American West Roadside Stop
Donner Party Campsite at Alder Creek Valley, California
by Joseph A. Sprince – Photography by Gerald B. Allen
Westward Ho! For Oregon and California!
Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men, of good character, who can drive an ox team, will be accomodated by gentlemen who will leave this vicinity about the first of April. Come boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything. The government of California gives large tracts of lands to persons who have to move there. The first suitable persons to apply, will be engaged. G. Donner and Others.
From an advertisement placed by George Donner – Springfield, Illinois – March 18, 1846 – one year, almost to the day, before he died here in Alder Creek Valley.
Donner Camp Picnic Ground / Historical Site – Tahoe National Forest
While traveling on the road, you are often surprised by unexpected roadside stops that are rarely shown on maps. They are usually historic sites, vistas, or an interpretive sign.
While recently cruising through California’s eastern Sierras north of Lake Tahoe, we came upon a roadside stop commemorating the nearby campsite of part of the Donner Party, early California settlers who became part of history after meeting disaster in the winter of 1846-7 while becoming trapped in the treacherous snows of a Sierra Nevada winter.
[Photo, above left:] The interpretive trail bulletin board reads:
“What started out as a hopeful journey toward prosperity ended tragically for the eighty-nine member Donner Party. During the winter of 1846/47, heavy snows trapped twenty-five of these emigrants here in Alder Creek Valley. The others were stranded at Donner Lake. Nearly half of the Donner Party died in these mountains, The rest survived the ordeal with bitter memories of cold, hunger and death.”
[Photo, above right: Plaques dedicating the 150th anniversary of the Donner Party tragedy. The plaque at left is dedicated to courageous pioneer women such as Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner who perished at this site. The plaque at right reads:
“DONNER PARTY CAMP AT ALDER CREEK VALLEY. In the fall of 1846, 25 members of the Donner Party became trapped by an early snowstorm here at Alder Creek Valley. The George and Jacob Donner families, their teamsters, and fellow travelers suffered extreme hardship and starvation. The spent the winter here cut off from the rest of their party who camped at Donner Lake. Only 11 survived the ordeal. Their survival, against desperate odds, stands as a testament to the enduring pioneer spirit that helped shape the future of California. DEDICATED ON SEPTEMBER 28, 1996 by the Tahoe National Forest to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Donner Party Tragedy.” ]
[Photo, right: What is thought to be the actual campsite of the Donner Party in Alder Creek Valley.]
[Photo, left: Closeup of the dedication plaque at the actual campsite at right.]
Reads, “DONNER CAMP SITE. On October 28, 1846 the six covered wagons brought west by George and Jacob Donner and their families halted here for repairs. By March of 1847 one half of the party of twenty two adults and children had died of starvation and cold. They came west seeking a new life and found misery and death.” Dated October 16, 1960.
[Photo, right: The large tree at the Donner Party campsite survived the settlers by 150 years before also succumbing to the harsh winters. The descendants of the family planted a new tree in 2000.]
The dedication plaque read:
“Near this spot stood the tree which marked what was believed to be the campsite of the family of George Donner in the winter of 1846. The tree stood for 150 years after the Donner families camped in Alder Creek before it succumbed to Mother Nature in the winter of 1996. The Descendants of the Donner Families planted and dedicated this tree in gratitude and loving memory of their ancestors. Dedicated by the Donner Families August 6, 2000.”
This historic roadside stop is located on California-89, a few miles north of Truckee, California on Interstate-80, and about 20 miles north of Lake Tahoe.
Further Reading on the Donner Party
- Watch the American Experience’s (PBS) video on “The Donner Party”. “The Donner Party” chronicles the harrowing tale of the ill-fated emigrant group who set out for the promised land of California in the spring of 1846, only to meet with disaster in the snows of the Sierra Nevada the following winter.
Beautiful Lake Tahoe
[Photo, below: A composite panorama of beautiful Lake Tahoe where there is much to see and do year round.]