Donner Pass, California, is the site of one of the greatest tragedies on the California trail. This path was part of the overland route during the westward expansion of the United States to California. Learn more about the history of this great American Landmark and how it relates to our modern world.

Tragedy In The Sierra Nevada Mountains

The Donner Pass runs through a beautiful (but treacherous) mountain region from just southwest of Reno, NV, into the Sacramento Valley. The pass is the location of the infamous Donner Party tragedy. From this group of travelers is where the pass gets its name. The area is known for early and heavy snow, which directly contributed to the deaths of many people traveling to California via wagon trail.

The Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party

Two years before the Donner family and their party attempted the passage, it was successfully navigated by the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party. Their success at crossing the region inspired John C. Fremont to make an attempt, and then eventually others. In spite of its tragic history, Donner Pass Trail became very popular during the Gold Rush from 1848-1849.

Connecting The Nation

The First Transcontinental Railroad also plays a significant role in the importance of Donner Pass in California Trail history. It required the construction of five tunnels, multiple snow sheds, and two walls to make it possible for the railroad to connect through the pass, which soars to an elevation over 7000 ft above sea level. Surprisingly, much of the original route that was created in the 1860s is still in use today.

Donner Pass Today

You can drive along Donner Pass today and see famous sites like Donner Lake and Donner Memorial State Park. Visitors can hike through the old railroad tunnels and get a sense of the splendor and awe that early emigrants might have felt. There are many interesting facts about this historical passages and landmark.

  • It’s named for the infamous Donner party tragedy. Only 45 of the 81 settlers involved lived.
  • It connects the Sacramento Valley to Reno, NV.
  • It was extremely popular during the Gold Rush of 1849.
  • The First Transcontinental Railroad went through the pass, with tunnels and other engineering feats.
  • Lincoln Highway, the first “road across America,” connects with and crosses over the pass.
  • This region receives more than 50 inches of precipitation per year – most of it is snow!
  • Thanks to the work of John and Tom Emmel, this was the first site in the western United States to receive a thoroughly modern workup of its butterfly fauna.

Plan Your Visit To The Center

There are many people and locations to learn about at The California Interpretive center located near Elko, NV. Donner Pass is one piece of a larger puzzle and story. Plan a visit to the center and experience unique exhibits, special events, and opportunities to learn about the fascinating aspects of the California Trail.

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