History & Culture

Hundreds of historic and prehistoric sites dot the forest, representing human influences dating from 4,000 years b.p. to the present. Historic events  and sites found within or near the Tahoe include:

  • Native American travel routes, village sites, and summer gathering sites (Nisenan and Washoe peoples)
  • Overland migration to California (1844-1860)
  • Gold Rush townsites and mines
  • Construction of the Central Pacific railroad (late 1860s)
  • Wagon roads and early highways across the Sierra (mid to late 19th century)
  • Early automobile routes across the Sierra
  • Early hydro and power development

Many of these events have had profound influences on the development of California and the west. 


Transportation routes and development are major factors in the cultural history of the Tahoe National Forest. To some people, the history of the area begins with the wagons of pioneer emigrants, crossing Donner Pass on their way to California. However, human use and occupancy of what is now the Tahoe National Forest goes back many thousands of years. Peoples of the Washoe and Nisenan tribes and their predecessors utilized these lands for food, water, and recreation. Many of the routes we travel today across the Forest have been used for thousands of years.


The first large influx of emigrants from the United States came into the area began in the 1840s, crossing the mountains in covered wagons toward a better life in Mexican California. Donner Pass, the main emigrant route, was named after the ill-fated Donner Party, who wintered in 1846-47 at camps near the present day Truckee.


The Gold Rush of 1849 resulted in a veritable flood of emigrants seeking their fortunes in California, and many of them prospected the lands of the Tahoe. Many of the foothill towns, such as Foresthill, Nevada City, Downieville, Sierra City, and others, date from Gold Rush days, and there are many reminders of those times throughout the Forest. All historic and archaeological sites are protected under federal and state law.


Between 1862 and 1868, the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad was constructed over the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass by the Central Pacific Railroad, meeting the tracks of the Union Pacific on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point Utah. The trans-Sierra route remains a remarkable engineering feat, with roadbed built into granite walls, bridges that cross deep gorges, and tracks that pass through a series of tunnels and snow sheds as they cross the mountains. This rail link with the rest of the United States enabled gold and agricultural products from California to be easily shipped east, as well as bringing manufactured goods and even more settlers west, which fueled the rapid growth of the Golden State. Products such as lumber, agricultural goods, automobiles, imports from overseas and products destined for export continue to be shipped over this route today.

The rugged beauty of this route makes it one of the most scenic passenger routes in the United States, and the towns of Truckee and Colfax have Amtrak stops adjacent to the National Forest. Today's Interstate 80 is roughly parallel to the railroad, and travels the same basic route that people have taken for thousands of years.


The first coast to coast highway, the Lincoln Highway, crossed the Sierra Nevadaon its way from New York City to San Francisco, roughly following the route of today's Interstate 80. In this area, the Lincoln Highway was actively maintained between approximately 1913 and 1930, when it was replaced by US 40. This highway was, in turn, replaced by today's Interstate 80 in the mid-1960's. Portions of old 40 and the Lincoln Highway in the Big Bend-Donner Lake area are still open as a scenic route during the summer months.


Timber harvest and mineral extraction began on these lands along with the first influx of settlers.  Outdoor recreation and ecotourism have emerged as a more recent economic influence.  Visitors from all over the world travel to this area for camping, hiking, fishing, skiing, sightseeing, and other recreation opportunities.

Historical Sites, Tours and Opportunities in the TNF

49 Miles Along Hwy 49 – this road tour offers information about many historic stops along Hwy 49

Kyburz Flat Interpretive Area  (east of Hwy 89 between Truckee and Sierraville) highlights early native Washo sites, the boardwalk along the historic Kyburz Stage stop, and the Wheeler Sheep camp, home to Basque sheep herders during the summer.

Donner Camp Trail (north of Truckee on Hwy 89) chronicles the struggles of the George and Jacob Donner party trapped at Alder Creek.  Picnic tables and beautiful meadow complete this site.

 Boca Townsite Trail (east of Truckee and north of Interstate 80) showcases the boom and bust of the historic town of Boca as it transitioned from a construction camp for the Central Pacific Railroad to the Boca Mill and Ice Company and later to the Boca Brewery.  Interpretive signs illustrate the many faces of the Boca Townsite as the trail winds uphill through what once was the historic town.

Other Resources  for mining, Native American, emigrant and transportation history:

Placer County Museum
Empire Mine State Historic Park, Grass Valley
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, north of Nevada City State Historic Parks and Museums
The Lincoln Highway -- America's Longest Mainstreet
The Lincoln Highway Association


Preserving Our Past (brochure)