Sheer granite walls adorned with dangling rock climbers. The sun shining down as you descend almost 1,200 vertical feet in just under three miles from Donner Summit to the flats of beautiful blue Donner Lake. These, and many others, are the reasons Old Highway 40/Donner Lake runner’s route is often cited as the most iconic runs in all of North Lake Tahoe. For almost 14 miles, the Old Highway 40/Donner Lake runner’s route twists, climbs, and drops past water bodies, big trees, and rich relics of California history.
What Makes It Great
This run is an out-and-back with a loop. It starts up Old Highway 40, turns around at Donner Summit, and loops back around Donner Lake along the south shore.
The route starts at Donner Memorial State Park and proceeds past Donner Lake heading west. Jogging along Donner Lake’s north shore is pleasant, pretty, and partially shaded beneath large cottonwoods and pine trees. The route along the north shore of the lake also serves as a warm up for the granite monolith, known as Donner Summit, which lies ahead. Just past the west end of the lake, the road begins to ascend the monolith in a series of looping, climbing turns. Bike lanes are narrow, or even non-existent, and the highway appears to be carved out of solid rock. The three miles between the lake and the summit, which totals over 1,100 vertical feet, is also a popular stretch for rock climbers. As you pass by vehicles packed into tight pullouts, look up –the occupants are most likely clinging to the colorful rock high above.
At the zenith, Donner Summit, turn back around for sunshine and views as you descend to the lake. On the return, turn right onto South Shore Drive just as the road flattens near Donner Lake’s west end. South Shore Drive circumnavigates Donner Lake offering a different perspective through a quite lakeshore neighborhood. At the end of South Shore Drive, follow the short bike path that leads back into Donner Memorial State Park.
Who is Going to Love It
Advanced runners looking for a beautiful but challenging experience will find this run rewarding. Be aware though, the route is more strenuous than a typical 14-mile jaunt. The high elevation, combined with sun exposure endured climbing and descending Donner Summit, can make for a long trip. A few extra calories, hydration, and a reapplication of sunscreen should mitigate these worries. For a shorter route, try circling Donner Lake without the climb up to Donner Summit.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Truckee, head west on Donner Pass Road for approximately 3 miles to Donner Lake. Parking is free along Old Highway 40/Donner Pass Road from Truckee to the base of Donner Summit along Donner Lake. Spaces are limited -especially in the summer months. Donner Memorial State park has an entrance fee for vehicles and usually has space. Facilities are also available at Donner Memorial State Park.