TRUCKEE — I realized I liked Donner Lake the day I came within two inches of flipping a fully loaded touring bicycle over the edge of the Rainbow Bridge that graces Donner Summit and carries Old Highway 40 down to the lake below.
It was my inaugural outing on the touring bike. I planned an easy three-day, 260-mile trip from Lincoln to Truckee then down to Jackson before returning to Lincoln. I wanted to take the maximum load the bike was rated for — 62 pounds — and distribute it between front and rear wheel panniers, a rear wheel bike rack with a rack bag as well, handlebar bag and as many water bottles I could get on the down tubes.
The goal was not only to test my stamina powering myself (I weighed 195 pounds at the time), the bicycle (17 pounds) and a maximum load (62 pounds) but to sharpen the skills needed to handle the bicycle. It’s a much different beast than a sleek racing bicycle with 700cc tires you can lean almost 45 degrees in turns to get optimum speed and control.
The previous line should give you a clue to where this is going.
I had just finished five rather challenging hours going from the valley floor to Donner Summit at 7,056 feet while traversing often steep roads and pedaling the shoulder of I-80 where it was legal to do so when there were no other roads available. It was 90 degrees. I was tired. And I wanted to get to the motel room I booked at the Best Western near Truckee Airport.
I looked at Donner Lake below, shifted down, and started downhill.
The Rainbow Bridge is rather famous. It’s a curved compounded arch beauty built on a grade with a stunning view of Donner Lake in the background. It has appeared in numerous car commercials over the years.
As I started my descent my speed picked up faster than I expected. I applied the cantilever brakes in a manner to retain control but then realized between the curve and the bridge, its drop in grade, and the weight I was carrying things weren’t likely to end well. I leaned the bike as I hit the start of the bow of the curve — not an exceptionally wise move given the weight. But if I didn’t do so I was going to run out of pavement, hit the curb, and sail over the rail.
I was able to come to a stop just beyond the midpoint of the curve but in order to do so I crossed the oncoming lane and my front tire had two inches to spare before it hit the curb. With the weight I was pedaling even a slow-mo curb bump given I was going downhill on a curve would have been disastrous.
After my heart stopped doing a rendition of the William Tell Overture on steroids, I pedaled to an overlook at the end of the bridge, got off and looked around.
I was stunned at what I saw given what I had seen on the summit area before was through the glass of a car window.
This wasn’t my first trip to or past Donner Lake by far.
One of my earliest memories of a 5 year-old kid in 1962 was being in the back of our family’s 1957 Chevy station wagon as we were inching over Highway 40 in horrendous traffic to meet my uncle’s family at their cabin along Donner Lake’s north shore where less than a 300 feet behind it crews were putting the finishing touches on Interstate 80.
Years after that when I was a Lincoln High student (Lincoln in Placer County) we’d whiz by Donner Lake at least eight times a year when the Zebras (my high school’s mascot) played Pioneer League rivals at Truckee High and North Lake High.
Maybe that’s why Donner Lake is perhaps one of the most high profile overlooked lakes in California.
Tens of thousands of motorists whiz by it daily either heading to or from Reno on Interstate 80 or on their way to imposing Lake Tahoe just 11 miles away.
Donner Summit offers
some of best & most
varied rock climbing
in Northern California
But if you stop and take it in, it is an amazing place.
On that late July day in 1988 I was mesmerized by what I saw.
Below me there were numerous rock climbers honing their skills on the same imposing rock walls that the Donner Party survivors and their rescuers had to find a way to scale with wagons.
It turns out the spot right off Old Highway 40 below the Rainbow Bridge offers some of the best climbing granite around for beginners to get the hang of rock climbing or for those seeking to gain intermediate, advanced or expert skills. No less than four firms currently offer lessons below Donner Summit that offers everything from beginning climbing slabs to expert pitches.
One such firm is the North American Ski Training Center and Rock Climbing School (skinastc.com or call/text (510) 386-2102.
Lessons range from half day per person (party of one $350, party of two $220, party of three $160 etc.) to full day (party of one $545, party of two $265, party of three ($195) or two-hour lessons (party of one $185, party of two $130, party of three $100).
Truckee area is hiker’s
with abandoned train
snow sheds to walk thru
The greater Truckee area — including Donner Lake — is a hiker’s paradise with a wide variety of short, medium and long hikes ranging from easy to moderate to strenuous.
One of the two hikes that let you explore the stunning Donner Summit area is the 5-mile hike (more like a walk) that takes in the original abandoned railroad snow sheds and stunning view is the lake below. It starts at a small parking lot on the south side of the bridge. The trail takes you past China Wall — a memorial to the Chinese labors that played a key role in building the Transcontinental Railroad — as well as petroglyphs created by the Martis people thousands of years ago.
The tunnels are a trip in themselves. There is an ongoing debate whether the extensive graffiti — lot of it borderline high quality art - that lines the inside of the tunnels is a negative or a positive. It is definitely interesting.
Hiking it in winter is even more impressive. If you time it right you won’t need snow shoes. The temperatures in the tunnels are typically 20 degrees lower. There’s lots of dripping water and you’re likely to encounter iced over ground that leads to some interesting — and entertaining — footwork.
Donner Lake itself is a treat.
It’s rich in history in that on its southern flank was where the first Transcontinental Railroad was built (the Donner Summit segment considered the toughest to conquer), the first transcontinental highway along its north shore (The Lincoln Highway that is now Old Highway 40 and was replaced by I-80 and its eastern shore where the ill-fated Donner Party wintered in 1846.
Plenty to do along
eight miles of shore-
line as well as on lake
The lake is at 5,935 feet above sea level with its deepest point plunging down 235 feet.
Although a lot of the access — boat ramps, docks, and even some beaches — are private, there are still plenty of access points. The Truckee Donner Parks & Recreation District operates a fee-based boat on the northwest corner of the lake.
Donner State Memorial Park is the place to go to fully enjoy the lake. It wraps around the east and north side with 1.5 miles of public docks for both swimmers and boaters.
There are 2.5 miles of hiking trails in addition to be able to hike a loop around the lake that comes in at 8 miles.
The state park has 158 campsites. In the late spring, summer, and early fall picnicking, boating, camping, fishing, water skiing, wind surfing, hiking and mountain biking are the popular pursuits.
Donner Lake offers Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, and Kokanee Salmon. The marquee attraction — and challenge — is snagging Lake Trout. Donner Lake is said to hold some of the biggest Lake Trout in California.
Easy to wed visit to
Donner Lake with
What makes Donner Lake a solid attraction is how it can be an effective weekend destination or a multi-day stay during the week or even a day trip.
Given it is just a step off the beaten track to Lake Tahoe, you can savor a bunch of attractions within 25 minutes of Donner Lake if you chose to camp there or in Truckee accommodations that range from 19th century hotels across the train station, modern motels, bed and breakfasts or rental cabins.
A 25-minute drive can get you a float trip down the Truckee River, a visit to Olympic Village in Squaw Valley, horseback riding, gun range shooting or the food, spirits and unique shops of downtown Truckee.
And if it’s night life and gambling you may want a sample of Reno 32 miles away.
For more information on activities to pursue in and around Donner Lake and in Truckee go to Truckee.com.