Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Wood and Lake at Donner Memorial State Park

Date: September 3, 2016
Place: Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee, California
Trailhead coordinates: 39.319047, -120.251484
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: easy

The first weekend of September found us looking for a campground in the Sierra Nevada north of Lake Tahoe. We had no reservations but there are plenty of first come first serve campgrounds in that area, and there were enough campsites that were not occupied by people. The problem was that they were all occupied by yellowjacket wasps that hoarded every picnic table and every water spigot. Eventually we did find a place in a small campground that had no water and very few other campers. Possibly because of that, there were considerably fewer yellowjackets. Either way, we knew that we would not spend much time in the campground, so after pitching the tent we were ready to go hiking.
We were there with friends, but their son wasn't feeling very well so they remained in the campsite while us Quails drove off to check out Donner Memorial Park.
There is a pretty blue narrow lake visible when driving past Truckee on I-80, and that is the Donner Lake, a man-made reservoir. Various estates and resorts are lined along its north shores, and on the south east side there is Donner Memorial State Park - a fee area.
We drove into the park and, following the gate attendant's instructions, we continued all the way to the end and parked right at the trailhead of what we were promised to be a nice forest trail.
Our hike at Donner Memorial State Park, as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS

The trailhead isn't marked, but there was no problem seeing it, leading right from the parking lot and into the forest. The forest at the park is pine-dominated, and the trees are far enough apart to let plenty of sunshine through.
A few yards into the trail
As expected for late summer, I didn't see anything blooming at the forest floor. The pretty colors decorating the ground were those of leaf-turning shrubs.

We advanced quickly through the first part of the hike. The trail meanders between trees and boulders, some of the rocks enticing my chikas to climb.

The park was full of people, but only very few could be seen on the trail. We had the forest literally to ourselves.
We could hear the birds all around us, and occasionally saw one flying between the trees, but none came out to pose for the camera. We also didn't see much of other wildlife, but did see evidence of wildlife activity in the forest. They simply weren't coming out to play.

The atmosphere in the forest was of stillness and quiet anticipation. The trees looked healthy, but tired and ready to go into dormancy. Either way, they were beautiful to look at.
Craning my neck
Despite the plentiful sunshine the forest undergrowth was far from thick. A shrub here and there, that's all. Of these, the manzanita shrubs were the most dominant, occupying the sunnier patches. I love to look at the peeling pattern of their skins.
The trail continued behind and around the park's campground in a distance far enough so that the camping sounds and odors were only a minor reminder of the massive human presence in the park that weekend.
For a short part the trail climbed up the hillside with a mild slope. There, right by the turning point back downward, there was a larger clearing in the middle of which, basking in full sunlight, was a small grove of quaking aspen. Had we been there a month later they's be wearing gold.
Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides
We were descending down and approaching the campground from behind when Papa Quail spotted a squirrel and took a photo. He then went on to tell us that squirrels of the Sierra are dangerous - they carry the deadly hantavirus, and should be avoided. Well, I wasn't about to handle it anyway, even if it would have let me.
Golden-mantled Squirrel
The trail had taken us to the back side of the campground. The park's campground was full - I knew that when a week before I was looking to see if perhaps they had a reservable spot there. Despite being full there wasn't the usual hubbub that normally goes with human crowds, and we didn't see too many people walking about the campground. However, we were no longer alone. Families were moving to and fro, going about their vacationing activities. I was more interested in other, non-human children.
Pine Kindergarten
After crossing the campground the trail reaches the lakeshore. Along the lake there is a nice and wide gravel trail. Just before going on the gravel trail I looked back to the forest and caught a cluster of manzanita glowing in the sun, enjoying the last days of summer.
Illuminated Manzanita
The shoreline trail is somewhat removed from the water and for the most part the water is hidden from view behind the trees. Whenever we did see the lake we could also see where all the people visiting the park were: right on the beach.
There were many people on the shoreline trail too, and now we had to watch also for bikers as well as for pedestrians. Every now and then I caught a moment with no people in view.
The shoreline trail
It was there, right by the shoreline trail, that I saw the only bloom there was to see - some hardy lupine plants of a species I do not know.
Lupine, Lupinus sp. 
The chikas wanted to go to the beach but we could only give them a few minutes of time by the water because it was already getting late and we had to go back to camp and cook dinner. I promised them that we would be back on the morrow and have more time by the water. I reminded them that their friend that stayed behind with his mother probably misses them. Reluctantly the chikas pulled themselves from the beach and we continued along the trail.
Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium, dispersing its seeds. 
At intervals of 100-200 yards along the shoreline trail there were large post signs telling of the area's natural features. Towards the end of the trail these signs also told of the human history of the place, starting with the local Native Californian tribe and finishing with the accounts of the fatal Donner Party after which the park was named. This story, infamous and sad, has become part of the lore of settling the West, and I'll write about it in my next post.
Donner Lake
We finished the hike and drove back to the campground near the Little Truckee River. When we arrived there we found that the chikas' friend had recovered. He and his mother had gathered firewood and were enjoying a nice campfire. It was already late enough so tat the yellowjackets have mostly gone and were not much of a bother anymore.
After dinner we sat by the campfire and the chikas told their friend about the park and the lake. I told them that we would go back there on the morrow - that there was another trail that I wished to hike in that park. I promised them that after the hike we would go to the lake and see if we could rent kayaks and go on the water. And with that happy prospect we quenched the fire and went inside the tents.


  1. It is nice, though it seems to be less interesting than our previous hikes (except for the killer squirles of course - which reminded me the killer rabbit -

    1. End of summer in the woods - everything is in still waiting, a paused moment of transition. We were there right at that time :-)