Donner Pass Petroglyphs

Round Trip Distance: 0.1 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation: 6840 - 6865 feet
Cellphone: 3-5 bars
Time: 30 mins.
Trailhead: Donner Pass Rd.
Fee: none
Attractions: petroglyphs, scenic view

Long before Donner Pass became infamous for cannibalism it was the route used by Native Americans traveling through this part of the Sierra Nevada mountains. On the east side of the summit overlooking what is today called Donner Lake some 1,500 to 4,000 years ago the Washo People of the Martis Culture pecked over 200 images into the surface of the hard granite rocks leaving behind signs of their past presence in the area. (Some sources date the petroglyphs back to 8 - 10 thousand years before present.)

The trailhead is a pullout along the side of the Donner Pass Road between the China Wall and Rainbow Bridge. To get there take either Exit 180 or 184 off of Interstate 80 for the Donner Pass Road. From Exit 184 the distance is right at 6.2 miles. If you reach the very rememberable Rainbow Bridge you will need to turn around and backtrack about 1,000 feet. It actually works out well if you drive past the bridge and turn around when you reach the summit so that you can then park on the same side of the road as the petroglyphs.

Another aid for finding the pullout at the trailhead is a scenic little pond that is nestled in the trees beside the road.

From the shoulder of the road follow the obvious social route toward the area with the petroglyphs.

The lower end of the petroglyphs have a border of stacked rocks to direct hikers around them and to get people that came to see the petroglyphs to think and avoid stepping on them.

There is a kiosk that is an invaluable aid for visitors to become oriented to the site by showing various images to look for as well as information on who created them and how best to avoid damaging the rock art.

Concentric circles, wavy lines and other geometric figures make up most of the more than 200 images.

The petroglyphs cover a large area of the smooth surfaces within 40 or 50 feet of the kiosk.

The oval image in this photo with the leaf pattern catches most of a persons gaze in this particular spot but next to it is a less noticeable image of what might be either an owl or a person.

One curiosity at the site are the thin lines that meander across long sections of the rock as though depicting a large map. Perhaps migration routes that followed rivers or game trails are being represented.

It is also evident that the natural cracks in the granite were intended to add meaning to some of the images as the creators went out of their way to have their images touch the cracks. There is even a set of concentric circles that is tightly framed on three sides by cracks.

There were many more people in the area than can be seen in our photos including a large group of preteens that were taking rock climbing lessons nearby and even a crew with the Forest Service that were working on a trail or something. There aren't any signs along the highway that point out the petroglyph site and most of those stopping along the road were probably just doing so because it was one of the few places to pull over and get out of your vehicle. The petroglyphs on Donner Pass don't show up very well and you have to move around and look at them from different directions before you can make some of them out but if you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.