You'll appreciate the Donner area more if you do some homework beforehand. Places to start:
* California State Railroad Museum, Second and I streets in Old Sacramento. Extensive exhibits on railroading history, including the struggle to cross Donner Summit. Open daily (except holidays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission $6 general, $2 ages 6-17; children ages 5 and under free. Information: (916) 445-6645; www.csrmf.org.
* Emigrant Trail Museum, Donner Memorial State Park, Donner Pass Road exit off Interstate 80, just west of Truckee. Dated but interesting museum includes exhibits on the westward migration and a film about the Donner Party. Don't miss the Pioneer Monument, erected in 1918, or a self-guided trail with Donner Party landmarks. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round. Admission free, parking $6. Information: (530)582-7892; www.parks.ca.gov.
* Alder Creek Picnic Area on Highway 89, about four miles north of Truckee. A self-guided trail leads through the area where George and Jacob Donner and their families were snowbound.
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Hiking the summit
One of the more straightforward routes is the 4 1/2-mile Judah Loop Trail, with spurs to Roller Pass and the Coldstream emigrant route. Access is via the Pacific Crest Trail entrance at Mary's Lake, just over the top of Donner Pass Road, down a dirt lane behind the Sugar Bowl Ski Academy. For a map, go to http://raftman.com/mtjudahloop.pdf
The PCT trailhead at the east end of the Boreal Mountain Resort parking lot also offers history-hike opportunities.
Donner Pass Road (old Highway 40) between Norden and Donner Lake follows the route of early pioneers, the transcontinental railroad and early motor highways. It's a popular area for climbers; look for them on the granite faces above the corkscrew highway. Historical markers at the 1925 Rainbow Bridge pullout recount the saga of the first successful wagon train over the summit and give a history time line. Views are spectacular.
Heading downhill, the next pullout (look for a blue port-a-potty on the right) offers views of China Wall, a massive retaining structure built by Chinese laborers in the 1860s to shore up the rail bed above. Clamber up the hillside to look for remnants of the old Dutch Flat wagon road and the original Lincoln Highway. Search carefully, and you'll also see petroglyphs etched into the rock by indigenous people centuries ago. A historical marker near the road locates the most obvious petroglyph site.
Donner Party Hike
Next year's Donner Party Hike weekend, marking the 160th anniversary of the pioneers' ordeal and featuring a program of guided hikes and lectures, is set for Oct. 7-8. Information, hike descriptions and registration forms will be available at www.truckee.com in July.