Donner Summit California State Sno-Park

Cheap Family Sledding at Donner Summit Sno-Park Near Boreal

Carter wanted to be in the snow when it was snowing. In all of the years we have lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, my kids have visited the snow, but never been in the snow when it is actually snowing. When Brian saw the weekend forecast called for snow around mid-day on Saturday, we picked up a couple snow discs and made plans to go sledding in the morning so we could be in the snow when it began snowing, and then head back home before we needed to worry about chains.

We’ve been snow-tubing a couple times, and while it’s fun, it’s expensive! We’ve paid upwards of $40 per person for just a couple hours of tubing, $20/hour per person, $60+ per person for a gondola ride and one hour of tubing, and around $50 per person for a full day pass. Ugh. Plus, the lines are long, it’s crowded, and it often loud.

We weren’t in the mood for that this time. We wanted something close to our house, just off I-80 that felt more remote and more peaceful. We wanted to be able to go sledding without long lines or a time limit on our snow play fun and the Donner Summit Sno-Park was the answer.

Donner Summit Sno-Park

The Donner Summit Sno-Park is one of 19 California State Sno-Parks that make expansive, protected snow play areas available for only a small fee per vehicle. It only cost $6.95 total for all four of us to play in the snow and go sledding for three hours straight. And what’s even better is that there are several kid-friendly sledding hills, we never had to wait in line, we had almost the entire Sno-Park to ourselves, and it was peaceful.

We had a blast! The kids rode their snow-discs down the hills until they were exhausted. They played in the snow, made snow angels, threw snowballs, and tried building a snowman. They even found a snow cave and had a lot of fun playing inside it.

A Sledding Injury (Watch Out For Trees)

The only downside is that we had an injury — and not a little injury either. For much of the morning, I had been eyeing a large sledding hill. It was three “stories” tall, with two flat areas that would make awesome opportunities to catch some air. I watched a few kids sled down the hill, but they only went to the top of the first “level” before sledding down.

“Wimps,” I thought. You see, my mom let us do all sorts of crazy, adventurous things when we were kids. Heck, she did them too! We had so much fun and great stories to tell later! Needless to say, I don’t have the best filter on what I should and should not try. Brian always jokes that all of the signs to stay away from bears, stay on the trails, and don’t do dangerous things, are all meant specifically for me. This time he was right.

I decided to tackle the giant sledding hill. “Watch this kids. This is how it’s done,” I said with confidence. The kids were nervous. Brian warned me to watch out for trees. “I’ve got this,” I replied. I went to the top, sat on the snow disc, tucked my feet into the disc to eliminate drag, and pushed off.

I was right, I caught massive air. But after the first jump, my feet popped out and I began to spin a bit. I hit the second jump, tipped sideways in the air, and hit the snow hard, pinching my arm between the snow disc and the ground. The forward force kept me moving fast, and I spun around one more time before sledding right into a huge tree with several broken branches protruding from it.

I heard a huge cracking sound. OMG. I hit the tree. At first I couldn’t move. Did I break something? Was I paralyzed? Am I bleeding? No, but I was in pain. I tried to roll away from the tree and brush it off, playing down my injury. But it wasn’t going to work. The loud crack, was the plastic snow disc cracking apart as it hit the tree.

My arm was throbbing, screaming in pain. My butt hurt so bad, I wasn’t sure if I could walk. Both my arm and my butt immediately started to swell. It wasn’t looking good, but nothing seemed broken.

When I looked at the tree and the menacing broken branches protruding from it, I know now how lucky I am. Just a little higher and I would have hit my spine. Just a little more spin, and I would have hit my head. Just a little more force, or a slight twist of the disc, and I would have been impaled.

Needless to say, that was my last sled run of the day. After that I just watched the kids play and sled, and enjoyed being a spectator.

Donner Summit Sno-Park Parking

Here’s the deal: You’re going to find TONS of bad reviews about the Sno-Park at Donner Summit because the reviewer claims the parking is terrible — and if you try to visit the park around lunch time or in the afternoon, you’ll find they are right. The parking lot at the Donner Summit Sno-Park is small and if you have a large vehicle, it’s a tight fit. By late morning/mid-day the lot is full, it is crowded, and as more and more big vehicles packed with families arrive, it just gets worse.

Here’s the good news: If you arrive early, there will be tons of parking and you’ll have no problems. In regards to the Donner Summit Sno-Park, the early bird gets the worm — or the early sledders get the parking spaces. We arrived around 9:00 am and there were only two other vehicles in the lot, which meant we could pick a parking spot that would allow us to get out of the lot easily and quickly.

By 10:30 am the Sno-Park parking area was packed. Every spot was taken and there was a non-stop line of vehicles looping the lot with kids’ faces glued to the windows, anxious to get out and play. When we finally left the Sno-Park just before lunch time, it was a total and complete mad house. Not only was the lot full, but both sides of the road leading to the Sno-Park were lined with vehicles and it continued all the way to the freeway exit.

Thank goodness we arrived early! Not only was parking easy and no hassle at all, but it also meant that for the first 90 minutes we were at the Donner Summit Sno-Park, we were one of the only families there. It even felt like we were alone! This also mean that we never had to wait in line to sled down a hill. By the time the park was getting crowded, Carter had already completed 50 sledding runs.

Donner Sno-Park Parking
The parking area at the Donner Summit Sno-Park is very small. We arrived at 9:00 am and were one of the first vehicles in the lot. By 11:00 am, it was full, cars were looping through, so at this sno-park, it definitely pays to get there as early as you can.

Donner Summit Sno-Park Permits

The California Sno-Park program is coordinated and administered by the OHMVR Division of California State Parks, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Transportation, the California Highway Patrol, and various community organizations. There are 19 different Sno-Park sites in the Sierra Nevadas.

A permit is required for each vehicle parked at a Sno-Park site from November 1 through May 30 of each year. Permits are sold as Day Permits or Seasonal Permits by permit vendors throughout northern California, or you can purchase a Sno-Park permit online.

  • Day permits are sold for $5.00 and are valid for one single day.
  • Season permits are sold for $25.00 and are valid for the entire Sno-Park season from November 1 through May 30.
  • When purchasing Sno-Park permit online, an additional service charge of $2 will be applied.
  • Oregon and Idaho Sno-Park permits are valid in California and California Sno-Park permits are valid in Oregon and Idaho.
  • Parking is on a first-come, first-served basis at all SNO-PARK sites. No refunds are issued if your favorite SNO-PARK is full.
  • The Sno-Park permit must be displayed on the left side of the vehicle dashboard where it can be seen clearly from outside the vehicle. All permits sold are non-refundable; day permits are non-transferable.
  • Any vehicle parked at a Sno-Park site without a permit properly displayed is subject to a fine of almost $100!

If you forget to get a permit in advance, the closest place to the Donner Sno-Park where you can buy a permit is the Boreal Inn, which is right next to the Sno-Park. It’s so close, you could walk if you had to. It is located at 19455 Boreal Ridge Road, Soda Springs, California 95278.

A Snowy, Icy, Donner Lake

One of the reasons we decided to go sledding in the first place was because the kids wanted to be in the snow when it was snowing. They have visited the snow on multiple occasions, but never when it was actually snowing, because we don’t ever want to deal with putting chains on our vehicles.

Because we basically had the entire Donner Sno-Park to ourselves for most of the morning, by the time lunch time rolled around, we all were exhausted, and my arm and butt were starting to hurt so bad, I could barely use my arm or sit in my seat without being in a lot of pain. We decided to call it a day and head up to the Scenic Viewpoint overlooking Donner Lake for an in-car picnic with the seat heaters cranked up.

The view of Donner Lake didn’t disappoint. We weren’t in the protected Sno-Park anymore, but out in the wind at the top of the summit, and it was absolutely freezing — but the view was spectacular. With each wind gust, the sheets of ice spanning the top of Donner Lake slowly moved and shifted. We snapped a few photos and got back in the car to heat and food as fast as possible.

Donner Lake Vista Point
After spending a few hours sledding at the Donner Summit Sno-Park, we drove a little farther up I-80 to the Donner Lake Vista Point to check out the lake and enjoy a “car picnic” with a view. In warmer weather, we’d find a shady picnic table, but for this roadside meal, we wanted seat heaters!

Before heading back home, we drove down into the neighborhoods surrounding Donner Lake and followed the road alongside the edge of the lake. The lakefront cabins covered in snow sitting just beyond the quiet, icy lake, below the mountain of trees dotted in white was absolutely stunning to see.

Icy Donner Lake
I have lived in the foothills of Placer County for more than 30 years, and while I have been to, and camped at Donner Lake many times, I have never seen it in the cold, snowy weather. The lake was covered in thin sheets of ice that moved slowly in the wind — it was beautiful.

Unfortunately the expected time for snow to start falling kept getting pushed back later and later in the day, and we had to give up on our quest to be in the snow for this trip. Plus, I needed to get home and get some pain killers on board. While that sledding run was totally awesome and worth the injury, I definitely don’t think I’ll ever do something like that again. It took almost three weeks for the bruising to go away, and almost a month for the pain to go away in my butt. My arm still has a bump on the muscle and still hurts, so more Motrin is in my future.

We’re heading to Fort Bragg and Mendocino for Spring Break, so we need to replace the snow disc I shattered ASAP. We’re bringing them with us to try sand sledding at the Ten Mile Dunes Natural Preserve — and you can bet that I won’t be sledding anywhere near trees!

Know Before You Go

We all had a blast sledding and playing in the snow at the Donner Summit Sno-Park — and at only $7.00 for the online vehicle permit, it was WAY CHEAPER than any of the snow tubing and sledding options available at the ski resorts.

  • The Donner Summit California State Sno-Park is located at 19455 Bunny Hill Drive, Soda Springs, California 95728 in the Nevada County area of the Tahoe National Forest. It sits on the south side of I-80 at the Castle Peak exit beyond the Boreal Inn, next to the the Pacific Crest Trail parking area, and near the Boreal Mountain Resort.
  • Download the Sno-Park Brochure or just get the map of all 19 Sno-Parks.
  • The Donner Summit Sno-Park is open from November 1 through May 30 and parking/access permits are required for each vehicle.
  • Arrive early! parking at the Donner Summit Sno-Park gets worse as it gets later in the day. If you don’t want to loop the parking lot for thirty minutes to an hour, get up early and be there by 9:00 am. At that time there is plenty of parking and no lines on the sledding hills.
  • You need to bring your own sleds or sno-discs.
  • There are restrooms, but they are pit toilets or vault toilets, and depending on when you visit the Sno-Park, they may not be very clean or have any toilet paper. I highly recommend sticking a roll of TP in your car, just in case.
  • Donner Summit Sno-Park isn’t just for sledding! You can also go cross-country skiing, dog sledding, and snowshoeing, or you can just come to play in the snow and build a snowman. Snowmobiling is not allowed.
  • When you’re done sledding and the kids are exhausted, continue up I-80 a bit further to the rest stop for real, flushing, clean restrooms, and then a bit past that to the Donner Lake Overlook. The vista point provides spectacular views!

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