North America > United States

Donner Lake, California: The Jewel of the Sierra

Donner Lake
lakeDonner Lake
countryUnited States
surface area3 km2
maximum depth100 m
average depth33 m
lake typeNatural freshwater lake, moraine dammed
length4 km
width1 km
catchment area41 km2
altitude1,815 m
volume0.01 km3
inflowsSummit Creek, Gregory Creek, and many springs
outflowsDonner Creek to Truckee River
shore length13 km
residence time189 days
trophic stateOligotrophic
average discharge0.78 m3 / sec.

Donner Lake Information and Facts

Donner Lake is a freshwater lake located on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada in Northeast California. The beautiful and historic town of Truckee (population: approximately 16,000) is located on its shores, while the famous and much larger Lake Tahoe is located 11 miles (18 km) to the Southeast.

Geography and Hydrography

The lake has a surface area of 3.4 sq km (1.3 square miles), reaches a maximum depth of 100 meters (328 feet), and sits at an elevation of 1,815 meters (5,955 feet). Donner Lake is fed by Summit Creek and Gregory Creek, and is drained by Donner Creek, which then takes its waters to Truckee River and Pyramid Lake. A moraine, which was formed by glaciers carrying debris along their path, creates a natural dam for the lake. The water level of the lake is controlled by a man-made dam that was built in 1928.

Interstate 80 is located to the North of Donner Lake, while Schallenberger Ridge is located to the South, with the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad running along it. The first automobile road across United States, the historic Lincoln Highway, follows the northern shore of Donner Lake and then climbs to the spectacular Donner Pass, which offers breathtaking views of the lake. Donner Lake is 100 miles east of Sacramento and less than 40 miles from Reno, Nevada.

Recreation and Activities

Donner Lake is a beautiful lake that boasts sparkling water and 13 kilometers (8 miles) of shoreline. Surrounded by dense pine forests and rows of picturesque mountains, Donner Lake is one of the most beautiful recreation lakes in California. It’s no wonder that people return to this amazing lake year after year. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy many activities here including boating, fishing, waterskiing, windsurfing, hiking, biking, camping, and picnicking.

On the North shore of the lake, 30 public docks are spread over 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of shoreline, and are available for swimmers and boaters. The beautiful West End Beach attracts sunbathers and swimmers alike. There’s a fee-based public boat ramp on the northwestern corner of the lake, where you can launch your boat, kayak, canoe, etc. A full-service marina that rents boats is available as well. During winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing along hiking trails are popular activities.

Donner Lake sailboat

Photo credit: Tom Hilton on Flickr.

Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Memorial State Park is located on the eastern and partly on the southern shore of the lake, and is surrounded by the Tahoe National Forest. One of the main features of the park is the Emigrant Trail Museum, which highlights the lake’s history from the time when the first native people lived here to the building of the transcontinental railroad. Built in 1918, the Pioneer Monument sits near the museum and commemorates the Donner Party.

There are over 150 campsites here that provide tables, stoves, and food lockers among impressive pines and white fir trees. Restrooms and showers are provided as well, and some of the sites can accommodate RVs. The park is great for a wide array of outdoor activities including biking, hiking, fishing, and picnicking. There is no boat launch in the park, but watercraft can be rented.

Shoreline Park

On the lake’s north shore, Shoreline Park has a fishing dock that was designed for people with limited mobility. Shoreline Park and China Cove are considered excellent scuba diving sites.

Shoreline Park is a great place to relax in during the hot summer days, as it offers plenty of shade among its trees. There are several picnic tables and a BBQ area, as well as a boat launch. Restroom facilities and limited parking are also available at Shoreline Park.


Donner Lake has a total of 4 beaches, two of which are public and two are private. West End Beach and China Cove beach are the two public beaches.

West End Beach

West End Beach is located, as its name suggests, on the western shore of Donner Lake. It has an area of 10 acres, and is owned and maintained by the Truckee Donner Recreation & Park District. It offers beautiful views and great amenities.

Some of the amenities available at West End Beach include basketball court, boat parking and rentals, seasonal boat storage, a covered pavilion that can be reserved for weddings, a fishing area, BBQ and picnic areas, playground areas, a tennis court, and more.

There are lifeguards on duty here from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. on weekdays, and from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. on weekends. West End Beach is open from Memorial Day to the middle of September, from dawn to dusk.

China Cove

China Cove Beach is located on the southern shore of Donner Lake and can be accessed from the Donner Memorial State Park. Also referred to as the Donner Memorial State Park Beach, it is a beautiful spot, and usually not very crowded.

The trees behind the beach provide great shade, and there are also some picnic tables and BBQ areas here. Bear in mind that there is no lifeguard on duty here, and the water can be really cold.

Donner Lake beach

Photo credit: Gelyn Resuma on Flickr.


Donner Lake is very popular among sailors, water skiers, jet skiers, and people who enjoy cruising on clear, pristine waters. The speed limit on the lake is 35 mph (56 km/h). It’s very common to see windsurfers enjoying the lake along people in kayaks or canoes.


Donner Lake is periodically stocked with trout, and is thought to be home to some of the largest lake trout in California. Other fish species here include brown trout, rainbow trout, and kokanee. A valid fishing license is required. Fishermen use downriggers and troll with plugs to catch kokanee and rainbow trout. During spring and fall, lake trout can be hooked in shallow water, as they come to the surface to feed.


Donner Lake Memorial Park offers several trail options for hikers. There’s a half-mile nature trail where you might have the chance to spot squirrels, deer, porcupines, chipmunks, beavers, raccoons, and various native birds. The lake itself, which is 8 miles (13 km) around, makes for a great hike.

A scenic hiking trail, 2.5 miles in length, traces portions of the Emigrant Trail. There are also several points near Donner Lake where visitors can join the famous Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. Additional trails for mountain biking and horseback riding are available into the mountains.

Donner Lake view

Photo credit: Nick on Flickr.


It is thought that the Donner Lake area was first inhabited at least 6,000 years ago. The Washoe tribe were among the first people to hunt and fish here.

During the 19th century, Americans were moving to California in order to build a new future, but crossing the High Sierras in wagon trains was very perilous at the time. In the winter of 1846-1847, the Donner Party led by George Donner and James F. Reed was caught in a powerful mountain blizzard and was trapped east of Donner Lake (which was then called Truckee Lake). At least 39 people died, and the episode has been described by historians as one of the most bizarre tragedies in California’s history. The lake is named after the Donner Party.

Truckee, a Charming Town

Truckee is truly an idyllic vacation spot. Surrounded by the beauty of the mountains and that of Donner Lake, it offers an abundance of things to do and see throughout the year.

The charming Downtown Truckee Commercial Row is full of quaint shops and cozy restaurants to explore. The adventurous types can enjoy the two ski resorts and plenty opportunities for river rafting, fishing, kayaking, hiking and biking trails, and more. The town is also close to Reno, Nevada, as well as to Tahoe City, Kings Beach, and Incline Village.

Donner Lake Fish Species

Brown trout
Rainbow trout
Kokanee salmon
Lake trout