The Perfect Day Trip to Truckee & Donner Lake

Those of us who live in Northern California already know that Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular destinations, which of course means that it can also be crowded. One of our favorite places to visit is Truckee, partly for its proximity to Northstar, Donner Lake, and Lake Tahoe, and also because it’s a little closer to home than Tahoe (about 20-30 minutes). Plus, the town is so laid-back and the setting so beautiful that we can’t help but love it.

As part of our recent weekend at Northstar, we spent a day in Truckee and Donner Memorial State Park. The park was on my list because it has good snowshoe trails and because Noah has been learning about the pioneers in school and reading Patty Reed’s Doll, the story of the Donner and Reed families as told through the doll of 8-year-old Patty, one of the survivors (see the memorial below):

Donner Memorial State Park

First, we started with an early lunch at Jax on the Tracks in Truckee to give us some fuel for the rest of the day.

Where to eat with kids Tahoe Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com

This diner is one of a kind, an old 1940s diner car that has been meticulously restored. The restaurant serves California-inspired comfort food and kid-friendly diner food. We especially like the All Day Addiction, omelets, and sandwiches. I love all the fun details of the interior, but this time the service and food were disappointing. I hope they were just having an off day. If you go, I’d love to hear how it was.

Where to eat Truckee with kids

Next, it was time to rent our snowshoeing equipment. We stopped at Tahoe Dave’s, conveniently located downtown on Truckee’s main drag, Donner Pass Rd. The staff were so super friendly and made it easy for us to quickly grab some gear and head over to the park. Snowshoes and poles cost $15 per day ($12 for kids), and if you forget your snow boots, you can add those to your rental.

Snowshoeing Tahoe Truckee

Or you can bring your own, of course. We snowshoe a couple times a year — not often, but enough to make it worth it to buy them.

View of Donner Lake : Day Trip to Truckee

Donner Memorial State Park and Donner Lake are just an easy 5-minute drive from Truckee. You’ll need to pay the $5 state park fee, but if you don’t have cash (we didn’t), you can charge the fee in the Emigrant Trail Museum/visitor’s center.

On the left side of the parking lot is the Pioneer Monument, a large bronze statue that commemorates all the pioneers who crossed this area in the 1800s in search of a better life in California. The pedestal is 22 feet tall, the height that the snow may have reached during that fateful winter when the Donner Party and other families were stranded here. Actually, the Donner Party lived in tents about five miles from this location, but the other families (who came with the Donners) lived in cabins at Donner Lake; the cabin of the Breen family stood where the monument now stands.

Donner Party history California

The small museum is worth a stop–it explains the history of the area, from the Washoe Indians to the pioneers and the Chinese who built the railway in the surrounding mountains. Because Noah is studying California history in 4th grade, it was especially relevant to him (but you know how 9-year-old boys can be…”whatever”).

If you’re creeped out by the idea of exposing kids to the Donner Party story, I’d say that it’s unlikely they’ll pick up those details in the museum’s exhibits. After reading the book and learning more about the events of that winter, I feel that the cannibalism was just a terribly sad but inevitable part of the whole story. There are many other details of their long journey across the United States — meeting Native Americans, crossing a salt desert, taking the wrong route, their eventual rescue, etc. — that kids may find interesting.

Day trip to Donner Lake Truckee with kids | This Is My Happiness.com

Snowshoeing with kids near Tahoe

On the right side of the parking lot is a trail that goes to the lake. On snowshoes that trail can take longer than you might expect! We knew we wouldn’t be able to complete the whole loop with our kids, so we decided to walk to the lake and then turn around and come back. To create our own loop of sorts, we walked through the trees close to the water on the way in (see above) and then took the main trail (see below) on the way back. The trail is groomed for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Where to snowshoe Tahoe Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com

After you are on the trail for a bit, you’ll come to a couple of places where there’s water, but keep going until you get to the actual lake. It’s so beautiful that it’s worth the extra walking — it’s not far, but if you have kids, you know that sometimes it can seem far. When there’s no snow, you can easily stop at the picnic tables and benches to rest and have a snack. Because there’s been so much snow this year, we were actually walking on top of the tables, benches, trash cans, and signs!

Where to snowshoe with kids Tahoe | This Is My Happiness.com

Day trip to Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com

I can’t help but wonder who lives in these houses that are perched up on top of the mountain overlooking the lake. What a view to wake up to every day!

What to do with kids Tahoe areaday trip Tahoe Truckee with kids

Once you get away from the trail near the parking lot (where you can hear the traffic of I-80), the park is so peaceful. As you can see, there was no one around, just the sounds of birds in the trees.

Kid friendly things to do TahoeDay trip to Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com Kid friendly day trip Northern California  Day trip to Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com      Day trip to Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com      

When leaving the park, we took a left turn away from Truckee for a quick drive above the lake. Donner Pass Road winds its way past lakeside houses and then up the slopes above Donner Lake. Just before reaching the beautiful Donner Summit Rainbow Bridge, you’ll see a small parking area where you can pull in and enjoy this view. Above to the right of the viewpoint is the old wooden structure of the Donner Summit Railroad, which was constructed in the 1860s but is now abandoned. In warmer months, you can hike in these hills and walk through that abandoned railroad tunnel.

Day trip to Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.comDay trip to Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com

After our day snowshoeing, we were ready for dinner. First, we stopped in downtown Truckee again to return our snowshoes. It was busy at Tahoe Dave’s around 5 p.m.! But the return process is easy and fast, and my husband was able to just wait in the car outside instead of fighting for a parking spot, which can be hard to find at that time of day when many people are enjoying a beer after skiing.

We also walked around the historic downtown and stopped in a few of the cute boutique shops, including my kids’ favorite, Truckee Variety Co. If you’re in the mood for wine tasting, there’s Uncorked. Coffee? Try the bar at Trokay (but maybe not with kids?). A nice dinner? Try Moody’s in the historic hotel. There’s a little something for everyone in downtown Truckee.

.What to do with kids Tahoe Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com

And by the way, I always notice that Tahoe has the strangest clouds. That day was no exception–check out the weird long snakelike cloud!

Day trip to Donner Lake Truckee | This Is My Happiness.com

Ever since reading about the award-winning barrel-aged Eclipse stouts at Fifty Fifty Brewing Co., I’ve been wanting to return there (we had lunch and a flight of beers there last summer). I’m still lukewarm on this place — I like the beer, but the service can be slow and the food is overpriced. If you go, it’s just a couple minutes from downtown Truckee and serves California-style brewery fare, like kale salad and fish tacos and the typical kids’ menu items (and my kids really liked their food).

Where to eat Truckee

We tried the Session IPA and the Eclipse Grand Cru stout — both very good, but the stouts are pricey (like $8 for a half-pint and $26 for a large bottle) so be aware.

What are your suggestions for a day trip to Truckee or Donner Lake? I’d love to hear!

You can find out more about how to spend a day (or weekend) in Truckee over on the Tahoe Ascent blog. There you can also find my articles on where to eat, where to stay, and what to do with kids in North Lake Tahoe and Truckee.

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