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Travel & Outdoors

Getaway Guide: One-Tank Trip to Donner Trail

September 15, 2012 8:00 AM

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Sacramento is surrounded by a rich vein of history, from the valley to the top of the Sierra Mountains. Donner Trail at Donner Pass has a history that goes far beyond the Donner Party disaster. The trail was, like so many places through the mountains, a well used route by Native Americans. Evidence of their presence is still visible. In 1864, after quite a bit of improvement, it became a toll road heavily used by wagons, livestock and anyone else wanting a good way over the summit. The first car went over the pass in 1901, followed by the first motorcycle in 1902. It wasn’t until 1909 that it became a California State Highway. History abounds here in the high country, and it is easy to get to and enjoy for yourself. 

Getting There

From Sacramento, drive east on US Highway 80. Exit on Donner Trail Road 92.2 miles later. The drive will take around 2 hours. From El Dorado County, take Highway 49 to Auburn, then 80 East to Donner Trail Road. You’ll travel 86 miles, and it will take around 2 hours.

Along the Way

bierwagens Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Donner Trail

(credit: bierwagens.com)

Bierwagens Donner Trail Fruit
18532 Highway 174
Chicago Park, CA 95712
(530) 477-5992
www.bierwagens.com

For more than 100 years, the Bierwagen family has farmed this special spot in the Sierra Foothills. The ranch produces an amazing variety of what they call “mountain grown fruit.” Open all year, the ranch is complimented by the Happy Apple Kitchen. Pull off the road and make this a food stop on your way to the mountains. The kitchen serves a variety of good home cooking. Look for great hamburgers, sandwiches, salads and of course, fine fresh baked pies. Stock up on some apples for the rest of the drive after stretching your legs and filling your stomach.

What To Do

donner lake Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Donner Trail

(credit: donnerlake.com)

Donner Lake
15695 Donner Pass Road
Truckee, CA 96161
donnerlake.com

Donner Lake is part of the town of Truckee in the mountains. This photogenic lake is a place that invites you to meander around the shore line. It is a focal point of community activity, punctuated by old time and new time mountain homes dotting the landscape. The lake offers a 1.5  mile public beach with photo opportunities galore. Outdoor types will appreciate the rock climbing, hiking, cycling, boating, fishing, and skiing possibilities that make this such a popular place to spend some quality time with family and friends. Bring a picnic and friends and relax in mountain splendor.

donner memorial park Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Donner Trail

(credit: donnermemorialpark.gov)

Donner Memorial Park
12593 Donner Pass Road
Truckee, CA 96161
(530) 582-7892
donnermemorialpark.gov

Your entire day could be spent here at Donner Memorial Park. History lives in the Emigrant Trail Museum, which is undergoing a fantastic re-design. Enjoy the interpretive displays of emigrant tools, clothing, wagons and everyday things settlers needed to make it over the mountains and down into the great Sacramento Valley. Books, guides, and assorted souvenirs are for sale here. The story of the emigrants is fascinating, especially compared to how easy it is to drive here now. Picnic, hike, relax under the tall pines, inhale the fresh mountain air and enjoy the fact that you aren’t in a covered wagon.

RelatedScenic Drives Within 60 Miles Of Sacramento

truckee donner Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Donner Trail

(credit: tahoedonnerpark.com)

Truckee-Donner Regional Park
10050 Brockway Road
Truckee, CA 96161
(530) 582-7726
tahoedonnerpark.com

A jewel among jewels describes this community park very well. Cool green grass canopied by tall pine trees, surrounded by the mountains, stop here after your day at the Donner Trail. Just flopping on the grass and letting the world spin by is a good activity. Bring your own discs with you and have a go at disc golf on the 18 hole course right by the Truckee River. Wander through the .8 mile nature trail and get a good look at the local flora and fauna. Break out the picnic basket and enjoy a superb setting while munching away on your own home cooked meal.

northstar Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Donner Trail

(credit: northstarattahoe.com)

Northstar California
5001 Northstar Drive
Truckee, CA 96161
(800) 466.6784
northstarattahoe.com

Just around the corner from Truckee, you’ll find that this place isn’t limited by the lack of snow. Northstar morphs into a prime summer resort as soon as the snow is gone. A big feature here––besides the setting––is the mountain bike park and the bike races they have throughout the summer. The Strider Adventure Zone is specially dedicated to the little ones in your family who are just beginning to ride bicycles. For the more grown up crowd, rent a mountain bike and take the gondola to the trails. Lessons, group and individual are offered by a very competent and friendly staff. Play a little golf, hike, skate or just enjoy the village.

Where To Eat

zanos Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Donner Trail

(credit: zanos.net)

Zano’s
11401 Donner Pass Road
Truckee CA, 96161
(530) 587-7411
www.zanos.net

After a day of wandering around the Donner Trail, your appetite just might start squawking at you. Head into Truckee and find Zano’s for a mouth watering pizza, or a full on Italian meal in the mountains. Chicken wings, Auntie’s meat lasagna, baked penne––there’s something here for all tastes and types. Moderate prices and a friendly atmosphere make this a fun family eatery. Lunch or dinner you’ll find a relaxing meal here tops off your day. Good weather means eating out on the deck and enjoying both the view and the food.

plumpjack cafe Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Donner Trail

(credit: plumpjack.com)

PlumpJack Cafe Squaw Valley
1920 Squaw Valley Road
Olympic Valley, CA 96146
(530) 583-1578
www.plumpjackcafe.com

Go the extra mile and head to Squaw Valley, a short drive away. For a decidedly up scale dining experience, Plumpjack Cafe is where you want to park your appetite. Executive Chef Ben “Wyatt” Dufresne makes certain that guests here are treated to the best fresh food expertly prepared and served by an attentive and knowledgeable staff. Squash Blossom Empanadas anyone? Perhaps a little Alaskan Halibut, or Oregon Pork Chop instead? Put this together with the salads, extensive wine list, and maybe Rhubarb Tarts to tickle your sweet tooth for a fine finish to what is a truly uber delicious taste bud explosion.

Related: Getaway Guide: One-Tank Trip To Mount Diablo

Charles Ferris is a freelance writer who has lived in the Sierra, halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, for the last 37 years. He retired from teaching after 36 years in 2010. He and his wife hike, kayak, cross country ski, snow shoe, ride mountain bikes and road bikes, year round. His work can be found at Examiner.com.

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