TRUCKEE, Calif. — Fly over Donner Lake on a summer's afternoon and you'll probably see a ballet of multicolored sails capturing the hearty afternoon breezes.
The sails belong to windsurfers whose afternoon dances across choppy waters are among the many outdoor activities that attract people to this area during the summer season.
North of its big brother, Lake Tahoe, high in the Sierra Nevada, Donner Lake sits just below Interstate 80. Although you can see parts of the lake from the highway, be sure to watch for exit signs to the Donner area. It's about a four-hour drive from San Francisco, 40 minutes from Reno.
Donner is a small lake (seven miles in circumference) with a neighborly feeling. In the early morning, canoes glide through the glassy water and children frolic near shore with inner tubes and rafts. Water skiers cut paths through the middle of the lake, and fishermen sit quietly in their boats or dockside waiting for the bite of hungry trout.
By mid-morning, those wanting to enjoy sun, sand and a swim arrive on the beaches around the lake. China Cove, bordered by tall lodgepole and Jeffrey pine trees, is inside Donner Memorial State Park on the east end of the lake. On the opposite end of the lake is West End Beach.
China Cove is isolated and quiet, but West End Beach is open and active. It is just off Donner Pass Road and, in addition to its large beach, has facilities that include a play area for children, a tennis court and a section for power boat parking and water skiing.
Near West End Beach, a small cove serves as a school for the High Sierra Sailboarding Co. Jean-Luc and Jessica Gibassier, owners of the school, are talented and patient instructors who will have you hoisting your sail and tacking on the lake during your first lesson. Of course, expect to take a few falls as you learn. The cost for the lesson is $30 per person, $45 for two.
One of the newer sports in the Sierra is mountain biking. Mountain bikes are heavy-duty bicycles with 16 gears that allow riders to explore trails that were previously reserved for serious hikers.
Starting at Memorial Park, a scenic path leads along the edge of the lake near China Cove and through the tall pines that fill the campground. You emerge out of the park area onto Donner Lake Road and then continue around the lake.
The bikes can be rented at shops in nearby Truckee (about 10 minutes from Donner Lake by car) for about $15 a day. For the more adventuresome bikers, maps of other trails are available at the bike-rental shops in Truckee.
Rafting on the Truckee
"Trucking down the Truckee" on a raft is another fun activity for the active vacationer. At several river-raft companies in Tahoe City (about a half-hour drive from Donner Lake) you can rent rafts for groups ranging from 2 to 12 people at $15 per person.
Rafting on this section of the Truckee River is not hazardous. You paddle your raft as it's carried by a lazy current that occasionally merges into a swift rapid or two. The most precarious and fun times of the trip are the frequent water fights that break out between the rafters as they wind down the river.
The two-hour raft trip ends at the River Ranch restaurant where you can stop to eat, drink and reminisce about your rafting adventures on the patio overlooking a picturesque bend in the river. Later you travel back to Tahoe City on a bus provided by your raft rental company.
Many people who come to Donner Lake rent a condo or cabin through a local realtor. Other comfortable lodgings also are available. For those who enjoy the bed and breakfast life style, two charming inns are in the area.
Inn in the Country
Near the west end of the lake is Donner Country Inn. Once the home of the Japanese ski team during the 1960 Winter Olympics at nearby Squaw Valley, it has been completely renovated by owners Jim and Barbara Sinnot.
Each of the inn's five rooms is decorated in country pine and wallpapered with Laura Ashley prints. The rooms also are furnished with wood-burning stoves, and window seats overlooking the surrounding woods.
A continental breakfast of fresh juices, fruits, croissants and coffee is served each morning in the cathedral-ceilinged living room of the main house. Guests may eat in the living room or out on the balcony with its lake view.
Donner Country Inn has a two-night minimum stay; all rooms are $65 a night. Credit cards are not accepted and reservations are a must. Call (415) 938-0685 or (916) 587-5574.
On a steep hill overlooking downtown Truckee is the historic Mountain View Inn. This Victorian home was built in the 1890s by Warren Richardson, a lumber baron who introduced steam wagons for hauling felled trees to mills in the Sierra.
The upstairs section of the inn has five rooms. Handmade quilts cover high beds, while antique chairs and bureaus add to the century-old feeling.