Snowshoeing at magical Donner Lake

The brilliant blue sky is nearly blinding against the freshly fallen snow surrounding Donner Lake following a barrage of recent winter storms. A snowshoe on a bright, sunny day is just the medicine I need to cure the doldrums that had started to set in following January’s massive snowfall.

Brilliant blue skies twinkle over Schallenberger Ridge at Donner Lake.

It’s not the amount of snow – bring it – or even the shoveling, the ski traffic or the winter driving – it’s the overcast days that lingered on and on following the storms. I was craving those bluebird winter days that the Tahoe Sierra is famous for.

My friend Priya Hutner and I were as chatty as schoolgirls as we started off on our snowshoe trek from Donner Memorial State Park. After weeks of steady snows that had us snowbound for extended periods, we had a lot to catch up on and a snow-drenched forest in front of us to explore.

Donner Creek meanders through Donner Memorial State Park.

The parks wraps around much of Donner Lake from the eastern end of the lake with the Visitor Center, beaches and summer campground, then extends back into Coldstream Canyon (another great spot for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing) wrapping around both sides of Schallenberger Ridge along the south and western ends of Donner Lake. There’s a lot to explore at the park, but for this outing we followed the Lakeside Interpretive Trail, which was buried in several feet of fresh snow.

As we trekked through the woods, we soon emerged on the south side of Donner Lake giving way to expansive views of the north shore that looked like a postcard.

There’s a well-worn trailhead near the parking lot at the entrance station that’s easy to find. While most of the park is not heavily used in the winter months, the Lakeside trail is usually user packed by snowshoes and skis throughout the season. Feel free to follow the trail around the lake, or to break you own trail.

Watch the serene movements of Donner Creek

The trail meanders through the forest crossing Donner Creek, which is flowing at a good pace despite the heavy snowpack. As we trekked through the woods, we soon emerged on the south side of Donner Lake giving way to expansive views of the north shore that looked like a postcard. Snow-covered Donner Ridge stands over Donner Lake dotted by rows of lakefront homes and homes perched high above on the ridge at Tahoe Donner, the bright blue sky contrasts with the trees covering the mountainside that have yet to shed their snow. It’s breathtaking.

Priya Hutner enjoying a winter trek at Donner Memorial State Park.

We trek down to the beach to enjoy the scenery, half joking that there’s so much snow that we can’t discern where the beach ends and the lake begins. We cover about 2 miles on our outing, stopping to chat with locals and visitors with the same goal in mind – enjoying this brilliant winter day, before heading over to Donner Lake Kitchen for a hearty brunch and well-earned Bloody Mary’s.


Donner Memorial State Park is open year-round, along with the Visitor Center, which tells the story of the emigrants that came West, the Donner Party, local Native peoples and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. For more information, visit


Story & photos by Katherine E. Hill