Just 20 minutes from Lake Tahoe, a Sierra gem promises a serene winter escape from the crowds.
Tucked at the base of a pine-studded hill, a snowball's throw from Interstate 80, lies the town of Truckee, Calif. In its early days, Truckee was a rowdy and unkempt place. Now, its cozy shops, restaurants, and inns, as well as its proximity to Donner Lake, make it a perfect stop for travelers on their way to bustling resorts like Northstar-at-Tahoe and Squaw Valley or for visitors who want a quieter retreat.
Saloons, hotels, and gambling houses once crowded present-day Donner Pass Road. A visitor center brochure features a walking tour of historic structures, including the 1870 Capitol building. Initially home to Hurd's Saloon and Hall, it boasted a theater that screened silent films; an original ad for Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush is still on the side of the building. Today, it houses the Pharmacy, an upscale bath-and-body shop.
Take Amtrak to avoid dealing with ski traffic and snow chains. The train stops downtown, and Tahoe Area Regional Transit (TART) buses shuttle travelers along 30 miles of Tahoe shoreline: www.placer.ca.gov/works/tart.htm.
In 1846, George Donner and his ill-fated party of wagon-train emigrants were among the first travelers to stop in the area, where they became trapped for the winter. Almost half the group starved to death and many of the survivors resorted to cannibalism. To learn about their ordeal, visit Donner Memorial State Park and view exhibits and a 25-minute film. The park also offers miles of groomed cross-country ski and snowshoe trails.
The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad brought permanent residents in 1863—railroad workers, lumberjacks, and ice harvesters.
Today, visitors enjoy the comforts of modern Truckee. Two of the town's inns are walking distance from downtown. The 37-room Truckee Hotel was built in 1873 and has been completely refurbished with Victorian fixtures. The hotel is also home to Moody's Bistro & Lounge, which serves hearty dishes such as skillet-fried half chicken. Across the street, next to the river, stands the River Street Inn. Formerly a boardinghouse and brothel, it now offers snug rooms with down comforters.
Cottonwood Restaurant, perched on a hillside above the inn, overlooks downtown. Ask for a window seat, order a savory meal of pine nut-crusted South Pacific basa, and watch the sunset.
Photography by Pattie Lesser/courtesy Truckee, Calif.
This article was first published in January 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.