Allure of Serene Lakes

Hockey at sunset on Serene Lakes. | Stephen Muff

There is something about cross-country skiing across a frozen lake’s surface by moonlight that reminds you that you’re alive. This is only one such experience that regularly pulls people to Serene Lakes during the winter. The ancient Celts wrote about “thin places,” where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced. This is one such place.

The ancient Celts wrote about “thin places,” where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced. This is one such place.

Serene Lakes is located off of Interstate-80’s Soda Springs/Norden exit. Take Donner Pass Road east for 1 mile, turn right on Soda Springs Road and continue for another mile. It is two connected lakes – Lake Serena and Lake Dulzura. Legend has it that they were named by Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. Before becoming collectively referred to as Serene Lakes, they were known as Ice Lakes. The trains hauled ice from them to San Francisco and other areas before refrigeration was developed.

The quieting effect of the snow.

Today, people still come to Serene Lakes for the cold temperatures, but not for work. Instead, they come to play. Whether downhill or cross-country, skiers are in paradise. From any cabin around Serene Lakes, Royal Gorge’s cross-country trails are accessible and tickets and rentals are closer than the freeway.

For downhill skiers, Soda Springs Ski Resort, Donner Ski Ranch, Sugar Bowl and Boreal are all less than 5 miles away with slopes for people of all levels. Some more adventurous types will snowshoe up a local peak and ski or snowboard down. Before doing so, be sure you’ve taken avalanche safety classes and have the necessary gear.

Snowshoeing is commonplace at Serene Lakes. There are many trails, snow-covered meadows and frozen lakes to tromp around. After a good snowfall, you might need snowshoes (or at least boots) to take the trash out.

Steve and Laurel Muff enjoying the fun at Serene Lakes.

With the season’s average snowfall at around 35 feet, Serene Lakes is an ideal place to locate the best runs for sledding. Other than slopes of pure snow, the lake sits between a mountain and a larger hill that spans the length of the lake. Afterwards, there is nothing better than warming up with a mug of hot chocolate by the fire.

Word on the lake is that various parties have gone to great lengths to put on one of the area’s best New Year’s firework shows.

To add some of the season’s magic to the mix, there have been instances of people bringing small snow blowers onto the lake and creating ice skating rinks (practice ice safety before venturing out). This has provided hours of entertainment for anyone with the gear.

This magic was almost lost, though. In 2005, developers bought surrounding land and prepared plans to build a resort community with 950 units, which would have removed the serenity of Serene Lakes. The water for these units was to come from Serene Lakes and would have partially drained the lake, creating a rim of dirt around the edges. After foreclosure during the 2011 Great Recession, a partnership of organizations including the Truckee Donner Land Trust purchased a large swatch of land on Donner Summit, which including Royal Gorge ski area and the area around Serene Lakes. These efforts have protected the glorious outdoor recreation for generations to come.

During a visit to Serene Lakes, check out the deli at Soda Springs General Store. I highly recommended the fish tacos at Royal Gorge for lunch. For more upscale dining, head to The Dining Room at Sugar Bowl to enjoy everything from Bloody Mary’s, to Scottish seared salmon to vegetarian penne pasta. Of course, Truckee is only 20 minutes away with many restaurants of many price ranges.

Serene Lakes is a place of paradoxes. You can fight the snow to get there, only to spend most of your time in it once you’re there. It is a place where you can play hard, but also reflect in stillness on your interior life. It is a place that despite the rugged landscape, it lives up to its name.