Driving west up Interstate 80 from Truckee, California, you may notice a beautiful canyon, just north of the Donner Lake exit, in between Truckee and Donner Pass. This canyon, at one time slated for a 200+ home development, was acquired by the Truckee Donner Land Trust in two transactions between 2006 and 2012, effectively protecting it from any future development. Until this point, the canyon was referred to as “Negro Canyon”, in reference to the African-American landowner at the base of the canyon around the turn of the century.
In a similar story to the renaming of Grandstaff Canyon in Utah (formerly known as “Negro Bill Canyon”), the Land Trust replaced the dated and offensive name “Negro Canyon” with “Johnson Canyon”, in honor of Albert Johnson, the African-American man who moved from Kentucky to the Truckee area around 1871 and eventually settled near the canyon.
Johnson, a well-known and respected resort owner, was initially employed by the Truckee Hotel as a cook, then as a cook on a Lake Tahoe Steamer, before becoming an innkeeper in the canyon near Donner Lake. According to historical records, he may have also been a veteran of the Civil War. Johnson was listed in the 1910 U.S. Census as a single, literate man who was a hotel keeper. At the resort, Johnson rented out both hotel rooms and cabins to guests.
During a heavy snowstorm in 1911, Albert Johnson was stranded in his hotel in the remote canyon. After the storm subsided, he was found ill and transported to the county hospital in Nevada City, CA, where he died at the age of 79.
Johnson Canyon Today
Johnson Canyon provides a key migration corridor for deer, is home to four species of protected birds, and provides direct access to the Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT). The scenic canyon is ideal for recreational activities like hiking, running, biking, and bird watching in the summer, and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
From the Wendin Way trailhead at the base of Johnson Canyon, it’s about 1.2 miles up to the Donner Lake Rim Trail – if you turn left you’ll head west towards the Warren Lake Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, or you can turn right to continue winding up the canyon towards the Tahoe Donner trail system and the Glacier Way Trailhead. For more detailed information, see the Truckee Donner Land Trust website.
For a challenging short hike or run, start at the Wendin Way trailhead, take a right at the fork (about 1.2 miles up), and continue up the switchbacks. It’s about 2.3 miles, with 1,145′ of climbing, one-way up to the Drifter Hut, along the ridge (link to strava segment). Longer options include a 12.5 mile one-way from Johnson Canyon to the PCT to Summit Canyon: link to photos and gps; or, for the more adventurous: 35 mile loop including Johnson Canyon photos and gps here.
The Truckee Donner Land Trust and Donner Party Mountain Runners both conduct volunteer trail work days in the summer months on local trails. Johnson Canyon is one of several locations where you can give back to the trails by taking part in a fun and very rewarding trail work party.
Truckee Donner Land Trust