Hike and ride along the pioneer trail north of Truckee
Special to Lake Tahoe Action
Just 2.5 miles north of Truckee on State Route 89 is the Alder Creek Donner Camp Picnic Area, where a portion of the Donner Party struggled to survive in the winter of 1847. There are restrooms and picnic tables available, as well as a short interpretive trail that provides some of the background story about the pioneers caught up in those tragic circumstances.
For those looking for a nice run, hike or a technically easy, but aerobically moderate, bike ride, this is a great place to jump on the Commemorative Emigrant Trail. A pleasant single-track trail that is usually snow-free earlier than other locations to the west or in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the route meanders through open meadows, sagebrush and stands of Jeffrey pine. Alert riders will observe the vegetation transition from alpine forest to high desert on the way out to Stampede Reservoir, about 12 miles away. Two miles in is Prosser Creek, which can be tough to cross if water is high.
This non-motorized route also affords spectacular views of the distant Mount Rose massif and adjacent, high-elevation ridgelines that often sport snow cover well into summer. This commemorative trail is not the exact route taken by emigrants in the 1840s and 1850s, but it closely follows the historic trail to honor the pioneer spirit.
This portion of the emigrant road, known as the Dog Valley route, was not blazed until the summer of 1845, a year after a wagon company led by Elisha Stephens and Caleb Greenwood first opened the California Trail. In 1844, the Stephen’s party used the Truckee River Canyon, following the advice given them in the desert by a friendly Paiute chief called Truckee.
Chief Truckee communicated with Greenwood, a seasoned mountain man with knowledge of native ways, that they could reach a mountain pass (Donner) that led to California by following a tree-lined river filled with fish. The party reached the river, named it for the chief and then forced their oxen-drawn wagons up the boulder-strewn canyon. The precipitous cliffs on either side often forced them to march in the riverbed. Constant immersion in cold river water softened the oxen’s hooves, causing them to split painfully. Despite the challenges the party successfully reached California with wagons and no loss of life. In fact, they added two babies to their total.
Caleb Greenwood did not stay in California long, however, and, in May 1845, returned east with his two oldest sons, John and Britton. As they backtracked on the trail they spent some time to discover an easier alternative to the Truckee River gorge. This Dog Valley wagon route required a steep climb over a 6,155-foot ridgeline between Verdi and Truckee, but it was still a vast improvement. Dog Valley immediately became the main emigrant trail, and later the primary wagon and stagecoach road, west of the Truckee Meadows area.
Lake Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog at http://www.tahoenuggets.com.