Donner Memorial blends history, recreation


Story & photos by Jenn Sheridan · 



History meets recreation at Donner Memorial State Park, nestled at the west end of Donner Lake at the location where some of the infamous Donner Party spent the winter of 1846-47 trapped by winter weather.

In 1918, the Native Sons of the Golden West erected the Pioneer Monument and in a ceremony that included the surviving members of the Donner Party, the monument and surrounding 11 acres of land were donated to the state of California. Today, the site is preserved as a memorial with a museum commemorating the history of humans living and travelling on Donner Summit. As well, visitors can enjoy a myriad of outdoor adventures including hikes, beaches, fishing and camping.


New Visitor Center opens
The long-awaited new Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center opened amidst fanfare and a gala celebration in early June at the park. Replacing the former Emigrant Trail Museum, the Visitor Center offers interactive exhibits, guided tours and historical movies. Begin by viewing a documentary on the Donner Party. Using evidence gathered from personal diaries and historical artifacts, the movie unravels what happened to the ill-fated pioneers.

Afterwards, explore the Visitor Center and see replica artifacts of the tools and belongings that pioneers used to survive crossing the Sierra Nevada. Additionally, visitors may learn about the Native American tribes who called the summit home during the hot summers. Exhibits also explore the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, which crosses Donner Summit just miles from the park.

Visitors may be surprised to discover that much of California’s skiing history is rooted on Donner Summit. Learn more about the first lifts used to haul skiers to the slopes, the Olympic heritage of Squaw Valley, and the first resort in the country to allow snowboarding on its slopes.


History on the Nature Trail
Just across the parking lot from the entrance to the Visitors Center is an interpretive trail that is an easy walk and covers less than a mile. A free guide available in the Visitor Center features 14 stops along the trail including tips and tricks for identifying local plant life and the campsite of the Murphy family, who survived a winter with the Donner Party.

Although the Nature Trail is closed to dogs and bikers, 2.5-miles of trail through the campground and along the lake are open to hikers, bikers and four-legged friends. Starting near the dam, the trail follows the lakeshore past secluded coves to the swimming beach and China Cove. Picnic tables and barbecue pits are conveniently located along the trails for those looking for an afternoon meal on the lake.


Watersports galore
During the summer, visitors to the park may be more interested in splashing around in the cool, clear water of Donner Lake. Whether you’d prefer a quiet paddle along the shore or a morning of waterskiing and wakeboarding, Donner Lake Watersports has the gear to get in the water. For an adrenaline-packed adventure on the lake, check out a personal watercraft or boat rental. Or, enjoy the peaceful solitude of paddling a kayak or paddleboard along the shore. Anglers will enjoy fishing for native kokanee or planted trout in the early mornings and evenings.


Beyond the park
Just outside of the State Park boundary and accessible from the campground is Cold Stream Valley, which connects hikers to the Emigrant Trail. The trail aligns with the original trail that pioneers followed when crossing the summit into California. Adventurous hikers may explore beyond to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hidden among the trees are tall granite boulders that make a perfect afternoon activity for climbers looking to work a few bouldering problems.

Three campgrounds provide the perfect base camp for families who want to spend the weekend (or longer) exploring all that Donner Memorial State Park has to offer. Amenities include clean bathrooms, fire pits and picnic tables. A public amphitheater provides entertainment after the sun goes down.

Trails in winter
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers may look forward to discovering the park during the winter. Five trails ranging from a half-mile to 5 miles meander through the park and along the lakeshore. Additionally, visitors may enter Coldstream Valley for a longer adventure and access to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Whether it’s an afternoon on the beach or a weekend under the stars, Donner Memorial State Park is worth the visit.


For more information, visit or call (530) 582-7892.