There are a lot of interesting things on Donner Summit: petroglyphs, grinding rocks, Chinese RR workers' camps, beacons from the transcontinental air route, ads painted on the rocks to lure "autoists" to Donner Lake resorts, bald eagles, wildflowers, martins, beautiful scenery, the "footprints" of the emigrants, ice harvesting sites, etc. It's really an amazing place. Among all the standouts is the Sierra Juniper. It lives almost only in the most rugged spots on Donner Summit withstanding gale force winds that "iceblast" the bark.
The Sierra Junipers of Donner Summit are amazing. They have been sitting for millenia in the harshest conditions. They are our own Bristlecone Pines. When Theodore Judah laid out the route of the Transcontinental Railroad he confidently predicted that snow would not be a problem. He'd studied the trees on the Summit and he knew (That's really a story for another Heirloom and will be.). Judah did not ask the right trees though. The Summit receives an average of 34 feet of snow a year. The weight and movement of all that snow bends and twists what grows on the summit. Those Junipers may be a thousand years old or more and eleven feet in diameter but they do not stand tall. They stand proudly no doubt, but not tall. They have been bent and twisted and broken by centuries of snow fall.Despite Mother Nature's inconsiderate treatment, the Junipers continue their growth sometimes growing in diameter at the amazing speed of a couple of inches a century. Their wood is so densely packed that if one wants to count rings, a dissecting scope (lower powered microscope) is needed. There are Sierra Junipers on Donner Summit that are thousands of yerars old.
One tree (below) measures 11 feet in circumference. If we take 14 rings to the quarter inch, as our research has shown after coring some trees, it means the old tree is 3,696 years old. Since experts say the oldest Juniper is in the Stanislaus National Forest, down south, and that is only 3,000 years old, this one is less than 3,000 years old. Whatever this tree's age is, it's old. Imagine all that it's seen on Donner Pass.
The two top trees on this page can be found on the long stretch of the trail that leaves a single switchback and leads away from Summit Valley where you have a good view of Mt. Lincoln and the Sugar Bowl Palisades. The top picture is above the trail (north side) a hundred feet or so and the second one is right next to the trail (south side) The tree above requires you to leave the trail after the second switchback and head uphill a few hundred feet. It's pretty big so you can't miss it.
To read more about Sierra Junipers see our October, '13 and January, '14 Heirlooms.
To read about Theodore Judah and his thinking that snow is not a problem, see "Snow is Not a Problem on Donner Summit" in our February, '15 Heirloom.