HIT THE RAILS
Crossing Donner Summit when Sierra wears its winter coat
If I had to pick a trip I’d do again that didn’t involve hiking above 10,000 feet or trekking 10 miles across alluvial fans and remote canyons in Death Valley but simply sitting back and relaxing, it would be riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Sacramento to Truckee.
It’s a 3 hour and 29 minute one-way ride when Amtrak is on time that gives you an entirely different perspective of heading up and over Donner Summit. It is a stunning, leisurely trip. And the best time to do it is after the snow has started falling in earnest for the winter.
A bit of background first. While I’m in what might be called a passionate love affair with the high country of the mid-Sierra on both sides of the Range of Light’s crest, my first love was Donner Summit.
I can say I’ve easily traveled Interstate 80 from Roseville to Truckee that many thought was one of the true wonders of the modern world at the time it was completed in the mid-1960s more than 200 times.
I grew up in Placer County while my mother’s family heralded from Nevada County of which Truckee is its eastern most town.
My uncles had a cabin near the shores of Donner Lake less than a quarter of a mile from where the infamous Donner Party became stranded the winter of 1846-47. Lincoln High (in Lincoln of Placer County) was in the old Pioneer League with the likes of Colfax and Truckee — and later North Lake Tahoe High. You haven’t seen a high school football game like you’d see in Truckee on an early November Saturday when the grass was still thawing out from an overnight freeze.
When I lost weight and gained what is now a full blown addiction to exercise and journeying to places under my own power, I made mid-week drives when it wasn’t winter to do quick cycling loops starting in Truckee, climbing over Brockway Summit, riding along the lake and back past Squaw Valley. Once a month I either cycled around Lake Tahoe or headed south of Reno to the base of Virginia Grade and headed up that,
Downtown Truckee — with a host of dining spots and specialty stores — has the ambiance of a Currier & Ives Christmas card. This photo of downtown Truckee was taken at dawn.
This is the typical scene that greets you when the California Zephyr nears Truckee in the late afternoon if you depart Sacramento on time during the winter.
The California Zephyr just before entering the snow sheds east of Truckee near Donner Summit.