Truckee and Donner Lake: The Ultimate Travel Guide
Truckee is a small city in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, right by the CA/NV border. It's about 30 minutes north of Lake Tahoe and 30 minutes west of Reno. In addition to a vibrant downtown community and it's close proximity to nightlife, Truckee is also known as being a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The mountains surrounding Truckee offer a wide range of year-round recreation for everyone.
The fact that Truckee is also home to Lake Donner is a huge plus. Donner Lake is a gorgeous, deep-blue destination that's perfect for lovers of boating, fishing, camping, hiking, and sightseeing. But Donner Lake also has a tragic past.
Have you heard of the Donner Party? They were group of 91 pioneers who took their chances and migrated west by wagon train to California, in search of new beginnings. The Donner Party's luck turned sour when they got stuck by heavy snow in the middle of winter at Donner Lake. Then they started suffering casualties.
The Donner Party spent five months trapped at Donner Lake, and of the 87, only 49 survived. The story takes a horrific turn when you learn some of the pioneers had to resort to eating their dead family and friends to survive. Knowing about the gruesome past of Lake Donner helps put into perspective how even though the mountains can be fun, they are also unforgiving. It can also provide a great foundation for ghost stories.
Why visit Truckee and Donner Lake? Because you love history, mountains, forest, lakes, and fresh air. A visit to Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, or Reno is not complete without visiting Truckee and Donner Lake. Stop by Donner Memorial State Park, learn about the history, go on a hike through the Abandoned Train Tracks, and then stop by Historic Downtown Truckee for an ice cold local Tahoe craft beer.
Everything you need to know about visiting Truckee and Donner Lake
Planning and Preparing a trip to Truckee and Donner Lake
Visiting Truckee is just like visiting Lake Tahoe or any other mountain town. Consider the season you're going and plan from there. If you're going in the winter, check the highway conditions and bring chains.
→ Truckee Accommodations
There's plenty of accommodations options in Truckee. Find a nice Lake Donner Airbnb Cabin or stay at Truckee Donner Lodge or Donner Lake Village Resort. Other great options in Truckee are Cedar House Sport Hotel.
If it's summer, go camping! Campgrounds are available at Donner Memorial State Park. Here's a map of the campgrounds. There are a total of 154 sites to choose from. You can reserve a campground on the ReserveAmerica website. If the Donner Lake campgrounds are all booked up, Tahoe Donner also has campgrounds.
→ Truckee Climate
In the summer, temperatures range from about 75°F in the day to 40° at night. In the winter, temperatures range from 40° to the low 20s. Bring warm clothes and extra layers if you're visiting in the winter. Don't forget to check the weather before your trip! Here's a link to view current conditions in Truckee via live webcams.
How to get to Truckee
→ Drive to Truckee
If you're local, Truckee is about a 1 hour drive from South Tahoe, a 30 minute drive from North Tahoe, or 30 minutes from Reno. If you're not local, Truckee is about a 3.5 hour drive from Redding, 1.5 hours from Sacramento, and 3 hours from San Francisco.
→ Train or Bus to Truckee
→ Fly to Truckee
What to do in Truckee
There's so much to do in Truckee, you might not have time for it all! The best thing to do is go on an adventure in the great outdoors. There's everything from rock climbing to mountain biking, and boating to cross-country skiing.
→ Donner Lake
A great place to start your adventure is Donner Lake. Head to the Donner Memorial State Park and check out the visitor center and monument. Here's the park brochure and info pdf and here's the cross-country ski and snowshoe trail map and winter activity guide.
Donner Memorial is a State Park that pays homage to the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who got stuck at Donner Lake in the middle of winter. At Donner Lake and Donner Memorial State Park there are opportunities for camping, picnicking, boating, water-sports, fishing, swimming, and hiking. The state park also has a visitor center and the Pioneer Monument to take pictures at.
Donner Lake also offers excellent boating, hiking, picnicking, exhibits, tours, swimming, and windsurfing. If it's summer, bring your swimsuit!
Fishing is great at Donner Lake - if you're looking for gear recommendations check out Fishing Gadgets Hub.
→ Hiking in Truckee
Whether it's summer or winter, sun or snow, with or without snowshoes, the most popular activity in Truckee is hiking. There's so much hiking around the area that we don't have the space to tell you about all the different trails. Our favorite trails is located near Lake Donner. In our opinion, the best hiking trails in Truckee are the Lake Donner Summit View Hike and the Lake Donner Abandoned Train Tracks Hike.
★ Donner Pass Abandoned Train Tracks Hike
The abandoned railroad hike at Lake Donner is Truckee's most famous and popular hike. Beginning near Donner Pass/Summit and extending along the south side of Donner Lake there is old abandoned railroad tunnels and remnants of a train tracks that once served our railroad system through the Sierra Nevadas. The tracks were used from 1868 until 1993. The tracks are now defunct and unkept.
The abandoned tunnels are really fun to walk through. There's incredible graffiti everywhere, there's panoramic views of the lake along the walk, and in the winter the ground is covered in ice like an ice rink and can be fun to slide around on. Also, to get to the tracks, you have to walk through a Native American Petroglyph Site, where you will see markings and drawings on the stone. It's really cool! It does get dark and cold in the tunnels so bring a jacket and flashlight or headlamp.
Note: This is more of a walk then a hike, but you can walk along the tunnels as long or as little as you'd like. Please be careful!
Directions for the Donner Pass Abandoned Railroad Hike:
1. Park at the Native American Petroglyph Site, you will see cars parked in the dirt parking lot or if full you can park on the side of Donner Pass Road
2. Walk along the petroglyph site and straight towards the "Chinese Wall", a retaining wall made with stacked rocks
3. Watch your step and be careful along the hike
4. You will see large concrete train tunnels just ahead, above the Chinese Wall
5. Make the last uphill climb to the top of the Chinese Wall and the train tracks will be both on your right and left
6. Take the train tracks left, towards the lake, and walkfor as little or as long as you want, then backtrack back towards your car at the petroglyph site
★ Lake Donner Summit View Hike via Pacific Crest Trail
Another fabulous hike in Truckee takes you along the Pacific Crest Trail from Boreal Ski Resort to the highest peak in Donner Summit, where your destination is a spectacular view of the lake and valley below!
To start this hike, park at Donner Summit California State Snopark. Then follow the trail parallel to the highway until you reach the Pacific Crest Trail, then follow that towards the tall rocky peaks. It's very easy to get lost here so please make sure you know where you're going before you begin.
What is the Pacific Crest Trail? The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT for short), is a 2,700 mile trail along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain Ranges. It takes you from the Mexican Border to the Canadian border and goes through CA, OR, and WA. Thousands of people hike the whole trail every year, which is called a thru-hike.
The PCT passes through 7 national parks and 25 national forests. Planning for this hike takes several months and hiking it can take 4-6 months. There's even a Hollywood movie about the trail, called Wild, featuring Reese Witherspoon.
You don't have to hike the whole PCT, but you can sure get a taste of it with this hike.
→ Climbing in Truckee
If you're a climber, click here for more information about route options. There's also lots of bouldering options, so bring your crash pad!
→ Shooting guns near Truckee
If you enjoy shooting firearms, we have good news for you. Bring your firearm because there is free public outdoor shooting ranges in the mountains of Truckee! Two out of the three ranges discussed below are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Truckee Sportsman’s Association.
If you visit a range, bring your own paper or steel targets. Don't bring glass, appliances, or any kind of trash to shoot at. Pack in; pack out. Pick up your casings and trash after you're finished shooting. Most importantly, practice gun SAFETY! You can pick up ammunition in Truckee from ACE Mountain Hardware and Sports.
The first one is located at Boca Reservoir, about 20 minutes or 10 miles from Truckee. Drive to Boca Reservoir. Take I-80 East from Truckee and drive a little more than 5 miles. Take exit 194 onto Hirschdale Rd. Follow Stampede Meadows Road and stay alert for the dirt parking lot on your right.
The dirt parking lot for the Boca Reservoir shooting area/gun range is located at Stampede Meadows Rd & W Hinton Rd, Truckee, CA 96161. Here's a satellite image of the range. There's might be cars already parked there and you will hear the faint sound of shots being fired in the distance. The dirt parking lot is very easy to miss so don't drive too far! You might not have service there so know where you're going before you leave.
You can find more information about the Boca Shooting Area by clicking here. And here's another link to the Boca Shooting Area Facebook Page. There are also two other free public outdoor shooting areas near Truckee, Hobart Mills Shooting Area and Sierra Valley Shooting Range.
→ Tahoe Donner
Another great place for recreation in Truckee is Tahoe Donner. Tahoe Donner is a neighborhood in the hills of Truckee, but not just any neighborhood. Tahoe Donner is known as one of the largest homeowners associations in the nation. At Tahoe Donner, there is no shortage of fun. There's a downhill ski resort, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing, sledding, tubing, golfing, massages and a spa, swimming, hot tubs, sauna, steam room, tennis courts, mountain bike rentals, dining, and an equestrian center! We usually stay at a cabin in Tahoe Donner and it's always really fun.
→ Skiing and Snowboarding in Truckee
If you're a skiier or a snowboarder, there are a lot of options nearby. The closest option is Tahoe Donner Downhill Ski Area but keep in mind it is small. The closest major ski resorts to Truckee/North Tahoe are Boreal, Northstar, Squaw Valley, and Sugar Bowl. Our favorite is Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. The best budget ski resort is Boreal.
→ Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is about 30 minutes from Truckee and definitely worth visiting, especially if you've never been there before. Lake Tahoe is beautiful and full of activities no matter the season. Summer is just as pretty as winter and you're going to have amazing pictures either way. As nice and fun as Truckee is, Lake Tahoe is like Truckee X 1,000. You've probably already heard a lot of great stuff about Lake Tahoe or you've already been there for yourself and know how amazing it is, so I don't need to go into too much detail. Many people from the Bay Area have been to Tahoe but outside of the Bay Area it's not as common, for example in LA, when I ask people if they've been there they usually say no. I want everyone to go to Lake Tahoe and see how beautiful it is so it makes me a little sad to hear so many people say they haven't been. Go visit Lake Tahoe!
→ Truckee Nightlife
After tiring yourself out all day, head to Historic Downtown Truckee. In downtown, you'll find plenty of mom-and-pop shopping and dining options. Downtown Truckee is really cute and a great place to grab food and a drink after exploring the outdoors all day, then head back to your cozy cabin and light the fireplace. :)
If you like casinos, dancing, gambling, drinking, dining, buffets, and shows, go to either Reno (30 minutes away) or South Lake Tahoe (1+ hours). The best nightclub for dancing near Truckee and North Lake Tahoe is EDGE Nightclub at the Peppermill Resort in Reno. The phone number for Edge Nightclub guest list, bottle service, and other inquiries is (775) 689-7444.
Tips for visiting Truckee
Back to Reality
Truckee is a LOT of fun. Leaving is never easy. We love visiting Tahoe, Truckee, and Reno. Our dream is to live in Truckee or Lake Tahoe. The mountains are always such a relaxing place. It feels so good to breathe in the intoxicatingly fresh air while staring at snow-capped mountains in the background.
Truckee and Donner Lake FAQ
Question: Should my family and I should visit North Tahoe or South Tahoe? Which one is better?
Answer: North Tahoe and South Tahoe both offer so much. In the north, you have a more outdoorsy vibe without the big city feel. But, if you do want to go out at night, Reno is only about 30 minutes away! South Lake Tahoe is more urban and you do feel like you're in a city, but you can easily drive to undeveloped areas. South Tahoe is right on the border between CA and NV so as soon as you cross the state line, you'll be in the midst of big casinos and entertainment! South Tahoe also has the Famous emerald Bay State Park and Heavenly Mountain Resort.
No matter what you're into, both North or South Tahoe will have it for you. If you and your family enjoy the outdoors more, I recommend north. If you have time, I recommend driving around the whole lake, and possibly staying one night in south and one night in north!