BRIDGES: Donner Lake Bridge

This bridge is personal for me. I love the view of Donner Lake from this angle. My family owned land a few miles west of this bridge for almost 40 years. They built a cabin which we used all year long.

In the summer I loved driving along this road with the windows down, the warm summer mountain breeze flowing through the car. On this road you pass by a stone wall that was built by Chinese labor when they were constructing the Central Pacific Railroad. There's a rock that calls out to rock climbers for much of the year. You'll find cyclists climbing from the lake to the peak still high above where this shot was taken.

Click on either image to see it larger.

At some point a bus went off this road into the gully right before the bridge. That bus lay there for decades slowly rusting, its once vivid colors turning muted. There was also an old rusted hulk of a car. Understand that at one time this was the route across the Sierras from California to Nevada. The eventual Interstate 80 was built on the hillside to the left where you can see what was possibly the beginning of the construction.

And of course this is the lake made famous by its namesake, the Donner Party. If you don't know the history of the Donner family and their fellow travelers you can read about it here. And if you're going to be in the area be sure to visit the California State Park where you can walk a path through the area where the families lived during the dreadful winter.

At the eastern end of the lake is the bustling town of Gateway with Truckee nearby. Both towns have changed dramatically and look nothing like what I fell in love with in the mid-1960s. At that time neither town would have been called bustling. Many an evening was spent at a restaurant in Truckee flirting with the waiters who were at heart nothing more than ski bums. And many a late night I had to come back over the pass to the cabin in a snowstorm. Now I'm older and wiser.


  1. Anonymous10/14/2012

    Love old California highways and you're personal story here. I believe what appears to be a new road cut in the background of this image is a clear cut for power lines, not construction for what would become I-80. The angle is wrong (it would be descending left to right from the viewer's perspective), for one, and the writing on the negative suggests circa 1940 to 50 at the latest, long before there was a need for four lanes. Didion wrote about what a big deal it was for Donner Pass to open after long winter closures.... Daniel Nauman Cherokee CA

    1. You're right about I-80. And I'm trying to remember exactly how the power lines went through on that side of the lake. I made that journey to Truckee from the Soda Springs area hundreds and hundreds of times, even during heavy snow storms.

      I recall in the summer of I believe '62 my grandparents came west to visit. My grandfather would not drive Donner Pass and so they waited in Reno for my dad. He took a bus to Reno and then drove them to our home. When they made the return trip to PA we drove them back to Reno. My grandfather had no trouble driving over the Rocky's, but the Sierra's scared him. I remember riding down the summit to the lake and they were blasting the hillside where I-80 was to be built.

      Yes, Donner Pass Road closes every winter. And amazingly there is one cabin that was built many decades ago that I've always wondered about. In the winter I don't know if the owners ever visit it. If they do it must be incredible with the silence and the view, especially at dawn when the mountain is laden with snow.

  2. Anonymous10/22/2012

    Oh, such interesting phobias. People used to be frightened by Oatman Pass on 66 near Needles and to drive it now is so ho hum. Perhaps it was all the rocks on both Donner and Oatman. On the latter, men would sit on the Kingman side and offer to drive cars down the grade for a fee. My grandmother had an aunt that ran a boarding house in Taft CA and would drive to LA over the Ridge Route all by herself in the 1920s---the family thought she was exceedingly brave. If you didn't boil over or loose your brakes it was considered a lucky crossing. There were even some carjackings in that period. Today you have to go far off the beaten path to have any sort of adventure. DN Cherokee CA

    1. I was on that Oatman pass a few years ago. Not much of a road anymore, but very interesting.

      Love the story about your great aunt. Wonderful to hear stories of women who just went full bore ahead with their lives.

      That same trip of my grandparents had them switching sides of the car as we drove them up along the Klamath river. Back then a lot of two lane roads did not have guardrails and my grandmother especially couldn't handle the straight down the cliff view she had.