Magnificent panoramic views, fascinating history, and interesting geology sums up Red Mountain.
The peak of Red Mountain stands two thousand feet above I-80, above the Eagle Lakes exit 12 miles west of Donner Summit and 5 miles east of the Highway 20 turnoff from I-80.
The views from the top are spectacular for 360 degrees and that’s why the railroad chose it as a fire lookout. To prevent Donner Summit’s heavy snowfall (35 feet a year) from stopping train traffic, the Central Pacific built almost 40 miles of snow sheds. Those snow sheds kept the tracks free of snow, but were also a fire hazard as they baked in the summer sun. Sparks from locomotives set them off and special fire trains were kept ready with full heads of steam to speed off and fight the fires.
Red Mountain, also known as Signal Peak, has a view of most of the snow sheds so the railroad built a stone building at the top staffed 24 hours a day by two fire watchers. Only a year after the telephone was invented, one was installed on Signal Peak. Seeing a fire, fire watchers would telephone Cisco down the road. An operator there would telegraph the fire’s location and the special fire trains would head out.
From the top of Red Mountain you can not only see the snow sheds still remaining, but many lakes, mountains and lots of scenery. If you look closely you can also see the remains of mining.
You can still visit the lookout and imagine what it was like living up there while enjoying a picnic lunch with incomparable views, But it will take some work to get there.
Take the Eagle Lakes exit from I-80 and follow the paved road north and around. You will come to the Indian Springs USFS campground on the south, river side, of the road. A little further along on the north side you will come to the turnoff for Signal Peak OHV.
If you are thinking about driving it, make sure you REALLY like four wheelin’ and have a raised body, over-sized tires, a jack, and good driving skills. Please note it is a rough road and there are note many opportunities in the initial rough parts to turn around.
The road is very steep and gets steeper. In the first mile and a quarter it rises 900 feet. In total the route is only three and a quarter miles long, but rises 2,100 feet. Up up it goes. The last few hundred yards are the hardest. Those last yards are like climbing stairs that shift under you.
If you are up to challenging hikes though, the walk is a good one if you don’t make it too late in the year. Wildflowers, butterflies, streams, and meadows are all nice additions to the gorgeous views. Later in the season the dirt is very dry and the hike is very dusty and hot. Wear boots that support you since there is a lot of loose rock. Bring water.
As you travel the road, imagine… a good portion of the road, before you turn off to Red Mountain, was the stage road that went from Cisco to Meadow Lake, a short-lived mining town that grew in just a couple of years to hundreds of buildings before the over optimistic speculators discovered the gold they thought was there could not be easily removed.
On top it’s spectacular and you can imagine the days when the peak was in integral part of the railroad. There is more though.
The mountain is REALLY historic. Sixty five million years ago, according to "Assembling California", which is an excellent book about California geology, the mountain was sitting out in the Pacific Ocean as an island. Subsequent plate tectonics slammed it into California, eventually making it a peak in the Sierra (elevation 7,700 feet).
Much later, in the twentieth century, Red Mountain was also a ski center hosting some of the first modern downhill competitions.