At the Donnell Vista location you can see sweeping views of the Dardanelles, Donnell Lake, and Niagara Creek Falls. The basalt formations are part of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness made up of volcanic remains of the lava flows that started at the top of Sonora Pass and flowed down the river canyon prior to the start of the Ice Age. Looking farther east across the vista, you can see into the Stanislaus River Canyon, and even further down, the Clark Fork River basin between the crest of the Sierra range.
History and Background
The Dardanelles, at an elevation of 8,875 feet, were encountered by the emigrants of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party in 1841. Passing along the Walker River Trail, also known as the “emigrant trail,” they endured many obstacles moving their animals and abandoning their wagons because of the elevation and steep cliffs. In 1853, newspaper accounts estimated several thousand emigrants came over the Walker River Trail. The majority of those pioneers settled in the Southern Mines in Tuolumne County and neighboring counties (San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties). A severe winter in 1854 all but ended the use of the route. In the next five years and until 1864, the route was re-considered by some, but finally abandoned in favor of a safer route. The new route was surveyed and a toll road constructed by private contractors – the Sonora and Mono Wagon Road, which eventually became part of today’s state highway system - Highway 108.
This high country area was seen as a way to recover water and deliver it to the mines down in the foothills. In 1858, a seventy-mile-long water system, that consisted of ditches and flumes that stretched from above Donnell Flat (now the Donnell Lake) down to the mining areas in Columbia, was constructed by the Columbia and Stanislaus Water Company. Donnell Lake was named for the men who built a sawmill on the flat now covered by the lake. Originally, it was called the Donnell and Parson’s sawmill and made timbers for the water companies. In 1948, the Tri-Dam Project approved the site below Donnell Vista for a dam which was constructed by the end of 1956. The dam is 483 feet tall at an elevation of 4,917 feet. In 1972, Hollywood discovered Donnell Vista and it became known to locals as “Paramount Point.” Several television episodes of Little House on the Prairie were filmed at this location.
New interpretive signs are located along the old trail which tell the geological story, while signs at the viewpoint tell stories with illustrations of the old water delivery system used by the miners in Columbia. There are spectacular views of the surrounding Dardanelles and volcanic cones, Donnell Dam and Lake. Looking straight out into the horizon, you get a bird’s eye view of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. The northeastern third of the wilderness is dominated by volcanic ridges and peaks interspersed with numerous lakes and meadows.
How to Get There—GPS Coordinates: N38° 20.28' W119° 55.31' (Donnell Vista)
Take Highway 108 east, past Strawberry, and turn left at the marked Stanislaus National Forest entrance to Donnell Vista point. A quarter-mile paved and gravel trail leads to the lookout point, elevation 6,300 feet. New restrooms are located near the parking area.