Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum

#3 in Best Things To Do in Lake Tahoe
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Key Info

12593 Donner Pass Rd.

Price & Hours

Free
Sunrise-sunset daily

Details

Museums, Free, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Monuments and Memorials Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend

scorecard

  • 5.0Value
  • 4.0Facilities
  • 4.0Atmosphere

The Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum honor one of the darkest moments in American pioneering. Here, you'll find a great stone pedestal commemorating the Donner Party, the legendary pioneers who fell victim to the harsh Sierra Nevada winter of 1846 to 1847. The party (originally consisting of nearly 90 emigrants) was en route to California when their wagon train encountered a severe snow storm. Only half of the pioneers survived (many by resorting to cannibalism). The stone marker near the Emigrant Trail Museum stands 22 feet tall, marking the immense amount of snowfall from that winter.

For more information about the tragic Donner Party, head to the Emigrant Trail Museum. There you'll also find intricate dioramas detailing the history of railroad development in the Sierra Nevada region. It's a great spot for history buffs, according to recent visitors, though some expressed disappointment in the lack of interactive exhibits.

Recent visitors also suggest you spend some time outdoors. The park is home to numerous hiking and snowshoeing trails (more than 8 miles), or you can swim, boat and fish.

You'll find the Donner Memorial State Park and the Emigrant Trail Museum sitting about 3 miles west of Truckee. The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset; the visitor center is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It costs $10 to park in the parking lot May through September and $5 the rest of the year. Along with the museum and visitor center, there are also camp sites with restrooms and showers, as well as picnic areas. For more information, visit the Donner Memorial State Park website.

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#1 Emerald Bay State Park

Carved millions of years ago by passing glaciers, this state park is a must-see for anyone looking to experience Lake Tahoe's beauty. Sheltered by towering trees, this inlet along the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe is known for its colorful granite cliffs and stunning panoramas. Follow Highway 89 south from Tahoe City (about 20 miles) or north from South Lake Tahoe (about 10 miles) and you'll come across the Emerald Bay Lookout, the park's crown jewel. And you should make sure you have a camera on hand – the scenery is breathtaking and travelers say there are photo opportunities everywhere you turn.

But staring off into the sunset isn't the only thing to do here. Emerald Bay State Park is also home to several attractions. Budding geologists can hop a boat out to Fannette Island (the only island on Lake Tahoe) where evidence of glacial activity abounds. If you're into history, a stop at Vikingsholm is a must: Built in the 1920s, this former summer home is one of the best examples of Scandinavian architecture in the country. Plus, many of the materials used to construct Vikingsholm came from the Lake Tahoe area, making this mansion an authentic part of the landscape. Adults can tour the home for $10 (children ages 7 to 17 and college student pay $8). Getting to the house takes a bit of doing. After parking in the Vikingshom parking lot by Highway 89 at Emerald Bay, visitors must hike via a steep 1-mile trail that drops 500 feet in elevation. Those with medical conditions or mobility issues are advised not to attempt this hike. 

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