6 Miles round trip on a long narrow lake. Can be shortened by not doing the whole thing.
Destination Distance From Downtown
2 of 5 diamonds
Choppier weather and length of paddle can make this more challenging, but on a nice day it should be something most people can accomplish with no problem.
Time To Complete
It's a 6 mile down and back paddle that will vary depending on wind and speed of paddler, as well as chosen craft. 4 hours may be an overestimate for faster paddlers and an under estimate for slower paddlers.
Spring, Summer, and Fall
Summer is the best and safest, Spring and Fall it is doable in the right conditions. Winter is not doable.
If you want to park at the state park there will be fees, but there is free parking available around the lake.
Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the Tahoe scene and head over to the much smaller Donner Lake for a quaint alpine paddle. This 3 mile long lake is about ¾ of a mile wide and is dotted with cabins and beaches, making it a more rustic and peaceful place to visit than the expansive and populous shores of Lake Tahoe.
Donner Lake is famous for being the site of the 1846-1847 Donner Party, who were a group of pioneers who were snowbound and forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. A historical state park and museum at the east end of the lake gives history buffs a chance to get the whole story.
What Makes It Great
The lake is surrounded by the iconic peaks of Donner Pass, which lies just to the north of its sparkling waters. To the south lies Schallenberger Ridge, where you occasionally see and hear a train making its way to downtown Truckee. Historic and scenic Highway 40 winds its way down from the summit to the lake’s west end.
The lake can be accessed by multiple public and private beaches dotted along its shore. The eastern end is the sunniest and lake temperatures are often much warmer than Lake Tahoe, making this paddle comfortable and fun for those looking to splash around a bit. Take care in colder months, however, the lake often freezes in the winter and in the shoulder seasons temperatures can be dangerously cold. While it is a very narrow lake, it can get choppy on windier days, making it much safer to stay close to lake’s edge rather than cutting down the middle.
Starting your paddle at the west end and hugging the southern shore allows you to get up close views of the sophisticated vacation homes off of South Shore Drive. Continue on towards the state park and stop in at China Cove, which boasts a great beach for swimming or taking a break in the sun. Make your way to the northern shore and continue the loop. You will see some of the quainter, older structures along the lake that are located on Donner Pass Road. The northwestern end boasts several public piers where you might can people walking their dogs, lounging on the beach or fishing off the docks.
Who is Going to Love It
From SUPers to Kayakers, experienced paddlers to newbies, paddling Donner Lake is a pastime that can be enjoyed by all. If you are seeking a more serene and solitary paddle, visit the lake earlier in the day or during the week to avoid other water traffic and soak in the peaceful mountain calm. Only experienced kayakers and SUPers should attempt the full 6 miles unless you have several hours to kill, strong swimming skills and good physical fitness, however.
If you are newer to the sport or would rather play than exercise, there is still plenty of fun to be had and lots of places to rent kayaks or SUPs in the area. Just remember to stay close to shore and don’t paddle too far from your launching point.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Take the Donner Pass Road exit off I-80 or follow this main road all the way from downtown Truckee. Head west towards the lake and follow signs to the state park. On less busy days, it is easy to find free parking if you just continue along the lake. Look for turnouts and other cars parked along the lake side of the road. On more crowded days, you can pay to park at the Donner Memorial State Park or West End Beach.