Donner lake under the snow in winter, in Nevada

The 2024 Travel Guide to Donner Lake

Nestled in the serene Sierra Nevada mountains, Donner Lake is a hidden gem waiting to be explored by travelers seeking both adventure and tranquility. With its crystal-clear waters reflecting the majestic peaks, this idyllic destination offers a plethora of outdoor activities year-round, from hiking and fishing in the summer to skiing and snowboarding in the winter. 

Complementing the natural beauty of Donner Lake is a wide selection of Truckee Donner vacation and cabin rentals, providing cozy accommodations that promise a comfortable stay amidst the wilderness. Whether you’re planning a family getaway, a romantic retreat, or a solo adventure, our ultimate travel guide to Donner Lake will help you make the most of your visit to this enchanting locale.

Elevated view of Donner Lake at night with stars in the sky and lights all around the lake
Photo by Leo_Visions on Unsplash

Where is Donner Lake? 

Donner Lake is beautifully situated in Northern California, just west of its larger neighbour Lake Tahoe. This pristine lake lies within the town of Truckee, approximately 20 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe, providing a scenic and quieter alternative than Lake Tahoe for those seeking a getaway. For travelers coming from afar, the Reno-Tahoe International Airport is the nearest major airport, located about 40 miles to the east, offering a relatively short drive to Donner Lake via I-80. 

This proximity to major travel hubs, combined with its location close to the Interstate, makes Donner Lake an accessible destination for those looking to immerse themselves in natural beauty without straying too far from urban conveniences. The lake’s strategic position also serves as a gateway to the vast outdoor recreational activities available in the Sierra Nevada region, attracting visitors year-round.

Monument in the Donner Memorial State Park with people in front of it
Photo Credit: ‘Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee, California’ by Ken Lund via CC BY-SA 4.0

Get to Know Donner Lake’s History

Donner Lake holds a significant place in American history, most famously associated with the ill-fated Donner Party in the winter of 1846-47. This group of emigrants, seeking a new life in California, became trapped by an early and harsh winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the lake. The struggles faced by the Donner Party in their attempts to survive through the season are a poignant chapter in the history of westward expansion in the United States.

The lake and its surrounding area have been inhabited for thousands of years, originally by the Washoe Native American tribe, who utilized the rich natural resources of the region. With the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century, the area saw a transformation, particularly with the boom of the Gold Rush and the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which passed near the lake.

Today, Donner Lake is named in memory of the Donner Party, and the region is dotted with historical sites, museums, and monuments that recount the story of these early settlers. The lake itself, with its stunning natural beauty, serves as a recreational hub, but also as a solemn reminder of the past and the resilience of those who sought to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains.

For the history buffs looking to explore the area’s rich past, from its Native American heritage to its pivotal role in American westward expansion, here are some notable places to visit: 

  1. Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum: The centerpiece of the region’s historical attractions, this park and museum honor the memory of the Donner Party and others who emigrated to California in the 19th century. The museum provides detailed exhibits on the Donner Party, Native American history, and the development of the region, including the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
  2. Pioneer Monument: Located within Donner Memorial State Park, this towering monument was dedicated in 1918 to the pioneers who made the perilous journey westward. It stands near one of the campsites where the Donner Party was trapped during the winter of 1846-47.
  3. Old Truckee Jail Museum: The Old Truckee Jail Museum offers a look into the law and order of the Old West. The jail was in use from 1875 until 1964 and is one of the oldest buildings in Truckee. It provides insight into the town’s history and its role in the development of the region.
  4. Truckee Railroad Museum: Celebrating Truckee’s rich railroad history, this museum showcases the town’s role as a critical site during the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. It features exhibits on the history of the railroad, its impact on the region, and the challenges of constructing railway lines through the Sierra Nevada.
  5. China Cove Exhibit and Donner Lake: Although not a museum in the traditional sense, China Cove at Donner Lake offers outdoor interpretive signs that tell the story of the Chinese workers who played a crucial role in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The area provides a scenic backdrop to learn about the significant contributions of Chinese laborers to the region’s and the nation’s development.

Outdoor Activities To Do in Donner Lake

Donner Lake, set against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a diverse array of activities that cater to all interests and skill levels. Here’s a closer look at some of the outdoor activities you can enjoy at Donner Lake:

Speed boat pulling inflatable on the water in Donner Lake with tall green trees at the shoreline
Photo by Jeremy Stewart on Unsplash

Water Activities

  • Boating and Kayaking: With its clear, calm waters, Donner Lake is perfect for boating and kayaking. You can rent kayaks, canoes, or motorboats to explore the lake at your own pace.
  • Fishing: The lake is stocked with trout, making it a popular destination for fishing. Whether you prefer shore fishing or heading out on a boat, you’ll find plenty of spots to cast your line.
  • Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP): Paddleboarding on Donner Lake is a peaceful way to enjoy the water while getting a full-body workout. The calm mornings are especially perfect for SUP enthusiasts.
  • Swimming: The lake’s West End Beach is a family-friendly spot for swimming, with designated swimming areas, picnic facilities, and volleyball courts.

Land Activities

  • Hiking: There are numerous trails around Donner Lake suitable for all levels of hikers. The Donner Lake Rim Trail offers panoramic views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. For a more leisurely hike, try the lakeside trail that runs along the northern shore.
  • Mountain Biking: The area around Donner Lake features trails for mountain bikers of all skill levels, from gentle rides to challenging climbs and descents. We recommend the Donner Lake Bike Loop.
  • Rock Climbing: The granite cliffs around Donner Summit are renowned for rock climbing,  offering routes for beginners as well as experienced climbers.
Person in blue and white jacket with brown hat looking down at Donner Lake on a snowy day
Photo by Jeff Hopper on Unsplash

Winter Activities

  • Skiing and Snowboarding: The proximity to several top ski resorts, such as Sugar Bowl and Boreal, makes Donner Lake a convenient base for skiing and snowboarding trips.
  • Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing: The snow-covered landscape around Donner Lake is ideal for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, offering a peaceful way to explore the winter wonderland.
  • Ice Skating: In the winter months, some areas near Donner Lake set up outdoor ice skating rinks, providing a fun activity for the whole family.
Two jetties on Donner Lake on a clear day with blue skies and mountain in the background
Photo Credit: ‘Donner Lake, California’ by Ken Lund via CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Events and Festivals: Celebrating Culture at Donner Lake

Donner Lake and the surrounding Truckee area are known for hosting a variety of annual events and festivals that celebrate the region’s rich history, culture, and outdoor lifestyle. Here are some events and festivals visitors can look forward to in 2024;

Donner Lake Triathlon: An annual event that attracts athletes from all over, the Donner Lake Triathlon is a highlight for the sporting community. It features a range of races, including a full triathlon, half triathlon, and kids’ races, making it an inclusive event for all ages and skill levels. If visiting in July, the triathlon takes place on the 27th & 28th of the month.

Truckee Thursdays: During the summer months, Truckee Thursdays transform the historic downtown Truckee into a lively street fair with local artisans, food trucks, live music, and children’s activities. While primarily held in Truckee, this event draws visitors from Donner Lake and the surrounding areas.

The Donner Lake Swim: The Donner Lake Swim is a scenic 2.7-mile challenge across the cool, clear waters of Donner Lake. Swimmers from all walks of life gather to test their endurance amidst the breathtaking backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Accompanied by safety kayaks and boats, participants enjoy a secure yet thrilling open water experience. Taking place on August 10th, 2024. 

Dining Near Donner Lake: A Taste of Local Cuisine

Donner Lake boasts a vibrant culinary scene, offering a delightful array of options that cater to a variety of tastes, from cozy cafes to gourmet restaurants and inviting bars. Here are some popular dining establishments near Donner Lake, particularly in the nearby town of Truckee, which is known for its historic charm and welcoming atmosphere:


  • Wild Cherries Coffee House: A favorite among locals and visitors alike, Wild Cherries offers a casual atmosphere with a selection of coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and healthy breakfast options. It’s a great spot to fuel up before a day of adventure around Donner Lake.
  • Coffeebar Truckee: Offering a modern, European vibe, Coffeebar serves high-quality coffee, artisanal pastries, and a variety of light fare. It’s a perfect place for those looking for a cozy spot to relax or catch up on work.


  • Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar: Located in a historic building with stunning views of Truckee and the surrounding mountains, Cottonwood features a menu of seasonal, locally sourced dishes alongside a fine selection of wines and craft cocktails. Its warm, rustic ambiance makes it a great choice for a romantic dinner or a special family meal.
  • Moody’s Bistro, Bar & Beats: Set in the heart of downtown Truckee, Moody’s offers a sophisticated dining experience with a menu that blends American comfort food with a modern twist. The restaurant is also known for its live music, adding an extra layer of enjoyment to your dining experience.
  • Pianeta Ristorante: For those craving Italian, Pianeta Ristorante in downtown Truckee provides a cozy, intimate setting with a menu featuring fresh pasta, classic Italian dishes, and an extensive wine list.


  • Alibi Ale Works – Truckee Public House: A brewery and taproom offering a wide selection of craft beers brewed locally in the Lake Tahoe region. Alibi Ale Works is a great spot to unwind after a day at Donner Lake, with a friendly atmosphere and occasional live music.
  • Truckee Tavern and Grill: Known for its craft cocktails and hearty, American dishes, Truckee Tavern and Grill offers a sophisticated yet relaxed dining experience. The bar area is a perfect spot to enjoy a drink with friends, offering a warm, inviting ambiance.

Set Your Sights on Donner Lake

With thrilling outdoor activities, rich historical sites, diverse dining options and cozy accommodations, Donner Lake is a destination that invites exploration and relaxation in equal measure. Whether you’re an adventurer at heart, a history enthusiast, or simply in need of a tranquil retreat, Donner Lake beckons with open arms. So pack your bags, set your sights on this captivating locale, and prepare to create unforgettable memories in the heart of California’s majestic mountain landscape.