Donnells Reservoir, California, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - West - California - High Sierra -

Also known as:  Donnells Lake, Donnell Lake

Donnells Reservoir is one of the Central Sierra’s most picturesque lakes. Sometimes called Donnell Lake, it has its own dedicated viewing location and is often seen but seldom visited. The miles-long reservoir flooding a portion of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River lies between steep granite cliffs with no walkable shoreline and road access suitable only for 4-wheel drive vehicles. At nearly 5000 feet elevation, the gravel forest service roads are impassible in winter. Small boats brought for launching will find no boat ramp; access to the water requires a portage and lowering the craft over 200 feet down the steep face of Donnell Dam. There are no organized recreational sites at Donnells Lake; the few primitive campgrounds are only accessible from the water. Yet the lake has a reputation among outdoor lovers and trout fishermen that guarantees there are always people thinking about their next visit.

The difficulty of getting to Donnells Reservoir is undoubtedly a part of its charm. The waters are never crowded. In fact, many visitors find themselves completely alone on the 425-acre lake. Set within the Stanislaus National Forest, few signs direct visitors to the lake. Two fences limit access to walkers who can enter through narrow personnel passages. Rangers at the Summit Ranger Station near Strawberry warn that the lake and its surroundings can be dangerous for the unprepared. The canyon funnels winds which whistle down the surface daily. If a boat capsizes, there are few places along the shore where a swimmer can exit the water, making life preservers necessary and rescue very difficult. Variable water levels can expose boaters to rocks under the surface, and the rocky ledges are often slippery. But the fish, both brown trout and rainbow trout, are said to be massive and hungry for the hook. And the view is unparalleled.

The sight of Niagara Creek Falls where it cascades to the water is best in spring when the mountain snows melt to swell the creek. The highest waterfall in the Stanislaus National Forest, the falls can only be seen from the Donnells Vista viewing area on CA Hwy 108 or from the lake itself. Those not prepared to handle a rough access road or rigorous hike usually stop here where a viewing platform, picnic areas and chemical toilets provide a few creature comforts. A nature trail from the viewing area allows for a short hike among the forested slopes above the lake. In bright sunlight, the steep canyon walls glisten white during low water periods, with a massive dome of rock, called Broad Dome, seen only from certain areas of the lake and the overlook.

The difficult Donnells Trail accesses the lake from the end of the lake opposite the dam near the inlet. Two-and-a-half-miles of faintly-marked trail requires experience in mountaineering, off-trail skills and a good topographic map. The trailhead is not well-marked and located on an unsigned road. This assures that those intending to backpack and camp in the area will obtain the proper permit and pre-entry advice from the Ranger Station. Forest Service officials do not wish to have inexperienced hikers attempting to access the lake without the proper directions or equipment. Other trails in the Stanislaus National Forest lead toward the lake and are often used by experienced backpackers and trail enthusiasts. Much of this is rough terrain and teeming with wildlife.

Located only 45 miles east of Sonoma, Donnells Lake is the most easterly of the water control structures in the Tri-Dam Project of the Oakdale and San Joaquin Irrigation District. Beardsley Lake is located about seven miles downriver, with the powerhouse for hydroelectric generation located downstream from Donnells Reservoir. Water travels to the powerhouse via a penstock tunnel. Both dams were dedicated on the same day in 1957, celebrating the opening of the long-dreamed-of project to provide irrigation water and hydroelectricity to the San Joaquin Valley. Beardsley Lake is easier to access and easier for boat launching. Located in historic Gold Rush country, the entire area is popular for recreation and vacations year round. Several ski areas are heavily visited as they are located less than four hours from the Bay area.

The foothills area is rich in historic artifacts of the Gold Rush. Numerous campgrounds and resort lodges are located along CA Hwy 108 leading toward and past Donnells Reservoir. Less than 10 miles away, the small village of Pinecrest holds resort lodgings and is quite busy during the summer months. This is the Central Valley’s favorite and most accessible playground, offering nearly every type of recreational opportunity a visitor could imagine. The few areas of private land have held summer cabins and ski chalets for generations, some of which are sometimes offered for short-term rental. Most towns of any size offer a variety of restaurants and places to buy camping supplies. Several tourist-geared outfitters can provide trail guides for fly fishing the many mountain streams, white-water river rafting, horseback trail riding or photography tours.

Two of California’s unique State Historical Parks are located a few miles to the west. The Columbia State Historical Park and the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park are both located near Sonora. Columbia Park recreates a Gold Mining town complete with panning for gold, while Railtown showcases a restored steam engine and rolling stock, museum and excursion train tours. Farther east, the City of Twain Harte, named for the two famous American writers Mark Twain and Bret Harte, provides a wide variety of recreational entertainment year round for the entire family. Twain Harte is known for antique shopping, golf, unique shops and restaurants. The small city makes the ideal spot to call home base for an extended week in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains. The area holds bed & breakfasts, quaint lodges and several motels for a good night’s sleep.

Although accessing Donnells Lake is only for the most physically fit, getting to the overlook at Donnells Vista is accessible to anyone who can handle a five minute walk from the parking lot. One way or the other, everyone can see stunning Donnells Lake. Make sure to add it to your itinerary for your next visit to California.

*There are few available statistics for Donnells Reservoir.

Things to do at Donnells Reservoir

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Golf
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Cabin Rentals
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Waterfall
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • National Forest
  • Museum
  • Playground
  • Antiquing
  • Shopping

Fish species found at Donnells Reservoir

  • Brown Trout
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Trout

Donnells Reservoir Photo Gallery

Donnells Reservoir Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Artificial Reservoir, Dammed

Water Level Control: Oakdale and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts

Surface Area: 425 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 4,913 feet

Minimum Elevation (Min Pond): 0 feet

Maximum Elevation (Max Pond): 4,915 feet

Water Volume: 63,309 acre-feet

Completion Year: 1957

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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