Emigrant Trail part 1 – snow hike

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I have previously hiked portions of the 15-mile Commemorative Emigrant Trail, which extends from a trailhead near Tahoe Donner to the south edge of Stampede Reservoir, not far north of Truckee.  Recently I decided to start hiking the entire trail more systematically.  The day of this hike was an opportunity to try a snow hike.  There was a fairly thin (for early January) layer of snow on the ground, and in some places the trail was actually clear.  There had also been quite a bit of foot traffic since the most recent snowfall, so it was easy to see where the traffic had defined a trail, presumably along the actual Emigrant Trail alignment.

I started at the westernmost trailhead, which is on Alder Creek Road just outside Tahoe Donner, and continued just past the CA-89 crossing to a trailhead at the Donner Camp Picnic Area.  The entire 15-mile trail lies within Tahoe National Forest, and this first section is about 3.4 miles.

GPS track

GPS track

The Emigrant Trail is a favorite local hiking and mountain biking trail: there are quite a few rolling hills, but no extreme elevation changes.  And the trail tends to stay clear of snow a bit later in the fall and become clear of snow earlier in the spring than most other trails in the area, mostly because the elevation is relatively low.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As the trail progresses east from the trailhead there is a very gradual elevation loss of about 400 feet.  I was surprised when I checked my elevation data, because the grade is so gradual you hardly notice it – even on the (uphill) return.  This picture shows that trail-finding was generally straightforward, due to numerous visitors since the last snowfall.

image of Commemorative Emigrant Trail: plenty of previous foot traffic shows the way through the forest

Commemorative Emigrant Trail: plenty of previous foot traffic shows the way through the forest

The trail runs parallel to Alder Creek for the first 2½ miles, until it crosses Alder Creek Road and passes through a forested area to the Donner Camp Picnic Area.  In many places the creek was covered by ice and snow, with scattered clear areas.

photo of Alder Creek gurgling through an open area in the ice and snow

Alder Creek gurgling through an open area in the ice and snow

There were several creek crossings, accomplished by walking across narrow, primitive bridges.  Fortunately the footing was secure!  Color-coded markers attached to trees identify specific trails.  As it turns out there are multiple trails through the area, and on the return trip I did go the wrong way at a junction, resulting in nearly a 1-mile detour.

picture of creek crossing and trail markers

Creek crossing and trail markers

Shortly before crossing Alder Creek Road on the outbound hike, I must have diverged to an incorrect trail, because I suddenly saw where the trail turned northeast on the other side of the road, and the only way to get there was a free-form hop across the creek.  I was glad there was enough snow and ice cover to keep my feet dry.

After reaching CA-89 I crossed the road to explore the picnic area and look for a trailhead for the continuation of the trail.  This trailhead was quite obvious.  I also discovered that there is a short interpretive trail next to the picnic area.  I’d not been aware of this trail before, and walking the trail and reading the interpretive signs was a moving experience.

image of one of several interpretive signs at the Donner Camp Picnic Area

One of several interpretive signs at the Donner Camp Picnic Area

In the winter of 1846-47 the now-famous Donner Party, on their way to California, over-wintered in the Truckee area.  The main group stayed near Donner Lake, while a smaller group, 24 in number, had fallen behind while repairing a broken axle on one of the wagons and stayed near this picnic area.  There were 4 Donner adults, their 12 children, 1 other adult, and 7 teamsters.  The snow apparently reached depths of 12 feet that winter, and the conditions are difficult to imagine.  Only 11 survived the encampment and subsequent rescue over the (now named) Donner Pass into the Sacramento Valley.

Reading the story on the interpretive signs lent a haunting air to otherwise serene views of the Carson Range just to the east.

photo of Carson Range, looking east from the Donner Camp Picnic Area

Carson Range, looking east from the Donner Camp Picnic Area

After completing my circuit of the interpretive trail I returned to the starting trailhead.  When I crossed Alder Creek Rd I found an alternate trail very close to the road, so I didn’t need to hop the creek a second time.  I will have to check out the different trails once the ground is clear for the summer, in order to figure out which (if either!) is the “correct” trail.  Here is another view of Alder Creek, from one of the primitive bridges crossing the creek.

picture of Alder Creek in the late afternoon sun

Alder Creek in the late afternoon sun

As the sun got lower in the sky the trees, a few clouds, and a jet contrail made a pretty picture.

image of sky view

Sky view

As it turns out, right after I took this picture I made an incorrect turn, going straight instead of veering to the right.  Normally I make good use of my GPS bread-crumb track display as a way to avoid such wrong turns.  In this case that was difficult to do, because I’d started the hike wearing sunglasses and had left my regular glasses in the car.  There was plenty of light to follow a trail, but not to read my GPS display.  That’s something I need to keep in mind, especially when sunset comes as early as it does at this time of year.  The trail I followed did cross the creek, but did not seem to be going out to the road, so eventually I simply set out through the trees to the road and, eventually, back to my car.  The detour added nearly a mile (and 20 minutes of diminishing daylight) to my hike.

I will probably wait until spring to hike the next section of the trail.

The juxtaposition was striking between this hike and one I’d done just a few days earlier along the South Fork of the American River near Auburn.  This hike had a strong connection to the Donner Party and the winter of 1846-47, while the SFAR Trail was close to Coloma, where gold was discovered just one year later in January 1848.  Both of these events had profound impact on the history of California.

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