Had snowfall records been kept during the winter of 1846-47, they surely would have tipped the charts. That was the winter the Donner Party, a group of emigrants beset by misfortune, became stranded in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, giving birth to a grisly tale of human determination.
Today, a state park, a museum and numerous place names commemorate the Donner Party's ordeal. And each fall, a series of guided hikes are staged to recount the journey undertaken by the Donners and thousands of other emigrants who struggled over the Sierra en route to the lush valleys below.
This year's Donner Party Hikes, Oct. 8 and 9, include seven easy to strenuous options and two easy walking tours. The event, organized through the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce, is expected to draw as many as 200 participants.
"We have a wonderful group of guides from a variety of backgrounds," said hike coordinator Kathy Hess. "Some are history teachers, some are history buffs, some work for the Forest Service; all are very knowledgable."
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Hikers will be divided into staggered groups of 15 or 20 to ensure that everyone can hear the guide. Several of the hikes will follow portions of the Pacific Crest Trail or other marked paths. But what makes the event unique, Hess said, is the opportunity to go "off-piste," or off trail.
The strenuous, 6-mile-long Coldstream Pass hike, for example, "does not follow a given trail; it's the route immigrants would have followed up Coldstream Pass," Hess explained. Likewise, the High Sierra Lakes hike, rated moderate/ strenuous, takes a "bushwhacking" route to lakes Flora and Azalea, utilizing a portion of the original Pacific Crest Trail that has been out of service more than 20 years.
Two moderately rated options, one a 5-mile loop, the other 6 miles long, will take in Roller Pass, a 35-degree granite slope that emigrants traversed by unloading, partially disassembling and winching up their wagons. "You look down it today and think 'no way,' " said Hess. "And yet, there were so many people crossing into California that in some cases people would have to wait three days at the bottom for their turn."
Another moderately rated option visits mountainside snow sheds built circa 1869 during construction of the transcontinental railroad.
The easiest hike, a 1.5-mile round trip, follows Dutch Flat Road to China Wall and an archaeological site with petroglyphs. The toughest option is a strenuous, 3-mile round trip that makes a steep, 975-foot climb to a vantage point above Sugar Bowl known as Crow's Nest Vista.
All hikes except the Coldstream Pass option are designed to be completed in time for a barbecue lunch included in the registration fee. Afternoon activities also include a presentation by Frank Mullen, author of "Donner Party Chronicles."
The event continues on Oct. 9 with a pair of interpretive walking tours at Donner Camp Picnic Area and Donner Memorial State Park.
History in the mountains
What: Donner Party Hikes
When: Oct. 8 and 9
Where: Seven hikes, rated easy to strenuous, depart from old Sugar Bowl Lodge (Soda Springs exit off Interstate 80) at 7:30 or 8 a.m. Oct. 8. Two easy walking tours depart at 9 a.m. Oct. 9 from Donner Camp Picnic Area on Highway 89 (2.5 miles north of Truckee).
How much: A two-day package, $33, includes guided hike, commemorative hat, lunch and afternoon program on Oct. 8; plus walking tours, day-use fees and entrance to the Emigrant Museum at Donner Memorial State Park on Oct. 9. Single-day registration is $28 and $10.
Note: These hikes often sell out early.
Info and registration: www.truckee.com or (530) 587-2757. Several lodging deals are offered in conjunction with the event.