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Donnells Reservoir is one of the Central Sierra's most picturesque lakes. Sometimes called Donnell Lake, it has its own dedicated viewing location and is often seen but seldom visited. The miles-long reservoir flooding a portion of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River lies between steep granite cliffs with no walkable shoreline and road access suitable only for 4-wheel drive vehicles. At nearly 5000 feet elevation, the gravel forest service roads are impassible in winter. Small boats brought for launching will find no boat ramp; access to the water requires a portage and lowering the craft over 200 feet down the steep face of Donnell Dam. There are no organized recreational sites at Donnells Lake; the few primitive campgrounds are only accessible from the water. Yet the lake has a reputation among outdoor lovers and trout fishermen that guarantees there are always people thinking about their next visit.
The difficulty of getting to Donnells Reservoir is undoubtedly a part of its charm. The waters are never crowded. In fact, many visitors find themselves completely alone on the 425-acre lake. Set within the Stanislaus National Forest, few signs direct visitors to the lake. Two fences limit access to walkers who can enter through narrow personnel passages. Rangers at the Summit Ranger Station near Strawberry warn that the lake and its surroundings can be dangerous for the unprepared. The canyon funnels winds which whistle down the surface daily. If a boat capsizes, there are few places along the shore where a swimmer can exit the water, making life preservers necessary and rescue very difficult. Variable water levels can expose boaters to rocks under the surface, and the rocky ledges are often slippery. But the fish, both brown trout and rainbow trout, are said to be massive and hungry for the hook. And the view is unparalleled.
The sight of Niagara Creek Falls where it cascades to the water is best in spring when the mountain snows melt to swell the creek. The highest waterfall in the Stanislaus National Forest, the falls can only be seen from the Donnells Vista viewing area on CA Hwy 108 or from the lake itself. Those not prepared to handle a rough access road or rigorous hike usually stop here where a viewing platform, picnic areas and chemical toilets provide a few creature comforts. A nature trail from the viewing area allows for a short hike among the forested slopes above the lake. In bright sunlight, the steep canyon walls glisten white during low water periods, with a massive dome of rock, called Broad Dome, seen only from certain areas of the lake and the overlook.
The difficult Donnells Trail accesses the lake from the end of the lake opposite the dam near the inlet. Two-and-a-half-miles of faintly-marked trail requires experience in mountaineering, off-trail skills and a good topographic map. The trailhead is not well-marked and located on an unsigned road. This assures that those intending to backpack and camp in the area will obtain the proper permit and pre-entry advice from the Ranger Station. Forest Service officials do not wish to have inexperienced hikers attempting to access the lake without the proper directions or equipment. Other trails in the Stanislaus National Forest lead toward the lake and are often used by experienced backpackers and trail enthusiasts. Much of this is rough terrain and teeming with wildlife.
Located only 45 miles east of Sonoma, Donnells Lake is the most easterly of the water control structures in the Tri-Dam Project of the Oakdale and San Joaquin Irrigation District. Beardsley Lake is located about seven miles downriver, with the powerhouse for hydroelectric generation located downstream from Donnells Reservoir. Water travels to the powerhouse via a penstock tunnel. Both dams were dedicated on the same day in 1957, celebrating the opening of the long-dreamed-of project to provide irrigation water and hydroelectricity to the San Joaquin Valley. Beardsley Lake is easier to access and easier for boat launching. Located in historic Gold Rush country, the entire area is popular for recreation and vacations year round. Several ski areas are heavily visited as they are located less than four hours from the Bay area.
The foothills area is rich in historic artifacts of the Gold Rush. Numerous campgrounds and resort lodges are located along CA Hwy 108 leading toward and past Donnells Reservoir. Less than 10 miles away, the small village of Pinecrest holds resort lodgings and is quite busy during the summer months. This is the Central Valley's favorite and most accessible playground, offering nearly every type of recreational opportunity a visitor could imagine. The few areas of private land have held summer cabins and ski chalets for generations, some of which are sometimes offered for short-term rental. Most towns of any size offer a variety of restaurants and places to buy camping supplies. Several tourist-geared outfitters can provide trail guides for fly fishing the many mountain streams, white-water river rafting, horseback trail riding or photography tours.
Two of California's unique State Historical Parks are located a few miles to the west. The Columbia State Historical Park and the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park are both located near Sonora. Columbia Park recreates a Gold Mining town complete with panning for gold, while Railtown showcases a restored steam engine and rolling stock, museum and excursion train tours. Farther east, the City of Twain Harte, named for the two famous American writers Mark Twain and Bret Harte, provides a wide variety of recreational entertainment year round for the entire family. Twain Harte is known for antique shopping, golf, unique shops and restaurants. The small city makes the ideal spot to call home base for an extended week in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains. The area holds bed & breakfasts, quaint lodges and several motels for a good night's sleep.
Although accessing Donnells Lake is only for the most physically fit, getting to the overlook at Donnells Vista is accessible to anyone who can handle a five minute walk from the parking lot. One way or the other, everyone can see stunning Donnells Lake. Make sure to add it to your itinerary for your next visit to California.
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