Donner Pass, a road that worth the detour

Donner Pass
Donner Pass

If you’re looking for a scenic road to drive while on your next road trip in California, Donner Pass Road in California is a very cool alternative to Interstate 80. Indeed, Donner Pass, on Donner Pass Road, is not the same road as Donner Summit, on Interstate 80.

Where is Donner Pass?

Donner Pass Road is located in the northern Sierra Nevada. In fact, it is in the northeast of California in Placer County, not so far from Sacramento city, CA.

The pass is located at 2,160 meters (7,088 feet) above sea level. This road should not be confused with the Donner Summit located on Interstate 80 which is less scenic.

You can locate the road on the map below:

Enlarge the map

Facts about the Donner Pass road

Road description:

Donner Pass Road is a well-paved option that makes for a pleasant alternative to the heavily traveled Interstate I-80 between Truckee and Kingvale.

Donner Pass certainly offers the best landscapes in the Sierra Nevada, with breathtaking views across the whole road. Traffic can be heavier on weekends and during holidays, which is why it is best to drive there on weekdays or in the early morning hours. Then you might be lucky enough to have the road almost to yourself.

Old Highway 40 (the other name for this road) is often mentioned as one of the most iconic roads in the entire region. Indeed, for nearly 25 kilometers (14 miles), the road twists climbs and passes in front of bodies of water, large trees, and rich vestiges of the history of California.

An idea of an itinerary: Make a return trip by making a loop. You have to start on the old Hwy 40 and turn around at the Donner summit, then loop around Donner Lake along the south shore.

When did Donner Pass road opened?

The first wagon to cross the pass in 1844 during the rush to the west.

However, it wasn’t until 1864 that the first real road in the Sierra Nevada chain via the Donner Pass (known as the Dutch Flat and Lake Road) was built. This road was built to facilitate the construction of the first transcontinental railroad over the pass.

The road then became part of US 40 in 1926. It was paved in 1934.

donner pass winter
Donner Pass in Winter

The Donner Pass Road was bypassed in 1960 when a new section of the I-80, easier to access and cross, was built. Since then, this route is now considered a tourist route.

Things to do nearby Donner Pass

Summer and winter offer a wide variety of recreational sports in the area. In fact, you can practice hiking, downhill and cross-country skiing, rock climbing and ice climbing, mountain biking, and much more.

If you drive nearby the pass in winter, and you are a ski or snowboard fan you will be very happy: near the road, you will find a ski resort. Indeed, the Sugar Bowl ski resort is located on that road.

Lake Tahoe is also close to this scenic road. And if you have some time to spend in the region, you can drive the California Route 36.

You can find accommodation and restaurants in Sugar Bowl, or in the cities around the road. Always check the Donner Pass weather before getting there.

How to get to Donner Pass?

You can drive the pass road from both sides. From Soda Springs or from Truckee.

In order to come there, you have to drive the Interstate I-80 between Sacramento and Reno.

You visualize how to get there on this map of the drive:

Is Donner Pass Open?

Located in the Tahoe National Forest near Lake Tahoe, the road is open year-round. However, conditions on the pass in winter can cause temporary closures. It’s also important to remember to come prepared with special equipment, such as chains or snow tires, as the conditions on the Donner Pass can change quickly. Make sure to check if chains are required before your journey.

The road allows getting around to the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort.

We also advise checking in advance if the road is open before going there.

A preview of this legendary road:

You can also explore this road without going there. Indeed, you can easily find a Donner Pass webcam on the web. Here is a YouTube video that shows this road :

If you are driving from Sacramento or San Francisco to Reno or Nevada, it can be definitely a great idea to drive the Donner Pass Road instead of the Interstate. This road will offer you one of the most scenic drivable mountain passes in the area. You will surely enjoy the landscapes and the drive! But please, always check the weather before driving!

Pictures sources:  By Vvvbbb767 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, / Ken Lund on

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