Donner Lake & Donner Summit


Jenn Sheridan  ·

An area steeped in history, Donner Pass is a hub for transportation into the West. One of the first routes used by pioneers to cross into California, Donner Pass was later a passage for the first transcontinental railroad, as well as the first highway to cross the country. Today, the quiet community surrounding the Donner Lake and Summit area is a hot spot for outdoor recreation and a great place to spend an afternoon exploring this area’s history.

Good eats at Old 40
Stacey and Brett Fite have owned the Old 40 Kitchen and Grill for more than 2 years, and it is a staple in the community for breakfast and lunch.

“Everything is made as fresh to order as we can,” Stacey says The Fites don’t believe in pre-packaged food and purchase their goods from local vendors and farmers when possible. Even the souvenir T-shirts are printed locally at the Donner Lake Gift Shop.

The menu features egg scrambles and omelets, including the Old Forty Special. Meant for the whole family, the special is an eight-egg scramble or omelet with choice of meat. Other favorites include the French toast, and the burgers or the breakfast Combo. Vegan and gluten-free options also are available. The Old 40 is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily and during football season they are open during Monday Night Football.


Donner Memorial State Park

Pioneer history
After breakfast, head to Donner Memorial State Park, named in honor of the pioneers who perished crossing the mountains on the way west. The Emigrant Trail Museum showcases the history of these pioneers, including the infamous story of the Donner Party, who spent a winter on the pass after becoming trapped by weather. Additionally, the museum shows a documentary every hour on the hour. A new museum is under construction and is slated to open next summer.

Two cabin sites also are part of the park, one is in the park entrance and is now the site of the Pioneer Monument, and the second can be found along the half-mile nature trail within the park. A second 2½-mile trail winds along the shore and beaches of Donner Lake. At the west end of the park is the private Donner Lake Marina.


Explore on wheels or on water
Get out on the lake with Donner Lake Water Sports. The rental station at the day-use area in Donner Memorial State Park offers paddleboats, kayaks, canoes, jet skis and fishing boats. A satellite rental spot on the west side of the lake rents a pontoon boat, Runabouts with or without wake towers and bimini tops, and a Ski Centurion, along with the accessories for an afternoon of waterskiing, wakeboarding or tubing. Employee Brendan Mooney suggests early mornings for paddling to avoid choppy water from afternoon winds. Donner Lake Water Sports will be open through the second weekend in September and beyond, weather permitting, feel free to call and leave a message anytime regarding reservations at (530) 582-5112.

For those who would rather explore the lake on wheels, Donner Bike and Ski Lounge offers cruisers, perfect for the bike paths along the shoreline. The lounge is a great place for groups to meet before heading out for an afternoon bike ride or hike. The shop also offers full bike repair and tuning services and will offer full ski tuning and race tuning during the winter, as well as snowshoe and cross country ski rentals and back-country ski demos.

Martha’s Kitchen is another family owned favorite on Donner Lake featuring Mexican cuisine. Favorite dishes include the Chile Rellenos, Carnitas and Chile Verde. Grab lunch on the outdoor patio and enjoy the summer weather. The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through the middle of September.


Jenn Sheridan

Explore Donner Summit
After lunch, head west and explore Old Highway 40. Once the first transcontinental highway, the Donner Summit section of Old Highway 40 offers stunning views and the opportunity to explore some of the area’s history. Climbers can often be seen scaling the walls near Rainbow Bridge with Donner Lake as the backdrop.

Stop by the Donner Summit Historical Society for a brochure of the 20-mile museum (also available online at The brochure is a guide to 34 historical sites from Nyack Lodge to Donner Summit. From the petroglyphs left by Native Americans who first crossed the Sierras to examples of the hard labor by Chinese workers to build the transcontinental railroad, the Airway station that guided flights over the pass, and the site of the first rope tows, there is something to signify each period in Donner Summit history.

While visiting the Donner Summit Historical Society, ask President Norm Saylor for more information about the region, as well as hikes in the area that explore more historical sites. Saylor has lived on Donner Summit for more than 50 years and was the former owner of Donner Ski Ranch. The majority of exhibits on display in the Donner Summit Historical Society come from his personal collection, which he has spent a lifetime researching. Additionally, the historical society often hosts guided hikes.

For more hiking, check out the Donner Summit Canyon Trail, which follows parts of Old Highway 40 and will take hikers past historical sites, including in the 20-mile museum. Additionally, the Truckee Donner Land Trust recently purchased the land in Royal Gorge and is working to preserve current trail systems, as well as to build new ones.


Jenn Sheridan

Finish with award-winning chili
After exploring the history and hiking on Donner Summit, grab a cold beer at Tinker’s Station. A hostel for travelers seeking lodging out of town, the pub and café at Tinker’s Station is a popular hangout for locals.

For dinner, visit the Summit Restaurant and Bar offering a small, carefully crafted menu including chicken or eggplant Florentine, and steak and seafood selections. They’re also known for the signature chili, which won the Truckee Chili Cook-Off two years ago. Tuesdays are taco night, which means three chicken, pork, steak or fish tacos for $9.95. The Summit also offers free pool on Thursday nights.

The Tahoe Area Regional Transit offers public transportation throughout the area. Visit for a complete schedule. See Events for details on upcoming events.

By Jenn Sheridan

Main page photo courtesy Donner Lake Rim Trail


Upcoming events

Live music | Entertainment section in this issue

Sept. 7
6 p.m. | Empty Museum Party | Donner Memorial State Park

Sept. 7 & 8
Trails & Vistas Art Hikes | See feature in this issue

Sept. 8
Dog Day of Summer | West End Beach

Sept. 15
5:30-9 p.m. | Lake Mary Dinner | Norden

Sept. 20-21
Yoga & Hiking weekend | Clair Tappaan Lodge

Sept. 21
9 a.m. | Loch Levon Lakes hike | Donner Summit

Oct. 5-6
Donner Party Hikes | Donner Summit

Oct. 6
Trestle Tours | Donner Summit

Visitor information

California Welcome Center | Downtown Truckee
Public transportation |