On my recent February ski trip to Lake Tahoe, my friends and I made a stop in Truckee. Truckee is located right off Interstate 80 (aka California 89) on the east side of Donner Pass in the Sierras. Truckee is about 45 minutes west of Reno, Nevada.
Truckee was a great place to stop for a “stretch,” on our 4-hour journey from the bay area to Lake Tahoe where my family has a home. But a vacation or day trip to this beautiful location in the Sierras would be fabulous. Truckee has it all: great winter and summer sports, great restaurants and shops, amazing mountains to ponder as well as hike, a beautiful alpine lake, and a magnificent river that runs through it! The Truckee River flows from Lake Tahoe, meanders through the mountains as it makes its way through Truckee, and then follows the valley east to Nevada, arriving in Reno, and ending its journey at Pyramid Lake. I have spent many happy and content hours on this river with family and friends. There is great fishing in the Truckee River, where fly fishermen pull out trophy trout including the area’s endangered native fish, the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout.
On our stop on this beautiful blue skied winter day, we headed to historic downtown Truckee along Donner Pass Road…shopping and a snack were in order! This quaint stretch of Truckee has a number of preserved historic landmark buildings left from Truckee’s raucous bygone era. This once lonely stagecoach stop grew along with our country’s incessant need to “Go West,” and routed the new eastbound railroad tracks right through Truckee. Downtown Truckee is still centered round the downtown train station in this historic area.
But let me not get too far ahead of my story of Truckee without giving you a little back-story!
Early explorers located the pass through this area of the Sierras in the mid 1800s. It was a treacherous and difficult pass to cross but the best route to take to cross the Sierras to California. In 1844, a Paiute Indian Chief guided numerous western bound settlers through the pass. When speaking his name, it sounded like “Tro-kay.” The white settlers dubbed him, “Truckee.” Truckee was a friendly, honest, and helpful man, who was greatly regarded by the settlers. Truckee is also known to have bravely fought in the Mexican War along Col. Fremont and he is the father of the famous Chief Winnemucca.
In October 1846 the Donner Party departed from the present Truckee area on the California Trail to traverse the pass on it journey to Sacramento. The Donner Party was eager to reach its destination and chose to take their chances and cross the Sierras that fall to get across the mountains to avoid spending the winter east of the Sierras. This decision was a fatal choice for this wagon train of 89 men, women, and children. Snow came early that year and trapped the party in the mountains west of the lake. The party could not turn back nor go forward. Without adequate shelter, clothing, heat, food, and water, nearly everyone in the party perished. The area where these brave souls lost their lives has become a Memorial State Park where visitors can view a beautiful bronze memorial statue and visit a museum to learn about the Donner Party. The pristine alpine lake in this area has been named Donner Lake.
With the discovery of gold in Colma in 1848, it became paramount to build a road through the pass. The Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road was built, which was primarily used by freight wagons and passenger coaches. The present-day area of Truckee became an important stagecoach stop.
In 1865 the Central Pacific Railroad began to ascend the western foothills of the Sierras working its way east. The railroad crew worked their way through Donner Pass, following the Wagon Road, and descended into present day Truckee. The area was a stagecoach stop called Colburn’s Station, and was selected to be an “advance-camp” for the railroad construction crew. With this new boom to the area, a township grew, and by December 1867, the first excursion train, the San Mateo, pulled into today’s downtown station.
The new town was officially established in 1863 and comprised of a sizable area along both sides of the river. The town comprised of 50 buildings, mostly saloons, a hotel, 20 stores, and the train station. On April 12th, 1868, the Nevada City Daily Transcript announced, “The name Colburn’s Station has been discarded by the people of that town and it is now called Truckee.”
In the early years, Truckee could be considered a card-carrying member of the Wild West! After dark, it was a common occurrence for gunfights in the streets, excessive drunkenness, poker parties, fistfights, vigilantes, opium dens, tar and feathering, and of course brothels, with the likes of “those ladies” named, “Carrie “Spring Chicken” Smith, La Belle Butler, and Lotta Morton.
But as years passed, the townspeople demanded a more civil community and with the help of the law enforcement, the township changed and embraced more civilized influences. The growing success of the lumber mills brought forth new entrepreneurial challenges, while the solid citizens of Truckee went about building schools and churches.
By 1915, Truckee became a favorite area for winter sports, featuring a huge ice palace for ice-skating and dancing, a toboggan slide and ski jump. The Truckee Ski Club was formed and its members participated in many competitions. Special excursion trains brought thousands of visitors to the area. The movie industry brought crews to the area to film winter scenes.
In 1960, the Winter Olympic games were held ten miles to the south at Squaw Valley, putting the Truckee-Tahoe area on the world map as a major destination resort for year-round recreation. Today, tourism has become the area’s leading industry, but as the town continues to grow, it is also diversifying.
My beloved Northstar Ski Resort is located about 10 minutes outside of Truckee, as well as Squaw Valley. Both featuring world class skiing! But these two large resorts share this location in the Sierras with a number of smaller and more intimate ski resorts: Alpine, Boreal, Sugar Bowl, Donner, and Soda Springs. There is a ski resort for everyone.
I love strolling through downtown Truckee. It is such a quaint town that is clearly loved by its residents and visitors. It is well maintained, clean, and celebrated year round with numerous events, concerts, and festivities. For many years now, my family spends the Fourth of July at our home in Lake Tahoe. On the morning of the Fourth, wearing head-to-toe red, white, and blue, we pack up the car with beach chairs and head to Truckee’s Annual Fourth of July Parade. For my family, Fourth of July is just not the same without attending this hometown parade. We love this parade! It is America personified. The fire department sponsors the pancake and sausage breakfast before the parade. The line is always very long…so get there early. The parade always starts with its fire department and the assortment of historic and contemporary fire engines…some even shooting water into the cheering crowd. Siren shrieking police vehicles and ambulances, snow tractors, and ski rescue vehicles follow the fire department. My son has always enjoyed the bomb exploding jailhouse, and gun shooting sheriffs, horses, followed by the saloon girls. And then there is the kooky ski drill team, donning Hawaiian shirts, shorts, plantation hats, and ski boots while they march with a ski across their shoulders conducting periodic drills tossing skis through the air! And lets not forget about the ladies on in-line skates with hula-hoops! Or the men playing bagpipes. The community shows their pride too by entering many floats from local business and community organizations. There are always classic cars and a rock band playing on a flat bed truck. And everyone is throwing candy! It is pure mayhem with the little kids running after it. And lets not forget the floats that are chucking water balloons or shooting water guns. Expect to get wet! Its totally kooky….I absolutely love it… and we would not miss it for the world!
Truckee still has a saloon or two in the downtown area and many wonderful restaurants, bakeries, and coffee houses to choose from throughout the town. There are a variety of really nice shops, which are fun for the discerning shopper such as myself. And for those of you who have a sweet tooth, Sweets Handmade Candies store is a fine place to stop for home made fudge, caramel apples, and chocolates, as well as ice cream. You can watch the candy makers in the front window creating their confections. There handmade confections can be ordered for delivery to your home from their website. See below.
The town has grown immensely since the first train rolled into town in 1867. The town has spread in all directions and is home to over 16,000 full time residents. The lucky kids that grow up in Truckee have the added choice to go out for the ski team as well as the baseball team! Truckee also has a small airport, three golf courses, a number of vacation home developments, and the pristine and beautiful Donner Lake, where in the summer visitors enjoy boating, swimming, and fishing.
If you haven’t already discovered Truckee, take a drive on Interstate 80/California 89 into the magnificent Sierras and go for a visit. You will not be disappointed!
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