A Peaceful Park with a Sad Past

For many people who live around Sacramento and the Bay Area of California, winter is all about skiing and snowboarding in nearby Lake Tahoe. While the Sacramento valley never gets too cold and the Bay Area often has sunny, mild weather in the winter, the Sierra Nevadas frequently get enveloped in layers of beautiful snow, providing a winter wonderland just two hours from my house.

This year was different, though. The drought in California also meant very little snow in the mountains. When there was virtually no rain this winter, we had to wait and wait to take our kids to see snow. A recent weekend day trip changed that but also brought some unexpected discoveries near Lake Tahoe.

Donner Memorial State Park

Passing the Sierra Nevadas at 7000 feet elevation

Since neither my husband nor I ski or snowboard, we are not always good about getting our kids out in the snow as much as they would like. Our younger son turned 3 this winter with having never seen snow, so we decided to change that and promptly bought toddler-sized snow pants and got our sled ready for a snow day. When snow finally came, we headed for the Lake Tahoe area and were surprised by what we found.

Much of this area is named after the Donner party. This group of about 89 emigrants from Illinois was stuck here in the winter of 1846-47 due to high snow levels as they tried to reach California. As many members of the group died, the others resorted to cannibalism, but half the group survived.

Donner Memorial State Park sits at 6200 feet near Truckee, just north of Lake Tahoe and about 100 minutes east of Sacramento. As the name implies, this is the place where the Donner party spent that winter. The park’s small museum includes displays about pioneers that crossed the Sierras to reach California, including details of the circumstances that the Donner party faced.

The platform that the figures stand on on the Pioneer Memorial indicates the snow level (22 feet) when the Donner party was here. This year, there was no snow in the park, although we found plenty of snow just 10 miles west at 1000 feet higher elevation.

Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Memorial State Park

The mini snowman my kids managed to make from one pile of old snow in the parking lot.

Donner Memorial State Park includes Donner Lake, a small alpine lake of about 3 miles, and trails that loop around the lake, one for snowshoeing, one for cross-country skiing. Because there was no snow this year, we spent our time hiking, having a picnic in the 60 degree winter weather, and skipping rocks in Donner Lake which, like all California lakes, is low due to the state’s drought. Even though we were disappointed not to find snow here, we did find pure nature and peace.

Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Lake at Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Memorial State Park

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Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Memorial State Park

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Donner Memorial State Park

Beautiful picnic spots with the lake on one side and snow-covered mountains on the other

Donner Memorial State Park

Low water levels are a common and unwelcome sight this year

This is what I love about California: a place of raw natural beauty with very few people despite the fact that it’s a beautiful Saturday. I feel so fortunate to live in a place that has so much nature to explore…that’s why I plan to share much more of “Secret California” this year.

What are your favorite state parks?

donner

10 Comments

  • noel says:

    It looks lovely even without the snow, it’s been so long since I’ve played in snow to, would love to visit since i just read a book about the Donner party.

    • Jenna says:

      Well, I can imagine that you would really enjoy visiting if you just finished reading a book about them. It’s so beautiful there…it’s hard to imagine something so sad happening and made me wonder how different it must have been then. No highway, cabins, etc.

  • Cassie says:

    What a great find, Jenna, beautiful scenery and a famous story in CA history. I’m intrigued by this Secret California thing you are doing — tell more! I’ve been meaning to write more about the things I love here in Silicon Valley, that will be my way of highlighting California places that don’t get enough love 🙂
    Cassie recently posted..Cherry Blossoms in Japan and Spring Colors Around the WorldMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I think that Lake Tahoe is so spectacular that smaller places like this one go practically unnoticed.
      This “Secret California” idea has been in my head for a while. In fact, it first started as a wanderlist I made on AFAR.com (http://www.afar.com/travelers/jenna-francisco/wanderlists/secret-california). I think that CA is such an amazing place that there are plenty of smaller places that even locals don’t know about…that’s what I’d like to cover in this series. 🙂 I’d love to hear more about your picks of places in Silicon Valley, an area I know very little of.

  • Tricia says:

    Jenna, lovely winter photos from Donner Memorial Park, and your sons’ snowman adds a whimsical touch. Since my husband’s parents are in Nevada, we stopped by the park the last time we were back in the States. Of course, we’d read about the Donner Party as children, and so the visit resonated with us as adults.

    We had our summer wedding at Lake Tahoe (and winter one in Germany), so Lake Tahoe’s a special place for us as well. Surprisingly, I’ve never seen the area dressed in snow, but I’d love to someday. The snow-capped peaks in your opening shot look stunning!
    Tricia recently posted..Klis Fortress & A Game of Thrones Tour in Split, CroatiaMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Wow, I didn’t know about your ties to Nevada and Tahoe. I’m also surprised to hear that you haven’t seen Tahoe in snow since that’s what it’s best known for…that means that you will have to schedule a winter visit sometime because it’s just gorgeous! 🙂

      • Tricia says:

        Jenna, while I’d love to see it in the snow, the California sunshine sounds so much more inviting right now. 🙂

        Speaking of ties, I see you’re a fellow Hawkeye. That’s where I did my undergrad studies. Small world! What years were you there?
        Tricia recently posted..Klis Fortress & A Game of Thrones Tour in Split, CroatiaMy Profile

        • Jenna says:

          Yes, CA sunshine is wonderful, but actually we had a big storm here this week, and the Tahoe area is covered in snow again, and more is coming this weekend!

          I went to Univ. of Iowa for grad school (linguistics) 1998-2000. My family has a lot of ties there–my grandfather, uncle, mom, sister-in-law, and husband went there (that’s where we met, actually!). My parents were born in Sioux City and my mom resettled there in my 20s, so even though I didn’t live in Iowa much, I went to school there because I could get in-state tuition. It’s such a nice university town! What about you?

  • Tricia says:

    I finished my degree in elementary education there in 1999. I grew up about an hour away in the Quad Cities, but on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Indeed, Iowa City’s a great little university town. I used to love all the eclectic restaurants and shops there. Funny – we could’ve been neighbors since we were there at the same time. I lived on Gilbert Street in an apartment above Gumby’s Pizza, not far from the Vine. Have you and your husband been back since university days? 🙂

  • Rebecca says:

    looks like one very beautiful spot in the world. Some great photos.
    Rebecca recently posted..The peril’s of Job Searching in LondonMy Profile

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