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Donner Memorial State Park

Lakeshore Interpretive Trail

2.5 miles round trip

It’s the dark side of the California dream, one of the most gruesome stories of the Old West: The Donner Party.

In April 1846, a group of Midwestern families left Independence, Missouri, bound for California. Their wagon train rolled over the Great Plains and through the Rockies, but was seriously delayed when a “shortcut” leading southwest was anything but. A breakdown in civilized behavior followed: the emigrants quarreled constantly; one man killed another; an old man was left on the trail to die.

An early and severe snowstorm that prevented passage over the High Sierra forced the ill-fated party to spend the winter near present-day Truckee. Forty-one of the 89 would-be settlers perished. When their provisions and oxen were consumed, the desperate emigrants finally cannibalized their dead friends and relatives.

Today, Donner Memorial State Park is located where many members of the Donner Party spent their final days. Rangers report that about two hundred thousand visitors, most very curious about the cannibalism aspect of the Donner story, stop at the state park each year.

The state park’s surprise is that it displays not only the dark side of human nature, but the beautiful side of Mother Nature. Anything but gruesome, the state park and surrounding Sierra Nevada is a major recreation center, featuring camping, hiking, fishing and boating.

Donner Lake is a mellow place for a hike, a picnic or a little trout fishing. The state park, located on the east side of the lake, has 2.5 miles of lake frontage.

Outside the park visitor center is the tall Pioneer Monument; its base measures 22 feet high, the height of the snow during that terrible winter of 1846-47. Inside the park visitor center is the Emigrant Trail Museum, which depicts the demise of the Donner Party, plus more positive aspects of the region’s history. The museum also offers a nice introduction to the natural history of the Sierra Nevada.

To see some of this natural history for yourself, take a hike. One of the most dramatic (and obvious) workings of nature is the evidence left behind of recent glaciation. The great sheet of ice that slid through the region thousands of years ago left behind huge boulders and other rock debris.

Jeffrey pine and white fir cloak park slopes; the woods are home to deer, squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons.

The state park doesn’t have an extensive trail system, but does offer two enjoyable family hikes. When snow covers the park, rangers link park roads and trails into a good beginners’ cross-country ski route.

Directions to trailhead: Donner Memorial State Park is located south of Interstate 80, and west of Truckee. From downtown Truckee, follow Donner Pass Road two miles to a stop sign. Turn left and follow the signs into the park. Truckee itself is located 33 miles west of Reno, thirteen miles from Lake Tahoe.

The hike: The park’s Nature Trail (0.5 mile round trip) begins just south of the museum. It meanders by a pine and fir forest to Donner Creek. An interpretive booklet, explaining flora and fauna, is available at the museum.

Lakeshore Interpretive Trail (2.5 miles round trip) is even more educational. Eighteen trailside exhibits illustrate the history of the Emigrant Trail and tell of the area’s geology and ecology, Washoe culture, and the local recreational possibilities. The path leads to, and along, Donner Lake. At trail’s end at the lake is some fine picnicking.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at