Winter doesn't knock at California's Donner Summit, in the mountains just west of Lake Tahoe. It barges in with an attitude that's as hard as ice. The bite of frigid winds reminds shivering locals that Truckee, California, can be the coldest place in the country, and any remaining doubters need only reflect on the fate of the snowbound Donner Party back in 1846.
Summer on the summit is a different story. Cresting in cliffs that resemble medieval battlements, the High Sierra here becomes a parkland of forests and wildflowers that is both inviting and accessible by July. While the area isn't exactly undiscovered, it isn't overcrowded either - partly because the summit's most magnificent mountains and lakes aren't visible from the wide lanes of Interstate 80, which zips right through the region's heart.
The best way to view this country is to get off the freeway and onto old Donner Pass Road, a slow but scenic byway meandering 11 miles to the historic railroad town of Truckee.
From the turnoff at Soda Springs, the road first makes a surprisingly gentle climb past Sugar Bowl and Donner ski areas to the 7,088-foot pass. Stop at the top to check out the road's precipitous drop down the eastern face of the pass. Due east, the indigo pool of Donner Lake shimmers under the sun. Its far shore, where the Donner Party made its ill-fated winter camp, is now part of Donner Memorial State Park.
To the right of the lake, behind a low ridge, is Coldstream Canyon, site of the original Overland Emigrant Trail and now a good beginner's mountain-bike ride. To the left, north of the freeway, is the location of the first completed leg of the Donner Lake Rim Trail. Behind you the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road at the top of the pass. Beyond Donner Lake is the town of Truckee. With its historic buildings, restaurants, and shops, Truckee's Commercial Row (Donner Pass Rd.) is well worth a leisurely investigation.
Easiest air access to Donner Summit is through Reno, 30 miles east. For Lodging and summer events, contact the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce at (530) 587-2757 or www.truckee.com. For hiking and camping information and maps, contact the Tahoe National Forest Big Bend Visitor Information Center (it's a mile west of the Rainbow Rd. exit from 1-80). The center is open 8 to 4:30 daily in summer; call (530) 426-3609 or visit www.r5.fs.fed.us/tahoe.
So make a few phone calls, and go. This time of year, all you'll require are hiking and biking gear and sun protection. The mountains call, and winter is still months away.
Area code is 530.
Getting primed. Start with a big, bad, put-gravy-on-it breakfast at Coffee And (10106 Donner Pass Rd.; 587-3123).
Got milk? Ponderosa Deli (10068 Donner Pass Rd.; 587-3555) has whatever picnic supplies you forgot.
Tragic beauty. A short drive west of town on Donner Pass Rd. takes you to Donner Memorial State Park (12593 Donner Pass Rd.; 582-7892), where a small museum tells the tragic story of the Donner Party. A short nature trail takes you past a site where the families built shelters; take the trail out along the lakeshore for gorgeous views.
To make a day of it, rent kayaks, canoes, fishing boats, and even personal watercraft in the park at Donner Lake Water Sports (reserve ahead; 582-1999), starting at $10 per hour for a paddleboat. …