Donner Lake, California

Whether you prefer your fun in the summer sun or in the snow, look no further than Donner Lake for a perfect, year-round getaway. Located 11 miles Northwest of Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake isn’t far off the beaten path, but offers significant rewards to those willing to make the trek. From its breathtaking, panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and unique historical sites, to its superb trout fishing and close proximity to several legendary skiing destinations, Donner Lake has more than a little something to suit just about anyone’s tastes.

Donner Lake History
During the last ice age, glaciers began to form in the Tahoe Basin, and the movement of these glaciers over the last 10,000 years has scoured out the basins that form Fallen Leaf Lake, Donner Lake, and Emerald Bay today (Lake Tahoe itself wasn’t formed by a glacier, but by volcanic activity several million years prior). The gradually warming climate of the last 7,000 years coupled with a regular supply of fresh, glacial meltwater produced Donner Lake’s lush ecosystem as it stands today. The lake runs almost perfectly on an East/West axis, with Donner Summit, a natural granite dam bounding the Western end, and the Tahoe National Forest (mostly consisting of tall junipers and single-leaf pines) on its Eastern edge.

Human habitation at Donner Lake has been ongoing since the Middle Archaic Period (approximately 4500 BCE). The first regular visitors were nomadic tribes such as the Paiute, Maidu, and Washoe, who ascribed a spiritual significance to the lake’s transcendent beauty and its pristine waters teeming with trout and salmon. In recent decades, the Washoe tribe established the Washoe Hunting and Fishing Commission in 1978, to continue their custodial role protecting the area’s wildlife and natural resources.

Within the last two centuries alone, the lake (currently within the town limits of Truckee, CA) has gained a rich and colorful history. Donner Lake derives its name from (you probably guessed it) the ill-fated Donner Party. For those unfamiliar with the tale, in the winter of 1846-1847, a band of 87 pioneers attempted the trek from Springfield, IL to San Francisco. As they were crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the pass through the mountains became clogged with snow drifts over twenty feet deep. While waiting for the route to become passable, the band’s meager food supplies dwindled, and after several members of the group succumbed to starvation, cold and disease, some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. By the time the group was rescued, only forty five members of the original group survived. The Donner Party’s story stirred the sympathy of an America very much familiar at the time with the migrant experience, though they were doubtlessly just as fascinated by the more sensationalistic aspects of the tale. Into the present, their story still captures the American public’s imagination, and has been used as the basis for numerous plays, novels, and films.

Donner Lake Skiing
If you’re concerned first and foremost with hitting the slopes, Donner Lake is perfectly placed between some of the best resorts this side of the Rockies. First and foremost is Royal Gorge, the largest XC resort on the continent. Located just a bit over nine miles from Donner Lake, Royal Gorge provides a staggering 200+ km of groomed trails over 6,000 acres, and happily accomodates traditional skiers as well as XC skating, snowshoeing, and fat tire snowbiking. Boreal caters primarily to the snowboarding set, and the resort hosted the US Snowboarding Grand Prix in 2009. Seasoned pros may want to check out Alpine Meadows, which features the highest vertical drop in the area, a staggering 1,802 ft with a top elevation of 8, 637 ft. If you’re seriously interested in improving your skills, consider visiting Sugar Bowl (a mere 6.6 miles away) which features a preperatory school for competitive skiers. For the young or those new to the sport, Tahoe Donner offers training classes for skiers as young as 3 years of age.

Keep in mind that many resorts keep the fun rolling long after the snow melts in the Spring! Squaw Valley hosts annual events such as Jazz and Funk Fest, Peaks and Paws and Bluesdays. If your priority is staying fit and active year-round, Alpine Meadows offers a 19 hole golf course as well as a lift-serve mountain bike park.

Donner Lake Community and Recreation
Are you ready to hit the beach? Whether you’d like to go for a brisk swim or simply relax and soak in the sun, Donner Lake’s inviting, crystal-blue waters reach an average temperature in the summer of 76°–six degrees warmer than Lake Tahoe. If you’re just interested in diving in and cooling off as soon as possible, there are two sandy beaches available to the public: the West End Beach and the Donner Memorial State Park (on the Eastern shore of the lake). The West End Beach provides shaded picnic and barbecue sites, and their concession stand will ensure that your own Donner Party stays fed and well-provisioned during their stay. Donner Memorial State Park features campgrounds, trails for hiking and biking, skiing trails during the winter, and the Emigrant Trail Museum, which commemorates the Donner Party and other pioneers who braved the passage through the mountains into California. Of note to first-time visitors to the area: be sure to check the park’s website for available dates, and keep in mind that all arrivals must be booked at least two days in advance.

For your rental needs, Donner Lake Marina offers stand-up paddleboards, single and double kayaks, hydrobikes, jet skis, motorboats and paddleboats available by hourly, half day and full day rates. Taxes and gas (if applicable) are included with all rentals. If you’re the health-conscious type or just enjoy a good physical challenge, Donne Lake hosts an annual Donner Lake Triathlon each year in late August, so be sure to sign up if you’re in town.

Last but not least by any stretch, is Donner Lake’s great fishing! The lake holds some of the largest Mackinaw trout in California, and its waters abound with Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Kokanee Salmon as well. Grab a spot at one of Donner Lake’s 30 public docks and cast your line, or – if you’ve got your heart set on one of the aforementioned Mackinaws – troll the waters by China Cove, on the Southeast side of the lake.

Donner Lake Real Estate and Vacation Homes
Homes and cabins in the Lake Tahoe area are typically scarce, owing to the fact that many families prefer to pass on these properties from one generation to the next. However, if you’re open to the prospect of homebuilding, there are still some undeveloped lots for sale in the Donner Lake area, starting around $44,000. Most new homes in the area opt for a variety of modern designs, as well as their own private piers on the lake. In the rare event that you come across a lakefront property for sale – even a small “fixer upper” cabin – expect the starting price to exceed $1,000,000. Modest cabin homes in the surrounding area not located on the lakefront typically range between $200,000 and $400,000.

If you want to spend your summers waking up to the breathtaking lake and mountain views of Donner lake, there are numerous long and short term vacation rental properties available. Depending on the length of your stay and the amenities desired, prices can vary considerably, but in general non-luxury vacation homes run $100-300 a night, and weekly rates running $1000-$3500.


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