Donner Party Expeditions

Discovery Channel’s series Expedition Unknown has a new episode Donner Party Horror and Heroes which will air on August 24 and 25, and September 3, 2022. To better understand the historical events, host Josh Gates joined a team of ultra-distance runners to follow in the footsteps of the Relief Parties from Johnson’s Ranch to Donner Lake.

Ever since the Donner Party survivors reached safety in 1847, people have followed their footsteps across the desert and over the mountains. In the years immediately after the tragedy, wagon train parties passed the remains of the cabins at the lake. In the 1870’s Truckee newspaper editor C.F. McGlashan visited Donner Lake to identify the site of the cabins.

In the late 1920’s, painter and author Charles Kelly of Salt Lake City explored by automobile the Hastings Cutoff from Skull Valley in Utah to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, which he documented in his book Salt Desert Trails. In the 1930’s historian and English professor George Stewart explored on foot the questionable parts of the Snowshoe Party’s route when he was writing Ordeal by Hunger.

In the 1920’s, Peter Weddell of San Jose was inspired by Eliza Donner Houghton’s The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate to mark and map the Emigrant Trail in California. For the next three decades he explored the mountains, spoke to local residents and placed markers along old trails. From the late 1940’s to the 1970’s Wendell Robie of Auburn and Bert Wiley of Sacramento researched emigrant journals and explored the mountains on horseback to distinguish the Emigrant Trail from later roads. Their maps were used by the State of California to place historical markers.

In the 2010’s, two elite ultra-distance runners were inspired by Daniel Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above to combine history with trail trekking to follow in the footsteps of the Donner Party over the mountains in winter. Bob Crowley and Tim Twietmeyer studied the historical accounts and explored the terrain for seven years to determine the most likely routes. Joined by two other accomplished ultra-distance runners, Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer, they completed two expeditions:


Forlorn Hope Expedition

The Forlorn Hope Expedition successfully retraced the journey of the Snowshoe Party, also known as the Forlorn Hope, from Donner Lake over the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter to Johnson’s Ranch. The journey of over 100 miles through unknown terrain had not been attempted since the seven survivors of the Forlorn Hope reached safety on January 17, 1847. The Expedition started their journey from the Donner Museum on December 16, 2020, 174 years to the day after the Snowshoe Party started their journey and became the Forlorn Hope. The Expedition reached Johnson’s Ranch on their fifth day of travel over the snow-covered pass and through the steep and brushy canyon of the North Fork of the American River. By making the journey in the same conditions as the Forlorn Hope, on snowshoes in winter, the team explored the history, character and motivations of the members of the Forlorn Hope. The exact route of the Forlorn Hope is unknown as they became lost before reaching Bear Valley, so one of the Expedition’s accomplishments was providing a historically accurate map of the most likely route.

Photograph of Forlorn Hope Expedition

Forlorn Hope Expedition trekking up the mountain, photographed 2020, (c) Greg Zirbel

The journey was documented through the team’s daily journals and by an embedded documentary film crew, and was tracked by GPS live over the internet.


Donner Relief Expedition

The Donner Relief Expedition left Johnson’s Ranch (east of Wheatland, CA) on February 14th, 2022 to map the route of the relief parties and explore the character and motivations of the members of the relief parties. They arrived at the Donner Museum at the east end of Donner Lake on February 18th, 2022, exactly 175 years after the arrival of the First Relief at the Lake cabins. The Expedition members are all accomplished ultra runners who the year before journeyed from Donner Lake to Johnson’s Ranch as the Forlorn Hope Expedition. Upon their arrival at the Donner Museum they presented a Donner Party Expedition Q&A as part of the Sierra State Parks Foundation’s Sierra Speakers Series, available for viewing on YouTube.

Photograph of Donner Relief Expedition

Donner Relief Expedition at Donner Memorial, photographed 2022

The journey was documented through the team’s daily journals and by an embedded documentary film crew, and was tracked by GPS live over the internet. In addition, they were joined by Josh Gates of the Discovery Channel’s Expedition Unknown, which will include the expedition in an episode Donner Party Horror and Heroes which will air on August 24 and 25, and September 3, 2022.