Old Highway 40 runs through a canyon of sheer granite walls adorned with dangling rock climbers. This 150 year old route used to transport labor and supplies for the transcontinental railroad. The ride is worth it to feel the wind ripping past your ears as you descend almost 1,200 vertical feet in just under three miles from Donner Summit to the flats of Donner Lake. These, and many others, are the reasons Old Highway 40 is often cited as the most iconic ride in all of North Lake Tahoe. For almost twenty-one miles, Old Highway 40 twists, climbs, and drops past water bodies, popular ski areas, and rich relics of California history.
What Makes It Great
Old Highway 40, pioneered as a wagon road in the 1860s in order to support the development of the transcontinental railroad, is a showcase for both natural and cultural history of the Northern Sierra. And it makes for a challenging but rewarding ride.
The route starts in Truckee and proceeds past Donner Lake heading west. Pedaling along Donner Lake’s north shore is pleasant, pretty, and partially shaded beneath large cottonwoods and pine trees. The six miles from Truckee and past the lake also serves as a warm up for the granite monolith, known as Donner Summit, which lies ahead. Just past the west end of the lake, the road begins to ascend the monolith in a series of looping, climbing turns. Bike lanes are narrow, or even non-existent, and the highway appears to be carved out of solid rock. The three miles between the lake and the summit, which totals over 1,100 vertical feet, is also a popular stretch for rock climbers. As you pass by vehicles packed into tight pullouts, look up –the occupants are most likely clinging to the colorful rock high above. And if the highway’s curves, or the arched bridge two miles into the climb, look familiar they may be –this section of Highway 40 is used often for commercial filming and motion picture backdrops.
Beyond the zenith, Donner Summit, Old Highway 40 descends past ski areas, lodgepole pine forests, and along the South Fork of the Yuba River for twelve more miles before terminating at Cisco Grove. The descent down this stretch loses almost the same elevation gained by the initial climb to the summit; therefore, a ride from Truckee to Cisco Grove and back climbs Donner Summit twice.
Who is Going to Love It
Advanced cyclists looking for a beautiful but challenging experience will find this ride rewarding. Be aware though: the out-and-back is more strenuous than a typical 42-mile jaunt. The high elevation, combined with sun exposure endured climbing and descending Donner Summit, can make for a long day. Extra calories, hydration, and a reapplication of sunscreen should mitigate these worries.
For a shorter route, try riding from Donner Memorial State Park on the east end of Donner Lake up to the summit and back down. The wild, curvy descent back down is worth the climb. On the return, turn right onto South Shore Drive just as the road flattens near Donner Lake’s west end. South Shore Drive circumnavigates Donner Lake offering a different perspective through a quite lakeshore neighborhood. At the end of South Shore Drive, follow the short bike path that leads back into Donner Memorial State Park.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Truckee, head west on Donner Pass Road for approximately 3 miles to Donner Lake. Parking is free along Old Highway 40/Donner Pass Road from Truckee to the base of Donner Summit along Donner Lake. Spaces are limited -especially in the summer months. Donner Memorial State park has an entrance fee for vehicles and usually has space. Facilities are also available at Donner Memorial State Park.