The Ultimate Guide to Donner Lake Swimming
By Tahoe Mountain Sports Ambassador Mone’ Haen.
About Me & My Swimming
Swimming was probably my first real athletic love. From the age of seven through mid-high school, I spent my summers in the pool for practices and at meets swimming on The Snowbird Canyon Racket Club Swim Team. After college and my career took the front seat for nearly a decade, I got back to swimming in my late twenties as part of triathlon training. This is where I took my swimming experience from the pool into the open water. I’ve swum in many places over the years including Aquatic Park in San Francisco (yes with the seals), around the Santa Cruz Wharf Pier, in Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake, Thailand and even in Kailua-Kona Hawaii. My most treasured open water swims to date are the Iron Man swim course in Kona and a full, 6-mile Donner Lake circumnavigation.
Before we get into the swimming guide, a couple of details: like most women, I run cold. My hands and feet get cold very easily and my core body temperature can dip quickly under certain circumstances – yep, you guessed it namely while swimming in cold, open water. So, what is written below, is done so within that context.
Donner Lake Swim Options
While the options for swimming in Donner Lake and nearly endless, I’ve chosen four options to highlight, which provide a wide range of distances for various levels of interest, ability, and comfort. The options range easiest/beginner to longest/most advanced with the criteria being distance, safety and an evolution of level of comfort with the water.
#1 – West End Beach
I chose this as a good beginner open water swim because of the buoys and ropes put out by TDRPD to prevent motorized and nonmotorized watercraft from entering the area. As a first foray into the open water, this is a great way to get comfortable with the water conditions and your gear (namely your wetsuit) while at the same time, having a sense of security and an absence of the stress of outside elements (boats). The ropes also provide a mechanism by which to track how straight you’re swimming while practicing your sighting*. I recommend heading straight out to the deepest section, and swimming laps along the easternmost perimeter of the roped area for as long as you’d like. While this may seem a bit more like swimming in a pool, it’s a great introduction and a great way to help avoid “wetsuit panic”, which I’ll talk about later. It’s also a great way to practice swimming in varied conditions (i.e. wind and chop) for more experienced swimmers.
#2 – Dog Beach to China Cove
This is probably my favorite Donner Swim for a workout! In order to access this course, you can park on Donner Pass Road just before the Tahoe Donner Private Beach parking. From there, find the trail that leads into Donner Memorial state park and follow it West to Dog Beach (the beach right next to Tahoe Donner gated, private beach). Once you’re at Dog Beach enter the water and along the southern shoreline as indicated in the photo above. You can swim as long or short as you’d like, but the course depicted is about one mile to China Cove or two miles round trip. I love this route because the water is relatively shallow and is dotted with large granite boulders underneath the water – in other words, ski boats stay away. The best part of this route though, is the underwater beauty you’ll get to see while you’re swimming. It’s absolutely stunning with crystal clear waters, varied topography, fish, crawfish, little white shells, granite boulders and remnants of history lining the lake floor.
#3 – Dog Beach to West End Beach (or vice versa)
This route is great if you have a friend to either swim with and shuttle cars, or if you want each person to park at opposite ends and then pass each other in the middle. It requires a little coordination but is really fun. The water is deeper along this course, so your underwater viewing will largely be limited to deep blue water. However, the views above water here are quite a treat. While you’re taking your breaths, you get to check out the homes that line the shore as well as the beautiful shoreline itself. The distance from beach to beach if you’re hugging the shore and staying away from the boat traffic is approximately 2.9 miles or 5,140 yards.
#4 – Donner Lake Circumnavigation
I’m not going to lie – this is a big undertaking. It’s about 6.9 miles to swim the entire lake and took me almost three hours to do it. I know there are insane long-distance swimmers out there that think this would be nothing, but for me that’s along time to be in the water. With that said, it’s well worth it for the ability to experience Donner Lake in a way most people never have. As I’ve mentioned, Donner is absolutely beautiful both above and below the water. Swimming allows you to really take in the beauty at a pace which is much slower than other modes of travel allow. Now logistically, this swim requires some planning. I would either recommend that you have a friend pace you on a paddle board or kayak (in my case, my husband was patient enough to do so), or have a friend meet you at certain spots along the shore to both check in as well as hand off nutrition and hydration. The former allows additional safety and visibility when it comes to ski boats. Of course you can do it solo and I’ll talk later about how to carry enough nutrition to make it, but if you chose to do so, just make sure you tell someone when you’ll be going and what time you’ll be back. You can always swim to shore but hypothermia is a real concern with this one and getting out of the water may be colder than staying in depending on time of day and time of year.
Best Times of Day
In theory, you can go swimming any time you want, but there are some factors that make certain times of day more pleasant than others for swimming in Donner. I highly recommend swimming in the early morning on weekdays as motorized boat traffic is almost non-existent, the wind is calm and therefore the water is typically very glassy. The bonus to swimming in the early morning is that the air temperature is typically cooler than the water temperature so actually getting in the water is pretty appealing.
For shorter distances (half mile to a mile or so) starting your swim before 7:30 or 8:00am would be fine. If you’re going longer, I’d recommend starting earlier – call it 6:30 or 7:00ish. If you’re considering the big kahuna and going for the circumnavigation, 5:30am is the latest I’d start to finish up before the boat traffic really picks up.
The Essential Gear
Swimming in Donner requires some gear – especially if you’re going to be swimming for more than ten to fifteen minutes in the heat of the day. Here’s my recommended list of gear:
- Swimsuit – preferably a suit specifically designed for swimming as a workout. Yes, ladies you can get away with a bikini if you’re going to wear it under your wetsuit. Guys, don’t even try to stuff board shorts into a wetsuit. Whatever you opt for, make sure it doesn’t have ties, tassels, beads, etc.
- Goggles – this should go without saying, but goggles are a must if you’re going to be putting your face in the water and swimming for any length of time. They will protect your eyes from any floating particles as well as from the sun. I recommend goggles with a tinted lens for early morning swims as you will be sighting into the sun periodically.
- Swim Cap – the brighter the better! I highly recommend using a cap for both visibility and warmth. A brightly colored swim cap makes you more visible to boaters, paddle boarders, kayakers, etc.
- Wetsuit – this is a must if you’re going to swim for any length of time in Donner prior to mid July or after September 1st as water temperatures are typically quite cold. Even in July and August exposure to Donner water temperatures for long periods of time can easily result in hypothermia. Keep in mind that even if the water temperature in the shallows is fairly pleasant, the temps will drop quickly as the depth of the water increases. Also, water temperatures at the west end of the lake (where snowmelt comes into the lake) tend to be cooler than water temps at the east end.
- Swim Buoy – ok this thing is great for many reasons. It attaches to your waist and bobs along behind you as you swim. It has a dry bag to stash your car keys and even some nutrition for longer swims. It provides great visibility for boaters, etc and is an added level of security in the event you cramp up mid swim and/or need a bit of a rest. There is no noticeable drag, so the pros far outweigh the cons.
- Microfiber Towel – to dry off post swim.
- Flip Flops – to get you to and from your car/beach. Bare feet on sand, rocks and sticks in cold early morning temps can feel like shards of glass. Don’t torture yourself.
- Hydroflask or Thermos – I like to fill mine with hot coffee to return my body temperature back to normal after a swim.
- Post Swim Change of Clothes – you’re not going to want to wear a wet swimsuit and towel home or to work.
Donner Lake holds a special place in my heart and swimming in it is just one of many ways to enjoy the beauty and serenity it has to offer. Early morning swims there offer some of the most quiet and peaceful moments our area has to offer. Start small and stay safe in the water first and foremost, but enjoy every second of it!
*If you’re unfamiliar with sighting or the basics of open water swimming, there are plenty of resources out there. Search up “Open Water Swimming Basics” and plenty of links will pop up.
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Now that you got your Donner Lake swimming out of the way, check out our beach vacation checklist! It has everything you need for a relaxing day on Lake Tahoe or Donner Lake.