate 80 from a “parking lot” right next to the Donner Memorial State Park.
Donner Party Memorial Statue
At the Memorial State Park, there is a statue for the Donner Party. The State Park actually preserves the site of where the Donner Party camped. It’s located towards the eastern point of Donner Lake.

Obviously Donner Lake and Donner Pass are named after the Donner Party. Donner Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains has been used in a series of different transportation routes starting with the California Trail (wagon trail). Eventually the pass was incorporated into the route of the Central Pacific Railroad for the First Transcontinental Railroad. More recently, in the age of the automobile, there has been a route through the pass for U. S. Route 40 (the Lincoln Highway), which was the first road across the United States and then the pass was indirectly used by Interstate 80. Interstate 80 was the route I took to get to Donner Lake.

So there you have it! A very brief history on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Donner Party.

If you have any questions or comments, let me know in the section below.

Thanks for reading!

Sources and Further Information:

http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/donnerparty.htm This website has a detailed narrative about the Donner Party and includes some diary entries from a member of the Donner Party.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donner_Pass Wikipedia has a number of great visuals to check out about Donner Pass.

Soda Springs General Store: http://sodaspringsgeneralstore.com/

Tahoe National Forest:

https://www.fs.usda.gov/tahoe

http://www.tahoefund.org/about-tahoe/tahoes-environmental-history/

https://www.nationalforests.org/our-forests/find-a-forest/tahoe

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tahoe_National_Forest

Tahoe National Forest History: http://www.foresthistory.org/ASPNET/Publications/region/5/tahoe/contents.htm

Sierra Nevada

https://geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/parks/province/pacifmt.html

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/science/profiles/erwin_0609geology.php

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