If I had to pick a trip I’d do again that didn’t involve hiking above 10,000 feet or trekking 10 miles across alluvial fans and remote canyons in Death Valley but simply sitting back and relaxing, it would be riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Sacramento to Reno.
It’s a three-hour and 25-minute one-way ride when Amtrak is on time that gives you an entirely different perspective of heading up and over Donner Summit. It is a stunning, leisurely trip. And the best time to do it is after the snow has started falling for earnest in the winter.
A bit of background first. While I’m in what might be called a passionate love affair with the high country of the mid-Sierra on both sides of the Range of Light’s crest, my first love was Donner Summit.
I can say I’ve easily traveled Interstate 80 from Roseville to Truckee that many thought was one of the true wonders of the modern world at the time it was completed in the mid-1960s more than 200 times.
I grew up in Placer County while my mother’s family heralded from Nevada County of which Truckee is its easternmost town.
My uncles had a cabin near the shores of Donner Lake less than a quarter of a mile from where the infamous Donner Party became stranded the winter of 1846-47. Lincoln High (in Lincoln of Placer County) was in the old Pioneer League with the likes of Colfax and Truckee — and later North Lake Tahoe High. You haven’t seen a high school football game like you’d see in Truckee on an early November Saturday when the grass was still thawing out from an overnight freeze.
When I lost weight and gained what is now a full blown addiction to exercise and journeying to places under my own power, I made mid-week drives when it wasn’t winter to do quick cycling loops starting in Truckee, climbing over Brockway Summit, riding along the lake and back past Squaw Valley. Once a month I either cycled around Lake Tahoe or headed south of Reno to the base of Virginia Grade and headed up that, over Spooner Summit and back via Mt Rose.
I started doing fully-loaded bicycle tours with my first leg going from Lincoln to Truckee where you’re allowed to bicycle along Interstate 80 wherever there is not a frontage road available. I even bicycled twice (with just a handlebar bag and a backpack) from Lincoln to Sparks to attend Rotary district conferences at The Nugget stopping overnight on the way up in Truckee. On the return trip it was all downhill — almost anyway — making the 121-mile trip do-able in less than a day.
And to top it off, when I was a reporter at The Press-Tribune in Roseville, my editor Mike Durant came up with an idea that I should walk the length of Placer County from the Sacramento County line where it was nothing but flat rangeland to Lake Tahoe to write about how the journey looked on foot and to share stories of people I encountered along the way.
My time at The Press-Tribune also got me a ride in a PG&E helicopter from Auburn up along I-80 to Lake Fordyce near Donner Summit during the 1976 drought. PG&E controlled the water system that delivered domestic water to much of South Placer County including Lincoln. PG&E publicists thought having the paper take photos as they swooped down low across various lakes and reservoirs in the system would drive home the seriousness of the water shortage.
After crossing Donner Summit in cars, bicycling and even walking the only thing I hadn’t done was ride a train over the storied summit.
When the suggestion was made to do so, I was far from enthusiastic, however. I couldn’t picture sitting three hours and 29 minutes and doing what I thought would be staring out the window while engaging in idle conversation. Besides having worked in a railroad town (Roseville) and covered more than a few train-related incidents on the trans-Sierra route, I had come to what I eventually would find out was an erroneous conclusion that the views from railroad right-of-ways were downright ugly.
We opted to do the trip during Christmas break and continued to Reno instead of Truckee due to issues we encountered booking hotels. Reno is only a half hour longer and the train drops you off right near the heart of the downtown casino district.
The waiting room at the Sacramento station that is approaching 100-years-old was an experience. People are more low-key than they are in airport terminals. But what I remember most is the fact a train accident on the line between Sacramento and Roseville was delaying the train. After two hours they were talking about busing us to Reno which meant we still would have a return by rail. But fortunately — and you’ll read why in a bit — they cleared the mess and the train was on its way.
The first segment was ugly as I figured it would be. Seeing the backside of Sacramento as you head toward the American River defines the word “ugly.” As we started nearing Roseville and rumbling through the Loomis Basin toward Auburn, I got a lot more into it given I was able to talk about what essentially was once my backyard.
As we climbed up past Auburn, the general scenery I had seen from a car window zipping along at 70 mph more times than politicians have promised to lower taxes, started to grab my attention. It looked twice as amazing rolling along as the locomotive tackled the grade.
It also helped that I was seeing Placer and Nevada counties from roughly the same vantage points that my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents on my mother’s side had seen. The Towle brothers had a large sawmill operation that shipped lumber via Southern Pacific and supplied the lumber for the original train snow sheds above Donner Lake. They even had their own “town” at one time — Towle — located near Dutch Flat.
I’m sure I rattled on way too much about family history. And of course as we neared the summit, I had to relate about how my grandmother’s paternal grandfather was part of the rescue party that set out from Camp Far West along the Bear River to help rescue the stranded Donner Party.
But it wasn’t until we started dropping down toward Truckee that the trip became complete magic. Due to the delayed departure from Sacramento instead of approaching Truckee in the late afternoon it was well into evening. The city — and its western mountain-style downtown — was covered with several feet of snow while yellowish street lights against a dark deep blue sky were accented by a splattering of Christmas lights. It looked just like a Currier & Ives Christmas card. I’ve been told the usual late afternoon view of Truckee in winter arriving from the west on the California Zephyr is a visual treat as well.
If you stay in Truckee, there is a smorgasbord of dining spots and shops around the train station; what there isn’t is much in the way of lodging. The Truckee Hotel is a short walk from the train station but it is hard to book around Christmas. You could opt to take a taxi or a ride sharing service to hotels better stationed for the drive-in ski crowd. The closest to downtown — and probably one of the better ones — is the Best Western Plus near the Tahoe-Truckee Airport. I’ve stayed there enough to say the accommodations are top notch, but your on-foot dining options are a different story.
Reno without a doubt is the place to bunk down for a winter’s night. We realized that when we were planning the trip. So to make up for not seeing the sunrise in Truckee we booked a room in a casino hotel tower making sure we got a room with a view looking toward the Sierra to see it awaken under the rays of the morning sun.
There was another takeaway from the trip. It was the most relaxing crossing of Donner Summit I had ever taken even as a passenger. You can get up and stretch on a train. You can’t in a car.
We made sure that we had light carry-on luggage only given it was a relatively short train trip involving an overnight stay and the fact we weren’t staying at the Ritz.
A round-trip ticket today would put you back less than $70 per person. Midweek is obviously easier to book.
And given the sharpened charm of the Sierra in snow, I’d suggest waiting until after the ski resorts have all opened as it would mean you could take in snow-draped vistas from the cozy comfort of an Amtrak coach.