Donner Lake, California, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - West - California - Gold Country -

Also known as:  Truckee Lake

Steeped in the history of America’s Emigrant Trail, Donner Lake sits in California’s beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains. Found within Nevada County’s charming community of Truckee, Donner Lake is a pleasant 100-mile drive east of Sacramento, 17 miles from Lake Tahoe, and less than 40 miles from Reno, Nevada.

Evidence of human habitation at Donner Lake covers at least 6,000 years. People of the Washoe tribe were among the native populations who hunted, fished and freely moved through the passes of the High Sierras. By the middle of the 19th century, Americans were taking their dreams of a new beginning and moving west to build a future in California. Crossing the country in wagon trains was wrought full of hazards and hardships, and none was greater than crossing the High Sierras. During the winter of 1846-1847 the Donner Party (also called the Donner-Reed Party) found themselves unprepared when a brutal mountain blizzard trapped the party east of Donner Lake (then called Truckee Lake).The party lost at least 39 men, women and children to starvation and cold, leaving 48 survivors to tell the story of their suffering and struggle to survive. A monument now stands near the campsite in honor of the thousands who crossed the Emigrant Trail.

Named for the party leader, George Donner, Donner Lake is a beautiful alpine lake. Donner and Summit Creeks helped create Donner Lake when glaciers carved a path along a rock fault carrying debris that formed a natural dam. Today Donner Lake is approximately 2.6 miles long and .75 miles wide with a maximum depth of 230 feet and an average depth of 108 feet. Snowmelt provides the majority of inflow to Donner Lake with the water level now controlled by a man-made dam built in 1928. Owned and operated by Nevada Energy and Truckee-Carson Irrigation System, water from Donner Lake is distributed throughout the Truckee River system.

Donner Lake’s 960 acres of sparkling water and eight-mile shoreline are open to camping, picnicking, boating, fishing, water-skiing, and hiking. When the snow begins to fall visitors can cross-country ski and snowshoe along hiking trails. With the town of Truckee lying at the east end of Donner Lake and Donner Lake Memorial State park lying along the lake’s southern shore, you will find fun and adventure around every corner. Over 30 public piers are used for fishing and boating with beautiful 10-acre West End Beach attracting swimmers and sunbathers. For added safety, lifeguards are on duty seasonally. Shoreline Park, located along the north shore, has a fishing dock designed for those with limited mobility. Additional park features include a small-craft launch, picnic area and restrooms. Shoreline Park and China Cove have been identified as excellent scuba diving sites.

A fee-based public boat ramp has been built at Donner Lake’s northwest corner where you can launch your power boat, sailboat, canoe, kayak or personal water craft (check for future restrictions on personal water craft). A full-service marina with boat rentals is available for those who have a last minute urge to fish. Truckee Lake is periodically stocked with trout and claims to have some of California’s largest lake trout. Other species include rainbow trout, brown trout and Kokanee salmon. Before casting your line, remember that a valid fishing license is required.

Surrounded by Tahoe National Forest, and sitting east of the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Donner Memorial State Park maintains more than three miles of water front along Donner Creek and Donner Lake’s southeastern shore. Over 150 campsites with tables, stoves and bear-resistant food lockers sit among the towering lodgepole pines and white fir trees. Restrooms and showers are provided with some sites able to accommodate RVs. The park does not provide a boat launch, but families come to enjoy outings at the beach and picnic grounds available in the day-use area.

Hikers have several trail options within Donner Lake Memorial Park. A half-mile nature trail and separate lakeside trail include interpretive signs and chance encounters with deer, squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines, raccoons, beavers and birds native to the area. A 2.5-mile scenic hiking trail follows a path through time as it traces portions of the historic Emigrant Trail. At several points near Donner Lake and along the park’s trails, visitors can enter the back country and join the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail running from Mexico to Canada. Those who head into the mountains will find additional trails for horseback riding and mountain biking.

A major attraction at Donner Lake Memorial State Park is the Emigrant Trail Museum. A history of Donner Lake is told from the time of the region’s first native inhabitants through the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The stories of the Emigrant Trail and Donner Party are told through film, exhibits, displays and park personnel. Erected in 1918, the Pioneer Monument and sites of Donner Party cabins sit near the museum.

While the southern shore of Donner Lake parallels Placer and Nevada County lines, the historic community of Truckee lies within Nevada County in California’s beautiful Gold Country. Surrounded by spectacular scenery and some of the best snow skiing, snow shoeing and snowboarding in the Sierra Mountains, Truckee has become an ideal vacation destination. Here you can explore historical attractions, browse appealing little shops, sample the selection of cozy restaurants, and drink in the hospitality and charm of small town life. Whether you bed down at a campground, select a distinctive vacation rental, pamper yourself at a lakeside resort, or purchase a real estate property with a view of Donner Lake, you will know you have arrived at a unique destination. As Truckee’s Chamber of Commerce states, Donner Lake is “so far from everything that you know, so close to everything that you want.”

Things to do at Donner Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Swimming
  • Beach
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Water Skiing
  • Scuba Diving
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Cabin Rentals
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Downhill Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • Horseback Riding
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • State Park
  • National Forest
  • Museum

Fish species found at Donner Lake

  • Brown Trout
  • Kokanee Salmon
  • Lake Trout
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Salmon
  • Trout

Donner Lake Photo Gallery

Donner Lake Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Dammed

Water Level Control: Nevada Energy & Truckee-Carson Irrigation System

Surface Area: 960 acres

Shoreline Length: 8 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 5,936 feet

Average Depth: 108 feet

Maximum Depth: 230 feet

Water Volume: 102,000 acre-feet

Lake Area-Population: 14,000

Trophic State: Oligotrophic

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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".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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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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