Have you ever been at Donner Lake and thought about what the lake looked like back when the Donner Party was there, before it was developed? There are some old black & white photos of the lake from the early 1900s (you can see them at the Donner Summit Historical Society) that give you an idea of what the pristine lake looked like. But if you really want to get an idea of what the lake must have been like before it was developed, you now have the opportunity to visit Donner Lake’s slightly smaller sister, Independence Lake. Located about 8.5 miles due north of of Donner Lake, Independence Lake sits in a very similar setting to Donner Lake. The difference is that Independence Lake is not located on a major transportation corridor and has never been developed. Previously it was under private ownership, but last year it was acquired by the Nature Conservancy and Truckee-Tahoe Land Trust which pretty much guarantees it will not be developed in the future.
At the beginning of this summer Independence Lake was opened to public access by the Conservancy-Land Trust group in an enlightened program that allows hikers, kayakers and fisherman access to the lake and surrounding watershed, while protecting the area. The program includes a boat concession that provides kayaks and small motorized skiffs for use by the public at NO CHARGE. This concession is in lieu of allowing privately owned watercraft into the lake that may introduce some very damaging invasive aquatic species (consider what the Quagga mussel is doing to Lake Mead). The concession operates on an alternating schedule that allows kayakers only for one week and both kayakers and motorboats the next week. This satisfies both the fishermen and nature purists. Speaking of fish, this natural lake still supports the spawning of the native Lahontan Cutthrot Trout, with a small but healthy population of this endangered fish. Fishing for these wild trout is allowed under a catch and release policy.
Last week we got a group together and drove down the hill to Truckee, up Hwy 89 and took the Webber Lake turnoff and followed the signs to Independence Lake. The last three miles are on a bumpy, but well maintained dirt road. There is one stream crossing which might be a challenge in late May and June but is otherwise just a deep puddle. Once we arrived at the preserve station, we signed up for the kayaks and walked down to the east shore of the lake. The view up the lake valley is spectacular with Mt Lola at the very end of the lake. The kayaks were all very nice sit on top ocean kayaks that were pretty comfortable and offered ample gear storage. Our goal was to circumnavigate the lake which we set off to do in a counterclockwise direction. The lake is crystal clear and it didn’t take long to run into a mother Merganser with a brood of ducklings. A little further on we disturbed the resident Bald Eagle who majestically flew off across the lake. The lake is about 2.5 miles long, so be prepared for a pretty good paddle. Something else to keep in mind is like Donner Lake, the wind starts to kick up from the west about mid morning and it can get quite breezy. We were lucky the day we went because the wind didn’t really start up until about 11:30 after we were almost to the west end. It is a good idea to try and get out on the lake between 9 and 10 to avoid the wind during the westward paddle. Of course the wind becomes your friend when paddling back. We stopped for lunch at the west end of the lake in very nice little glen populated with wild flowers. On our paddle back we ran into the Bald Eagle again and this time he/she was unperturbed as we passed by. Outside of one outbuilding on the east shore of the lake this is probably the same paddle you would have experienced a 100 years ago on Donner Lake.There is a trail on the north side of the lake if you would like to hike to the west end. If you are fishing, there are a couple of marked no fishing areas that are spawning areas for the native Lahontan Trout. Also the creek at the east end that feeds into the lake is a Lahontan spawning area and is protected from access. Please observe all signs. I think the Nature Conservancy-Land Trust should be commended for their efforts to preserve this high Sierra lake while implementing a program that allow us all to enjoy it’s natural beauty.