Located 6,200 feet in the Sierra Nevada just outside of Truckee, California, Donner Memorial State Park was established to preserve and tell maybe the darkest side of early pioneer life in California.
It forever will stand as a reminder of how and where the Donner Party Camp met its ill-fated end when it was trapped in the clutches of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range by inclement weather during the winters of 1846-47.
During this time, the party did not have the supplies necessary to take on such a task, and to make matters worse, they also did not have any shelter to speak of. Miraculously, and perhaps tragically, it is rumored that surviving members of the group were forced to turn to cannibalism in order to live to tell the tale of their plight.
Since 1928, thousands of curious visitors reportedly visit the more than 3,000-acre park and National Historic Landmark each year that contains around two and a half miles of hiking trails to explore the area’ rugged terrain blanketed in thick Jeffrey pine and white oak.
In addition, there are also three miles of lake area on the aptly named, Donner Lake. The lake is a hub of major recreation, featuring boating and trout fishing, but also provides a mellow place for a relaxing stroll or shady picnic.
Although there are many features throughout the park, it is best known for two. The first is the Emigrant Trail Museum and the other being Pioneer Monument, located on the east side of the lake, in and outside the park’s visitor center.
The museum depicts the cultural history of the Donner Memorial area with exhibits that include things about the local Native American tribes, the builders of the First Transcontinental Railroad, and, of course, the Donner Party themselves. The museum also offers an informative narrative to the natural history of the Sierra Nevada.
Located near the visitor center, a trail leads about 200 yards out to the Donner Party’s Murphy family cabin site and Pioneer Monument, with its 22-foot high base that represents the height of the snow during that tragic winter of 1846.
At the end of the Lakeshore Interpretive Trail, situated adjacent to a large granite boulder that was once part of the wall and fireplace of the Murphy Cabin, is the monument which was completed in 1918 in honor of all of those who made the difficult trek across the plains and mountains to reach California during the 1840’s.
This is exactly where the Donner Party families eventually set up a shelter during their unexpected and ultimately catastrophic stay. There is a plaque containing some memorable words, but these words are followed by a list of the members of all four families that were lost.
Since most visitors to the area find that more than one day is needed to explore all that Donner State Memorial Park has to offer, there are a few choices for your overnight stay including Donner Memorial State Park Campground, and numerous hotels and motels in nearby Truckee.
Donner Memorial State Park is best visited in the summer months as temperatures range from about 75 degrees during the day to the low 40s at night. Much more temperate than winter temperatures which average from a high of 40 to a low of 20 degrees.
Donner Memorial State Park is located south of Interstate 80, and west of Truckee. From downtown Truckee, follow Donner Pass Road two miles to a stop sign. Turn left and follow the signs into the park. Truckee itself is located 33 miles west of Reno, thirteen miles from Lake Tahoe.