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The Lake at Donner Pass

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My American history is not well-rooted in knowledge acquired in middle or high school. In fact, even most of my understanding of our Civil War and rights era was an intentional decision I made while studying politics at U.VA. I attended one of America’s premier public school systems and yet so much of our modern trajectory was unreasonalby left out. At this point in my life, the best way to learn this young nation’s back story is to see history for myself. First hand visual experiences coupled with significant conversations with passive scholars will open you up to a full world of beauty and gravitas. I knew very little of Donner Pass, let alone Truckee, California, until just two weeks ago during a Seekender trip to Lake Tahoe, with Hampton Inn.

My traveling buddy and I divied up the task of identifying what we wanted to do during our 5-day jaunt. Naturally, I was assigned to securing good dining. I yielded to his interest of the great outdoors and the mutual agreement that both our knowledge of the west’s contribution to the whole picture was quite limited. He prioritized a perfect afternoon to Donner Lake via Donner Pass, a robustly breathtaking mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada.

The mountain Pass was originally “opened” in 1844 by a split group of pioneer emigrants who successfully crossed the Sierra into California. Their mission — initially led by Elisha Stephens — to bring wagons into Cali was unprecedented for good reason. Just 20 years later, in 1864, limited resources and unbearable temperatures took out 36 of courageous souls, leaving 45 others to cannibalism as a final straw to survival. The Pass is named after that group of 81 emigrants.

The Pass is covered in enigma and tragedy. Almost a century later, 222 passenger aboard a train were stuck for a few days due to a bouldering blizzard. They made it to San Fransisco, eventually.

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My friend and I meandered our way to the top of the Pass where we stood in awe and enjoyed the vast Lake below, hugged my perfectly erected alpine layers on the right and a road suitable for our avid cyclists spirit on the left. From our perspective, the Lake seemed much larger than we really saw a few hours later as we mosied our way back to downtown Truckee.

{READ: Atypical Lake Tahoe: Charming Truckee, California}

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It was cold. Lots of snow and wind to fight, ice to stay gripped on and falling precipitation didn’t keep us from from trekking up a lightly paved walkway to the vintage train tunnels after parking at the tip of the China Wall of The Sierra, said to be necessary to get through the range.  There are numerous tunnels which used to serve as passways for the Central Pacific Railroad.

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The tunnels are now a point of tourist attraction. Miles-long stretches of kid-centric and even political graffiti color the exterior walls of the tunnel with and equal amount of indistinguishable artwork inside. In winter — the mountains’ most compromising time of year, with high risk of of winds reaching 100mph and snowfall capping at 411 inches per year, more than Lake Tahoe —  passing the tunnels proves to be tricky with black ice covering the ground. Where middle-aged native locals have heard of the Pass, many we spoke to have never been. Naturally, teenagers make it an after-school meeting point. We took our sweet time going through only one of the 6 or so tunnels. Surely, with more time and fuel bars, an entire afternoon getting through all of them would have been exciting. At least for now, we’ve done more than seemingly 60% of locals.

Donner Lake is quiet during winter, bearing a single fisherman decked out in fatigue and several fishing rods. In the summer, the action there is quite limited but still a spectacular place to visit. If you know the history before visiting, you can stand both at the sink or the summit and appreciate God’s nature man’s ingenuity.

Back at the Hampton Inn, my eager friend and I lit our suite’s firepalce, noshed on four lobby cookies (yep…. a midday treat I  look forward to every property I stay), sipped on tea from the lofty breakfast we missed, and toasted to another great American-scape; a safe one, to boot.

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*This post is part of 4 part series of experiences sponsored by Hampton Inn by Hilton. All experiences, storytelling and opinions are honest and my own. 

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