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Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center

Discover the revealing history of a mountain pass at this Truckee visitor center. 

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  • The Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center in Truckee, California, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Rachid Dahnoun
    Photo caption
    The Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center in Truckee, Calif.
  • palm-size doll at Donner Memorial State Visitor Center, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Rachid Dahnoun
    Photo caption
    A palm-size doll tells a sad Donner story.
  • visitor at the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center in Truckee, California, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Rachid Dahnoun
    Photo caption
    A visitor at the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center in Truckee, Calif.

Inside the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center stands a replica of a doll carried by a child in the Donner Party, the California Trail emigrant group trapped by snow at Donner Pass in 1846–47. Its dress is frayed, its face smudged as if by anxious fingers.

Artifacts like this fill the 9,400-square-foot building, opened in June 2015 in Truckee, Calif. Though the site also includes a gift shop and a theater, the most compelling sections are exhibits showing the effect the area has had on people’s lives. The displays expand the region’s story beyond the group for which the pass, a nearby lake, and the park are named.

"Donner Pass has long been a transportation and communication corridor," says Susan Lindström, an archaeologist whose work contributed to the new exhibits. "First it was used by game, then by Native Americans, and then for transcontinental movement."

A stone hearth shows how the earliest inhabitants lived. A video of Tunnel 6, blasted through the pass in the 1860s, exposes the risks confronting the Chinese immigrants who built the first transcontinental railroad. The center reveals how a place can mold human experience, and how we, in turn, have shaped the site.

This article was first published in Winter 2017. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.