Tahoe National Forest

Yuba Donner Scenic Byway

This route is a 160-mile loop on paved highways that passes through a number of small communities. The loop travels along Highway 49, State Highway 89, Interstate 80, U.S. 40, and State Highway 20. You can complete the entire loop in one day or you may choose to break your trip into segments and spend more time exploring additional attractions in the area.

Each season on the Yuba Donner Scenic Byway offers its own palette of colors and recreational opportunities. Spring is alive with wildflowers when fishing is at its best in the lakes and rivers. Summers are mild, with warm to hot weather providing the perfect combination for hiking, camping, bike riding and swimming. Fall colors can be found and photographed from the car or from the many hiking trails that span all levels of ability. Winter recreation trails provide access to miles of scenic beauty and all levels of challenge.

The historic towns along the Byway are inhabited by some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. Cultural events offered all year include bike and snowmobile racing, cross-country ski racing, rodeos, musical productions, street dances, craft shows and holiday street fairs that are known around the world.

The first trans-Sierra crossing with wagons by Euro-Americans was accomplished in 1844 by the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party. A Paiute named Tro-kay guided them toward a river that was later named Truckee River, after him. The struggle up the river canyon was described by 17-year-old Moses Shallenberger:

... the country was so rough and broken that frequently had to travel in the bed of the stream. The river was so crooked that one day they crossed it ten times in traveling a mile. This almost constant traveling in the water softened the hoofs of the oxen, while the rough stones in the bed of the river wore them down, until the cattle's feet were so sore that it became torture for them to travel... The poor foot-sore oxen would stand and howl for food all night, in so piteous a manner that the emigrants would forget their own misery in their pity for their cattle..."

On November 25 they crossed the summit, scaling the awesome granite escarpment that lay before them just west of Donner Lake. This was accomplished by sending up oxen first, and then using them to haul wagons up with chains. The western descent proved to be almost as torturous, "it beats anything we have seen on the route for rocks."

A cabin was built at Big Bend on the South Yuba River for the women, children, and wagons, and then the men struggled to reach Sutter's Fort for supplies and assistance. They arrived in December but were not able to rescue their families until February of 1845.

The summit crossing was made by 260 people and 50 wagons in 1845 and by approximately 1,500 people and 500 wagons in 1846. This exceeded for the first time the number of people emigrating into Oregon. In the fall of 1845, parties began avoiding the treacherous Truckee River canyon by using a bypass through Dog Valley from Verdi, Nevada, to Donner Lake. In September 1846 a higher but easier saddle, less than two miles south of the original pass, was found between Mounts Judah and Lincoln. The pass was soon named "Roller Pass" because an ingenious log roller was used to haul wagons over the summit.

The most famous of the 1846 crossings, of course, was the ill-fated attempt of the Donner Party. The party arrived at the foot of the summit in late October and became snowbound at Donner Lake during an extremely hard winter. The starvation of half of the 87-member party and reports of cannibalism have made this tragedy a horror and fascination for many.

By 1848 improved routes were found via Carson Pass to the south, and by 1850 most of the overland emigrants coming into California used the newer route. Although many traces of the original trail have been lost to logging, railroad grades, and road alterations, portions of the Overland Emigrant trail are still visible today.

Until 1848, the foothills of the Sierras were an obstacle on one's way to settlement in the fertile central valley. With the discovery of gold on the American River in 1848, and the tidal wave of prospectors streaming into California with the 1849 Gold Rush, the foothills became the destination.

The days of rich and easy pickings of river gold passed quickly. After 1852, the number arriving in California nearly equaled the number leavingmost by way of Panama. One overland journey was enough! Many prospectors only earned enough to buy their passage home.

As the "placer" or surface gravel mining opportunities declined, many enterprising miners began to discover the ancient Yuba River channel known as the Great Blue Lead. It was especially prominent in the region around North Bloomfield and North Columbia in Nevada County and stretched south to Dutch Flat in Placer County. This channel had uplifted into the mountains over centuries and now bore an abundance of eroded gold nuggets. Miners began digging horizontal tunnels known as "drifts" along these gravel channels, opening up underground placer mines. They also employed huge water cannons to simply wash the gravel down from the hills for processing. This mining technique, known as hydraulic mining, was eventually outlawed because it silted up rivers and farmlands in the Sacramento Valley.

The idea of obtaining gold directly from the "hard rock" began to be attractive as the surface gold supply shrank. Obtaining the gold that was embedded in quartz deep underground was not a task for the itinerant adventurer. Large companies with financial backing and the legal structure to administer claims were now necessary for a profitable hard-rock gold mining industry. Technology supplied by Cornish and other miners who understood timbering and explosives, completed the formula for this new era of mining.

The only way to get to the mining region was on foot or by pack animal. As miners scrambled across the mountains from one strike to another they opened up a network of trails, often following indigenous or game routes. A good trail could be built for as little as $200; a wagon road cost considerably more. It was not until the late 1850's and the development of hydraulic and hardrock mining that a sense of permanence developed in the settlements in the high Sierra. Now, the heavy expenditure commonly required for road building was thought justified.

As wagon roads were built, stagecoach express companies competed for the business of carrying gold dust along with letters, merchandise, and passengers. Speed of delivery became a craze and passengers often had the ride of their lives.

"Stage drivers lashed their galloping six-horse teams around hairpin turns high on the canyon walls. Stagecoaches rocked and pitched like bucking broncos, while passengers clung to their seats with both bands, and skidding wheels flung rocks into the gorges below." -Ralph Moody, "Wells Fargo" (Mid 1800s)

Since stages normally traveled alone, they were easy targets for highwaymen.

"It required the exercise of keen judgment to select men of bravery and determination who could get treasure from point to point in safety, despite the obstacles and dangers that threatened them at every step." -History of Lassen, Plumas & Sierra Counties

Toll roads and turnpikes served the Eastern states well, so immigrants from the east brought the idea of privately-financed roads with them. By 1860 such roads included the Nevada Central Turnpike, roughly on the route of today's State Highway 20, and the Camptonville-North San Juan Road. The Mountain House way station was where Galloway's Trail headed down the hill toward the North Yuba River, connecting Goodyear's Bar and Downieville. Way stations were typically a half-mile to 3 1/2 miles apart.

The heyday of toll roads was short lived. They were largely a speculative enterprise that became exceedingly unprofitable to operate. When the diggings played out in a region the miners and businesses simply moved elsewhere. Within ten years of their original construction, most toll roads were either abandoned or deeded to the state. Many became the foundation of our modern road system.

On the Silver Trail
When James Ott's Assay Office in Nevada City gave the verdict in 1859 that there was indeed high quality silver in the ore found near Virginia City, Nevada, another rush was on, this time from west to east. Among thousands of other Californians who rushed east to the Comstock Lode was William Randolph Hearst. He left a grocery business and the LeCompton Mine in Nevada City for bigger and better things. Mark Twain headed east as well to try his fortune.

Cities like Marysville and Nevada City soon realized that the rapidly increasing trade with the Comstock mines could benefit them if a good wagon road was built into the region. Plans to improve the Henness Pass route began at once. The road builders were competing with the other main trans Sierra route, the Placerville-Carson Road. The original route is thought to have been laid out in 1850 by Patrick Henness, discoverer of the pass that bears his name. The road ran down Pliocene Ridge, between the North and Middle Forks of the Yuba River, over the Pass, and on through the south end of Sierra Valley to Verdi, Nevada. The summit was an easy one but there was too much "up and down" along the way. Q.S., writing for the Sacramento Union in 1864, said the Henness Pass Road was a mixture of good and bad "excellences and abominations mixed like bash." In 1860 the route was completed and the new Henness Pass Road was used so extensively for trans-Sierra travel by both stages and freighters that it was sometimes regulated so that the stages traveled at night.

Four and six-mule teams were common in 1860 to 1862, and as the road improved, ten to sixteen mule teams were employed. The teams stretched along the road for miles in unbroken procession. If a teamster was unlucky enough to fall out of line he often had to wait for hours to get back on the road. Oxen were rarely used as draft animals because they were too slow, and horses did not have the endurance required.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Valley had been settled by ranchers eager to supply the regional economy with meat and milk, and by timbermen who supplied the road, railroad, building, mining, and orcharding industries with wood. By 1859 there were 32 active sawmills in Sierra County—many in the Sierra Valley where the tall sugar and ponderosa pine provided excellent building material. The Henness Pass Road benefited these operations by providing a relatively easy route for transporting goods and supplies to the Nevada market.

When civil engineer Theodore Judah began determining the route for the "Pacific Railroad" over the Sierra, few people seriously believed it could be done. This changed in 1862 when the United States became receptive to a railroad bill that had become a war measure. Congress allocated subsidies amounting to $16,000 in flat territory and $48,000 for construction, in addition to land grants.

Central Pacific began laying track in Sacramento in 1863. By 1865 the work force in the mountains had swollen to 4,000. It took five and a half years to construct 188 miles of track from Sacramento to Wadsworth, Nevada; the remaining 501 miles to meet the Union Pacific in Utah in 1869 took a mere nine months.

The new railroad caused towns to spring into existence adjacent to its corridor. Truckee, formerly a stage stop, quickly developed into a full depot and lumbering town. Colfax, named for President Lincoln's second vice-president, provided a connection with the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad from 1876 to 1942. New industries also developed as a result of the easy and efficient transportation system. Ice was transported from Boca then shipped on the Central Pacific Railroad to many cities and towns. Logs from Sierra Valley were hauled to many locations via the Boca Loyalton Railroad. Winter sports increased in Truckee and nearby Lake Tahoe as the areas became accessible to more people.

The advent of the railroad ended the primacy of the wagon roads as trans-Sierra shipping routes. These roads reverted to local use, connected to railway stops, or became obsolete. However, the dominance of railroads lasted only until the advance of the automobile and spread of the highway system in the early twentieth century.

In 1895 the California State Legislature created the State Bureau of Highways. The following year, El Dorado County deeded the 58-mile route of the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road to the state, making this road the first state highway. The growing popularity of automobiles fueled the movement for good roads and for shifting responsibility for roads from the counties to the state. The California Automobile Association incessantly lobbied for a unified system of paved highways. This effort spearheaded the 1913 motor vehicle registration fees and bond acts that created funding for the state highway system.

Designated as Route 25, the highway from Nevada City to Downieville via Camptonville was completed in 1920. Much of the work was completed by convict labor from Folsom Prison. It became part of State Highway 49 in 1936. A 1919 state bond issue provided the connecting links in a Tahoe-to-Utah highway, which was later designated as State Highway 20. The portion in Nevada County follows the old Nevada Central Turnpike Route. State Highway 89 between Sierraville and Hobart Mills was completed in 1935, following the route of an older county road.

In 1925, when the United States government began assigning numbers to federal routes, California State Route 37 became part of US Route 40. In time, this route, also known as the Donner Pass Highway, achieved standing as a specific historical entity, as did the Mother Lode Highway, Route 49.

The Lincoln Victory Highway was the first cross-country route to be funded and completed. Conceived as a memorial to World War I veterans, the "Route of Triumph" extended 3,205 miles from San Francisco to Atlantic City. When completed in 1927, a statue of the "Victory Eagle" was placed at the California-Nevada border.

Charles Graydon, a Nevada County historian, points to an irony in the course of events that illustrates how we remember history, and the people who make it.

"It is a tribute to the trail judgment of Elisha Stephens and his party that the Central Pacific Railroad, the Liberty Highway, U.S. Highway 40, and finally Interstate 80 all cross the Sierra close to the route they all pioneered. It is ironic that the name Stephens soon went down into oblivion, while the pass that he opened is known only as Donner Pass, named after a party that never made it."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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