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 unfortunate 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. To make matters worse, they also did not have any shelter. Miraculously, and perhaps tragically, it is rumored that surviving members of the group turned to cannibalism 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’s rugged terrain blanketed in thick Jeffrey pine and white oak.
The lake is a hub of significant recreation, featuring boating and trout fishing, but it 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.
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. A monument remembers all of those who made the arduous trek across the plains and mountains to reach California during the 1840s.
The monument is where the Donner Party families eventually set up a shelter during their unexpected and ultimately catastrophic stay.
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. 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 level of 20 degrees.
Donner Memorial State Park is 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 33 miles west of Reno, thirteen miles from Lake Tahoe.