Where is Donner Memorial State Park
Just a 5-minute drive from the historic Sierra Nevada Railroad town of Truckee, California you will find Donner Memorial State Park located at the east side of Donner Lake. Truckee California is a charming mountain town located 1 hour and 40 minutes north east of Sacramento, and just north of the infamous Lake Tahoe. The closest large city is Reno, Nevada about a 40-minute drive away. The park sits along the early emigrant route, a historic trail used by pioneers to settle the west.
How Big is Donner Memorial State Park
The US State Park has 3,293 acres to explore via 2.5 miles of hiking trails and 3 miles of shoreline on Donner Lake. Donner Lake is a 2.7-mile-long, .6-mile-wide high alpine, cold water lake popular for summer swimming, boating, fishing, jet skiing, and paddling.
Donner Memorial State Park Weather
Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, the seasons are extreme here with hot summers and cold, snowy winters. The park visitor center and shoreline access are open to enjoy in the winter; however, majority of lake recreation ends at the end of September. Truckee California receives an average of over 200 inches of snow a year from as early as October, to May. Winter temperatures from November through March average a high of 40 degrees and a low down to 10 degrees.
The snow piles up from October to April and starts to thaw and melt through June. Snowmelt from the hills around Donner Lake end up chilling the lake water to a brisk 58 degrees. April through June, the trees and wildflowers start to bloom and temperatures warm into the 60s with wildlife appearing such as black bears and mountain lions.
July through September are the warmest summer months averaging a high of 85 degrees and a low down to 35 in the evenings. The water in Donner lake warms up in July to a high of 71 degrees making it nice to swim in during a hot summer day.
Aspen tree leaves in the area will start to change to yellow and orange in September and October, a sign that winter is nearing and the camping at the park closes for the winter season.
When did Donner Memorial become a State Park
Donner Lake area has a long history of semi-nomadic tribes hunting game and fishing in the area. The gold rush in the 1800’s brought settlers and interest to travel west into the area. In December of 1846 a group of 9 ox driven wagons ended their journey to expand out west in Truckee during a fatal winter. The party attempted to cross Donner Pass just above Donner Lake ending in fatality of all but a few who survived on the remains of their deceased parties.
45 of the 91 person Donner party survived and Donner Pass and Donner Memorial State Park were named and dedicated to all those pioneers who ventured overland to California. Donner Memorial Park was established in 1928.
Things to do in Donner Memorial State Park
From June through October, the park offers camping, hiking, boating, kayaking, fishing, a museum and visitors center, picnicking, and swimming in the lake.
Fish for Salmon and Trout
There is a great beach to fish from for Kokanee salmon and trout. Bring your rod and bait! The ace hardware in downtown Truckee will supply you with all you need to fish.
Kayak on Donner Lake
Donner Lake Water Sports is located in the park and offers kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, and other fun toys to paddle around Donner Lake.
Picnic near the lake
Picnic tables are available along the Lakeside Interpretive Trail to enjoy a packed lunch. Remember to pack out what you pack in.
Go to the Visitors Center
The visitors center includes exhibits of native American Washoe lifestyle, the 1840 emigration, including the Donner Party tragedy, railroad history, and automobile travel around Truckee and over Donner Pass.
Check out the commemorative monument
The Pioneer Monument is a statue dedicated on 1918 to the explorers of California.
Hike the Lakeside Interpretive Trail
An all level 2.5-mile trail follows the lake shore to China Cove and back. Picnic tables are along the way.
Bike the Zig Zag Trail
This 3-mile trail starts behind the campground and is a multi-use trail available for mountain bikers. The trail will take you to an overlook trail to the east, and to the west China Cove, a swimming cove on Donner Lake. Bring a map as getting turned around in the forest is easy to do and there are plenty of other trails that branch out of the state park into other public lands.
When to go to Donner Memorial State Park
Visiting in the summer from July through September will offer the most activities to enjoy at the lake. The campground is open from May-September. Donner Lake will be at its warmest temperature in July, bringing in the most crowds. Truckee is a vacation hotspot for many ‘bay area’ folks from San Francisco in the summer, making it a very busy town in July and August.
After September, the weather starts to cool down, but the park still has plenty to do on a warm fall day. The leaves start to change color in nearby aspen groves making it a beautiful photo next to the lake. Peace can be found with minimal crowds in September and October after the campground has closed.
Arrive to the park early in the morning to ensure you get a parking spot or you can park outside of the park further down Donner Pass Road and walk in.
What to Bring to Donner Memorial State Park
Located at high elevation in the mountains, our National Park Visitors Guide advises being prepared for wildlife encounters, unpredictable weather, and rocky hiking trails is necessary to enjoy the park.
At almost 6,000 elevation, staying hydrated is very important as to not get headaches and altitude sickness. Drink more water than expected and have plenty of water to cool down on a hot summer sun.
The park does not have any food venders so make sure to bring your own food and snacks.
Proper Hiking Boots
Hiking trails around Donner lake are dirt with lots of rocks and loose gravel. List of Parks recommends proper hiking boots which are key in the spring and fall when trails can be muddy and slick from rain.
Rain jacket, warm layers
The unpredictable high-altitude weather can mean sunny and 80 degrees one minute, then hailing and pouring rain the next! Bring layers to stay warm at all times of the year.
Swim gear and towel
Swimming in the lake can be very refreshing, but the water is very cold. It’s manageable to jump in and out quickly during summer, but if you plan on spending a longer time in the water, rent or bring a wetsuit. Always have a towel to dry off to prevent hypothermia from the cold lake water. Bringing fun water toys such as a pool floatie, inner tube, or water lounge chair are great to float on the lake while staying warm.
Black bears frequent this area and if accustomed to humans can be over friendly. Keep your food and belongings always on your body and carry bear spray incase an over friendly bear smells your food. There are also mountain lions in the area.
Spring and summer warmth bring a lot of mosquitos and bugs. Have some bug spray to keep these pests from biting you.
Where to stay in Donner Memorial State Park
Donner Memorial State Park Campground offers 154 campsites and is open from Memorial Day to mid-October. The campground is split into three different campgrounds, Split Rock, Ridge, and Creek campgrounds. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advanced and it is recommended as the campground is very popular and sells out. Camping is $35/site.
Truckee town offers many hotels, bed and breakfasts, and other camping areas. The Inn at Truckee is a short 2-minute drive toward the historic downtown Truckee that offers great views of Donner Lake and Donner Pass.
Food Nearby Donner Memorial State Park
There is no food at the state park, but a short 5-minute drive away in the main downtown of Truckee located on Donner Pass Road. There are many different restaurants available on the charming main street of Historic downtown Truckee, from fine dining to quick eats and everything in between.
Located on the west shore of Donner Lake, Donner Lake Village hosts several eatery options as well. Grab some ice cream from Little Truckee Ice Creamery and walk to the nearby marina across the road. Sticks Market is a short 10-minute easy walk away on Donner Lake offering a small grocery store with a deli.
Airports near Donner Memorial State Park
A 45-minute drive away, Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nevada is the closest major airport to Donner Memorial State Park. It is best to rent a car in Reno and drive to Donner Memorial State Park as there are many other sites to see around Truckee and nearby Lake Tahoe that require having a vehicle. Truckee Tahoe Airport is a small airstrip located only 10 minutes from the state park but does not offer many flights.