Donner Party

Donner Camp Historic Park

Situated along Highway 89, just north of the town of Truckee, along Alder Creek is the Donner Camp Historic Site., where the Donner Family set up camp during that fateful winter of 1846-47. Monica, and I had visited The Donner Memorial State Park located along the shore of Donner Lake. It recounts the stories of the Murphy, Breen, Reed, and other families that spent that winter huddled in their primitive shelters. What we didn't realize until we started to research the event was The Donner Family had broken an axle on their wagon and had to stop for repairs at Alder Creek when the snow started falling, and they had to make camp there. While there were some visits between the two camps by various members of the party, they mostly had to ride the winter out separated.

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It was a beautiful day in early August when we visited the site. I had watched a documentary on some archaeologist that had recently visited this site and dug around what was called The Donner Tree. This tree, now a dead stump, acted as support for the families attempt to build a structure out of branches, animal hides, and the tree. It was in this crude structure the families rode out the winter. There is a memorial plaque attached to a rock next to the tree.

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We walked the interpretative trail for a bit, but our natural wanderlust pulled us away as we tried to follow the Overland Emigrant Trail that passes through the camp. There are markers and signs from various periods attached to trees guiding one in the direction of the trail. Unlike the marked and well walked interpretative trails, the actual Overland Emigrant Trail is overgrown and in many cases quite hard to find. We did manage to follow the markers to a place above the hill but then lost the trail. However, a little further down, towards Prosser reservoir, we found an old stone obelisk, which we knew from experience held a sign indicating the trail. We feel pretty confident we found the path down to the reservoir, which at the time of was called Prosser Creek.

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If you're into Mountain Biking, like we are, there is a great single track ride called, The Commemorative Emigrant Trail", which "roughly" follows the original trail from the camp, past Prosser Reservoir, all the way to Stampede Reservoir, a fourteen-mile trip. We rode a portion of it from The Camp to Prosser Reservoir, a smooth ride. Someday next year we plan on riding out further, though 28 miles round trip might be a bit much. The bikes were very helpful in getting us to places inaccessible by car. The sheer beauty of this place in the eastern Sierra makes it well worth visiting, and when you add the historical context it becomes a must visit for anyone interested in early 19th Century California, the Emigrant Trails and the story of the Donner Family. The descendants of the Donner’s planted a commemorative pine tree near The Donner Tree after it died in the 1990's. You will see a memorial marker nearby. Donner Camp Historic site is a place of quiet beauty and respect for the hardships the emigrants faced on their trek westward.

Here is a short, less than five minute video of our exploration of the area.