Exploring Donner Memorial State Park in the Summer

Donner Memorial State Park allows visitors to turn back the clock and experience a time period of exploration, tragedy, and triumph for not only the infamous Donner Party but the many diverse populations that inhabited this at times lush and other times treacherous terrain. Located in Truckee, California along Interstate 80, the park is a mere wrinkle in the vast Sierra Nevada mountain range. Donner Memorial offers the public much to enjoy including a visitor’s center and museum, nature trails, camping, and watersports at Donner Lake. My husband and I had the opportunity to visit the park one day in June of 2015. The scenery was breath-taking, the water refreshing, and the comprehensive history we gathered was eye-opening and humbling.

Levi reading out of the Nature Trail Guide
Rounding the corner to the end of the Nature Trail hike

Nature Trails

There are a number of trails leading out from the museum, some lining the perimeter of Donner Lake. We took the half-mile nature trail loop that came with a guidebook cataloging the many forms of flora and fauna of this region. The pamphlet was at the visitor’s center along with others showcasing the state park and surrounding parks. The path was an easy hike and included some very photo-worthy shots, especially around the Donner Creek which cut through the trail.

Donner Pass Lake

About to take the rental kayak for a one-hour excursion on the lake
Homes on the north shore of Donner Lake

Much of our visit to Donner Memorial State Park was spent at the enchanting Donner Lake. Nicknamed “Jewel of the Sierra”, this freshwater, alpine lake is about 3 miles long and its depth reaches a maximum of 328 feet. We sampled the water at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, as did the many visitors to the park that day. Boat rentals offered one-hour and half-day use for paddle boats, kayaks, canoes, and jet skis. We opted for the hour-long kayak adventure before swimming and piddling around on the sandy shore. Windsurfers and water skiers breezed by us. Fishermen anticipated snagging one of the many types of planted lake trout and salmon onto their lures.

A few yards from the water, picnic tables and grills were bustling with family and friends chatting and chowing down on barbecue favorites. Bicyclist and walkers traversed the lakeside trail. Dogs leapt in the water or fetched sticks. Vacation cabins line the north shore of Donner Lake, many with their own docking stations and piers.

Entrance to this section of the state park is $8, unless one has already purchased a day pass at the visitor’s center. Hours of operation are from sunrise to sunset.


Camping is located on the south side of Donner Lake. These 154 sites are available to tent campers and RVers from the end of May into October for $35 a night. Reservations can be made at www.parks.ca.gov or by calling 800-444-7275. Tables and stoves are included at each site and restrooms and showers are available for guests to use. Campsites lack hookups but can accommodate rigs up to 28 feet in length. The campground was full when we visited and I suspect remains that way throughout the summer months so early planning is probably ideal.

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