The Highway 40 Scenic Bypass

Rainbow Lodge And Hwy 40 Scenic Bypass

After spending the morning exploring Serene Lakes, hiking around Lake Van Norden, and walking through the abandoned train tunnels on Donner Summit, we drove over to Donner Lake for a picnic. The West End Beach is open to the public (for a fee) and has barbecues, restrooms, picnic tables, a beach, and a playground — It’s where we usually go when we’re spending the day at Donner Lake. But we weren’t going to stay and hang out, so this time, we just snagged an open picnic table along the roadside that was just a few steps from the water’s edge.

We were so hungry… Sandwiches, chips, fresh fruit, cookies, and cold drinks never tasted so good!

Once we finished lunch and were ready to head back home, we packed up the truck and decided to take the long way home. We took Donner Pass Road to the historic Old Highway 40 route to Cisco Grove, and then again from Baxter to Colfax.

Old Highway 40

Dedicated in 1913, the Lincoln Highway was the first road to stretch across the width of the United States. In 1928, the first transcontinental highway route was converted to US Highway 40, and while quite a bit of the old Lincoln Highway used for Highway 40, some of it was rerouted and changed. The new US Highway 40 was the primary route across the Northern California Sierra Nevadas until Interstate 80 was built in 1960.

Thankfully, large sections of old Highway 40 still exist. If you’re looking for a more scenic drive through the mountains and over Donner Summit, old Highway 40 is a scenic drive through several gold rush era towns, from Colfax to Baxter and again from Cisco Grove to Truckee. The section of Highway from Donner Summit to Donner Lake across the Rainbow Bridge is considered one of the most scenic pieces of highway in the country. We drive this spectacular stretch of road every time we drive up to Donner Lake just to take in the amazing views.

20 Mile Museum

Today interpretive signs and displays dot the old Highway 40 route.

The Donner Summit Historical Society’s 20 Mile Museum is a series of 32 interpretive signs placed along Highway 40 from Nyack to the Rainbow Bridge. The signs and displays provide historic information about the sites, old photographs of what the area used to look like, quotes, stories, and in some cases local recreation activities.

Our Road Trip

Our drive home took us past sparking blue lakes, bubbling creeks and rivers, towering trees, majestic mountains, and small glimpses into the region’s rich gold rush history.

We left Donner Lake following Donner Pass Road up to and crossing the the Rainbow Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in California. Completed in 1926, the Rainbow Bridge is a 240 foot long bridge with a grade and a compound curve. Donner Pass Road then took us past the sites of Native American petroglyphs, the historic China Wall, and three abandoned train tunnels — Tunnel #6, the infamous Summit Tunnel, and Tunnel #7 and Tunnel 8, which are really giant concrete snow sheds.

We then drove back past Van Norden Meadow in the Summit Valley, an area Native Americans used for thousands of years, leaving behind grinding rocks, metates, and cupules.

Next we passed Gould Park, where in the 1930s, the Auburn Ski Club built one of the first alpine ski runs around Donner Summit and the first ski jump in the West. Sitting along the river, Gould Park is named for James Lewis Gould, a a water agent connected with the Gold Run Ditch and Mining Company who purchased the land from the Central Pacific Railroad.

When we reached the Rainbow Lodge, parked and went exploring. The Rainbow Lodge was built in 1869 from local granite and the same hand-hewn logs used to build the Trans-Sierra Railroad. The original lodge was a stagecoach stop for those journeying through the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Emigrant Gap. The Lodge was expanded in 1930 and the beams and wood used in construction were taken from the snow sheds that still line the railroad tracks running through the Sierras. Shortly thereafter, the Lodge offered one of the first ski hills in the area, with the installation of a ski lift in the 1930s, followed by the addition of a gondola. The house behind the Rainbow Lodge was originally the ski lift house. It was turned into a residence when the ski hill was closed.

The Lodge was closed and under renovations, but the rushing South Yuba River and old building remnants nearby by provided us more than enough to climb around and check out.

The last stop of our Highway 40 Scenic Bypass drive was the Forest Gift Shop near Cisco Grove. It was built in 1938, then later renamed the Sierra Gift Shop. The minute I saw the two old stone buildings sitting along side the Highway, I had to stop and peek inside. Today the two buildings stand empty, as strong relics of the bustling gold rush period, but they are still quite beautiful — and there is a huge fireplace in the Forest Gift Shop. At the time, there was a gas station, grocery store, restaurant, and lodge nearby, and if you walk around the Highway, you can still see the stone foundations.

Know Before You Go

  • Download the Old Route 40 Brochure and the The Lincoln Highway Through Donner Pass brochure from the Donner Summit Historical Society.
  • For the exact locations of all 20 Mile Museum markers and displays, download the text-only printable 20 Mile Museum PDF.
  • Donner Lake’s West End Beach is located at 15888 South Shore Drive, Truckee, California 96161. The 10 acre day use beach facility offers excellent shaded picnic and barbeque sites for families or groups, that includes a playground, basketball courts, tennis courts, boat rentals, and Pier Thirty-ate snack bar.
  • Rainbow Lodge, located at 50080 Hampshire Rocks Rd, Soda Springs, California 95728, is an events venue for group outings, family reunions, corporate retreats, and weddings. Individual rooms are not available at this time.

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