If you stop for a moment to catch your breath at the bottom of the chair lifts at California's Donner Ski Ranch, you can look across the hill toward 7,135-foot Donner Pass. There in a low opening, an icy wind whips up the snow covering the ruts of the old Emigrant Trail across the Sierra Nevadas.
Snow has always fallen deep and lasted long in these steep valleys. In the spring of 1847, a rescue party from Sacramento fought its way through 20-foot drifts to reach the starving remnants of the Donner Party of pioneers, snowbound without food since the previous October.
As every California schoolchild learns with a quiver of thrill and horror in history class, the survivors had clung to life for six long months, eating first their horses and oxen, and toward the end, as the weaker ones died, each other.
Today things are different. A multilane highway -- Interstate 80 -- crosses Donner Summit, connecting Sacramento in the west with Reno, Nev., to the east. What once was an exhausting four-week wagon trek on rocky, rutted tracks over the Western Divide now is a spectacular, comfortable two-hour drive.
And nearby, on the rugged mountain summit, is something the despairing wayfarers could hardly have imagined: Four family-style ski resorts clustered together: Boreal, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch.
Winter weather in this part of the Sierra Nevada Range hasn't changed much since then, occasional warm cycles to the contrary. Donner Summit, about 10 miles west of Truckee, remains a region of rugged peaks and shaded valleys, and it still collects -- and keeps -- some of the Sierra's deepest, longest-lasting snow.
Usually by the first of December, the first dozen inches cover the ground; by spring, snow depths often exceed 20 feet. Despite all the wonderful white stuff, the Donner Summit ski resorts don't get much press, even in the ski world.
Instead, nearby Lake Tahoe gets all the attention -- and most of the crowds, too. So the Donner Pass area has become a favorite for local skiers -- residents of central California, families who drive up from Sacramento, Grass Valley and San Francisco.
The Donner Summit resorts are small and don't pretend to be glamorous or glitzy, but they're low-key and uncrowded. Among the four are only 23 ski lifts and 145 runs. The lowest elevation is 6,700 feet and the highest is 8,383 feet. The longest single run is two miles. Except for Sugar Bowl, which has a vertical drop of 1,500 feet, the others average about 650 feet.
There are few high-style cafes, glass-walled hot tubs or designer ski-wear shops, but there also aren't
roving bands of hot doggers, long lift lines or traffic jams in the parking lot. Celebrities do ski there -- particularly at Sugar Bowl, which has a hideaway, European-village flavor -- but they keep a low profile.
A few out-of-state skiers visit Donner Summit each winter, because these resorts are the closest to Sacramento and the Bay Area. Business travelers who plan to stay over the weekend can drive up from the Sacramento airport in 90 minutes on roads that are kept plowed and clear.
Coming east on Interstate 80, you'll find all four resorts just off the Soda Springs exit. Boreal, a favorite of locals, is a friendly, family place where the lift-line wait averages about 5 minutes. Nine double chair lifts and one triple feed skiers onto 39 groomed runs -- 75 percent rated as intermediate slopes, 15 percent expert and 10 percent beginner.
Want to ski a half-day, or at night under the lights? Boreal sells half-day tickets for $19 (adults) and $12 (children), and night tickets for $13 and $10. Day lift tickets are $27 and $14. Boreal's "Ski School Specialists" gear lessons toward beginners, with a two-hour group lesson at $18.
The resort also runs "Animal Crackers," a children's day-care program. While the parents ski, children are entertained with a variety of indoor and outdoor-snow activities.
Boreal also has a large ski rental shop, a cafeteria, snack bar and sports shop, and a video game room. Overnighters usually stay at the Boreal Inn, a square brick building that's hardly glamorous but comfortable. The inn is moderately priced; room rates include Continental breakfast.
For more of an old-time Sierra ski weekend and a Swiss resort flavor, veteran skiers prefer 1,000-acre Sugar Bowl, the second-oldest resort in the Tahoe-Donner area (it was built in 1939). Sugar Bowl resembles an Alpine village on a hillside, with an old hotel, a group of hillside chalets and no cars. How do skiers get there? They park on the opposite hill and ride across a deep valley on the gondola to the village, lodge and lifts.