History of the Donner Party Hike

History of the Donner Party Hike

August 28, 2023

By Judy DePuy

Sign up for the 2023 Hikes – September 9th & 10th

The Donner Party Hike (DPH) has been offering hikes to fellow hikers, historians, and people who are interested in the history of this area for 31 years. The hike started in 1992 shortly before the vote to change Truckee to the ‘Town of Truckee,’ and is still going strong.

DPH combines two passions: the love for the Sierra Nevada wilderness and its fascinating history. It was originally started to attract visitors to the Truckee area in the off-season and held during the Columbus Day weekend, which for many people was a three-day weekend. The Truckee Chamber of Commerce produced the event in its early years, drawing hundreds of visitors to Truckee.

DPH has always been a two-day event with Saturday hosting hikes, catered lunch, and a speaker and Sunday events giving you a chance to learn more about the Donner Party by starting at the Donner Camp Picnic Area at Alder Creek and ending at Donner Memorial State Park (DMSP).

Greg Palmer (docent at Thunderbird Lodge, DMSP and emeritus DPH leader) has been leading DPH hikes since its inception. Greg describes it as “a two-day event which covers the history of the corridor from Truckee to Donner Lake to the Yuba River, from 1844 to the present. The first pioneer wagon route was two years before the Donner Party. The hike is branded the Donner Party Hike for recognition but in reality the Donner Party is a small part, there is so much additional history. Basically, we talk about the history of a corridor not more than a mile wide.”

Initially there were three hikes to choose from with guides leading staggered groups of 20 people. The guides shared historical information on the early emigrant passages and Truckee history. 

The hikes kept getting more popular and the Truckee Chamber of Commerce hired Kathy Hess-Slocum (owner of Just Imagine Marketing & Design) in 2003 to produce them, which she did for 15 years. Some of the early changes she made to the event was to add several more hike options, most notably High Sierra Lakes, the Railroad Snowsheds and Summit Valley (Lincoln Highway/Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road). In 2013 the Truckee Chamber stopped producing the event and Kathy Hess-Slocum took it over until she passed it on to the Donner Summit Historical Society in 2018.

The hikes have continued in the heat, smoke, rain and even snow, and are always an adventure. In 2011, the 19th Donner Party Hike brought new challenges. As the Donner Party experienced in 1846, an early and significant October 6th winter storm brought more than 22 inches of snow to Donner Summit. Kathy Hess-Slocum noted that receiving that much snow so early was a bit unprecedented. She and some of the volunteer guides went up on Donner Summit to assess the situation. Not to be deterred, the event organizers and participants forged ahead, just like the emigrants. She did note that while it was gorgeous, it was clear some modifications would need to be made to some of the hikes. 

Donner Party Hike Memories

As a child, Jackie Thomas (retired music teacher from the Tahoe Truckee School District) and her family would camp every summer at Donner Memorial State Park. It was there that she became interested in Donner Party history and the history of the area. Jackie heard about the DPH from a newspaper ad asking for new guides and has been a volunteer with DPH since 2000. She fondly remembers leading the Railroad Snowshed hike on a very foggy morning. The fog had crept into the ends of Tunnel 6 giving a very spooky, unearthly atmosphere.

Mary and John Bronson were docents at Donner State Park and invited to join the Summit Canyon hike led by Greg Palmer. They loved seeing the landmarks and learning about local history so much that they signed up to volunteer as DPH ‘herders’. The following year, 2018 they led the High Sierra Lakes hike and have continued to build on the stories and visual information with the hikers. They especially enjoy the volunteer practice hikes on Donner Summit, learning new things about the history of the area and socializing with fellow volunteers. It’s one of the highlights of their summer.

The hikes continue to evolve and modifications made. Between 2007 and 2017, six well-defined hikes kept re-occurring (note that in 2014 there was no Railroad Snowshed hike). In the last 32 years DPH has only been cancelled once due to a combination of fires forcing the Forest Service to close the trails and COVID.

Donner Party Hike 2023

This year’s DPH starts on Saturday, September 9th with eight hikes of varying degrees of difficulty to choose from:

  • Natural History Hike (Easy, 3 miles)
  • Summit Valley (Easy, 3.0 miles)
  • Railroad Summit Tunnel & More (Easy, 3 miles)
  • Historic Donner Pass (Moderate, 2.5 miles)
  • Summit Canyon/Dutch Flat Wagon Road (Moderate, 3.5 miles)
  • Donner Peak/ Coldstream Pass (Strenuous, 4.5 miles)
  • High Sierra Lakes (Strenuous, 6 miles) 
  • Roller Pass/Judah Loop (Strenuous, 6 miles)

All hikes will meet at Donner Ski Ranch, 19320 Donner Pass Road (Donner Summit). The hikes will be followed by a catered lunch and music with Alice Osborn & the Wonderlandz, a trio based in Truckee, offering a mix of folk, Americana, pop and adult contemporary music. 

Saturday afternoon’s presenter is the gifted Greg Palmer who will delight the audience with his storytelling. Greg will share the saga of the Stephens Townsend Murphy Party of 1844, also known as the “Lost Party.” The Lost Party is a story of the first wagons that came over the Sierra Nevada. The small wagon party became the first pioneers to successfully take their wagons over the Sierra to California. 

Sunday, September 10th is a tour where you learn about the grueling mishaps of the Donner Party and the archaeological finds that remain. The day ends at Donner Memorial State Park to view the Murphy Cabin site and Pioneer Monument.

Sign Up Now

Join us for the fabulous Donner Party Hike! Guides will lead groups of approximately 15-20 people but space is limited for each hike. Please sign up at DonnerPartyHike.com. Tickets are $65 per hiker and an additional $20 for Sunday’s walking tour.