Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

Lovely Day for a Drive

I got away from Fernley about Noon today, which made me feel less bad about making a lot of stops along the way. Although I hadn't brought my real camera, I took these photos from the camera phone. Those of you who have never been through this portion of the Sierra Nevada, particularly when the weather it as good as it was today, don't know what you're missing in the way of scenery.

The westbound vista point just below Donner Summit on I-80 does not have the spectacular view of Donner Lake that the eastbound does, so this photo really doesn't do justice to the sight. You can see Donner Lake (not Lake Tahoe) below, but the freeway cuts off the view. The tragic Donner Party made their camp beside that lake. Across the valley you can see at left the path of the original transcontinental railroad built by the Central Pacific Railroad. The gray streak you see there is a concrete snowshed built to cover the tracks, replacing wooden snowsheds built to keep the massive winter snows off the tracks. At one time there was something on the order of 40 miles of track covered with snowsheds, which led to the Sierra crossing being called "railroading in a barn." The route you see here was abandoned by CP successor Southern Pacific (later bought by Denver & Rio Grande Western and eventually absorbed as part of the current Union Pacific). There is still a railroad here, but you can't see it, as it's the very long tunnel under the Sierra Crest that was built later. The SP abandoned the original right of way during a period of time I call the "burning the furniture for firewood" stage, where they were pulling up lots of sections of double track to save money. You can see more about the abandoned tunnels here. If you're joining us on the trip from Emeryville to Chicon on the California Zephyr, this is the route we'll be taking, obviously on the still-extant track under the crest of the mountains.

Just four miles up the road at Donner Summit is the rest area that reopened last year after extensive remodeling. There is this pretty little pond next to the rest area. During the winter this lake usually freezes over. Even today, the temperature was pleasantly cool compared to the stifling heat on both sides of the mountains.

Looking straight down from the rest area's sidewalk built out over the pond, I was surprised to see how many fish there were in this small lake.

Heading west, I stopped at the Emmigrant Gap vista point, which I'd never done before. This photo looks northwest, and in the valley below is California Route 20, which splits from I-80 a few miles east of here and heads off to Nevada City, Grass Valley, Marysville, and Yuba City. I've driven that road many times.

Looking back to the east from the rest area, you can see Englebright Dam and the lake of the same name behind it on the left, and on the right, another single-track section of railroad paralleling I-80. Like the portion at the summit, this used to be double track, but while scrambling to stay solvent in the 1990s, Southern Pacific tore out one of the tracks between here and Yuba Gap to the east. The railroad track actually runs underneath the vista point here in a tunnel.

This portion of the railroad used to be much more built-up than it is today. I learned this in the fascinating book 30 Years Over Donner, a memoir of an SP signal maintainer who lived for many years in a railroad-owned house at Emmigrant Gap. This little railroad community once boasted a third track, a turntable for turning helpers, two cookhouses to serve railroad crews (spaced so that one would serve the head-end crew and the other the caboose crew), a full maintenance gang, and sundry other railroad facilities. As far as I can tell, that's all gone now, except for a small bit of railroad supply storage for maintenance purposes.

After taking these photos, I continued west, making my customary stop at Colfax (although not at Starbucks this time; it was too hot for coffee so I got water and soda from the grocery store there) and pushed on back to San Jose, arriving around 8 PM.

These long drives are hard, but it helps when so much of the scenery is as nice as this.
Tags: railroads, sierra nevada, travel

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