Tucked into a historic High Sierra pass along the western edge of Truckee, Donner Lake suddenly appears like a shimmering blue jewel off Interstate 80. At 2.7 miles long, Donner is only a fraction of the size of nearby Lake Tahoe. But frequent visitors love the lake as a compact, uncrowded alternative for water sports and mountain recreation—with outstanding skiing just minutes away at such spots as Donner Ski Ranch, Tahoe Donner, and Sugar Bowl Resort.
From early westbound pioneers through the heyday of the Central Pacific Railroad and into the interstate age, Donner Pass has been a historic travel route through the Sierra Nevada. The visitor center at Donner Memorial State Park along the lake’s southern shore commemorates the area’s long history, including an account of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846. A shoreline interpretive path and eight miles of trails make the park an ideal destination for anyone looking to explore the Sierra, whether on hikes or by snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Climbers will also find bouldering options for all skill levels in the park.
At Donner Summit Canyon, an addition to the park donated by the Truckee Donner Land Trust, a trail follows the original route of the famed Lincoln Highway, and along the way you can see Native American petroglyphs and look for wildlife at a beaver pond. The land trust is also constructing the 23-mile-long Donner Lake Rim Trail, and its completed stretches lead to spectacular lake views for hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. If you want to go bicycling but need a little boost to help with the elevation and terrain, Donner Lake E Bikes rents electric-assisted road and off-road bicycles.
Summer is the time to get out on the lake. Whether you’re looking to water ski or go paddling, Donner Lake Watersports at the marina rents a big selection of craft—from 25-foot surfboats to stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. A short distance from the marina, the lifeguard-staffed West End Beach Park is the perfect place to take the kids swimming, with picnic sites available by reservation. Or launch kayaks and canoes (and just jump in the water) from one of the 37 first-come, first-served piers along the lake’s north shore. Donner Lake is also a prime location for anglers looking to hook kokanee salmon and three kinds of trout, including some of California’s biggest Mackinaws.
Right across from the water on the north shore, fill up for your day outdoors with breakfast at Donner Lake Kitchen, a local classic since the 1970s thanks to such favorites as huevos rancheros and several variations of eggs Benedict. Or head to the west end of the lake where The Pub at Donner Lake serves up half-pound American Wagyu burgers for lunch and a grilled salmon in a house-made Romesco sauce at dinner. And for something sweet on a summer day, savor the salted caramel, mint chip, and other small-batch, premium flavors at Little Truckee Ice Creamery.