Brian and I have always talked about purchasing a vacation home, a cabin in the mountains, a second home at Lake Tahoe, near a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. We haven’t yet pulled the trigger though because not only is property in Tahoe is insanely expensive, but we’re just not sure we want to be tied to one location. We both would rather go somewhere new each time we travel and see more of the world.
So instead of looking for a vacation home to buy, we began looking for awesome vacation homes to rent. We have driven past Serene Lakes numerous times on our way to lake Tahoe, but had never explored the area, and after finding some incredible vacation houses for rent at Serene Lakes just 25 minutes from Lake Tahoe, we decided to head up I-80 and check the area out first-hand.
Serene Lakes is the name given to two lakes — Serena and Dulzura — that sit on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern California, one mile south of Soda Springs and I-80. At an elevation of 6800-7200 feet, the spring-fed lakes cover around 50 acres each and freeze over in the winter. They are located on the edge of the Tahoe National Forest and the Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort, North America’s largest Nordic ski resort. The land that surrounds the lakes is covered with Tamarack, Cedar, White Fir, and Lodgepole Pine trees, and is crossed by the Overland Emigrant Trail dating back to the mid 1840s.
Nestled among the forest atop Donner Summit, Serene Lakes is also the name of a subdivision surrounding the two lakes. Around the lakes, you’ll find a a boat launch and a large beach for swimmers, as well as picnic areas with horseshoes and volleyball. While boating (non-powerboats), fishing, and swimming is allowed in lower lake Dulzura, there is no swimming allowed in upper lake Serena because it is the primary source of the development’s drinking water.
We drove all through the subdivision, explored the area around the lakes, and even tried to go for a hike, but it had rained the week before our visit and the road was just too muddy. We couldn’t get much farther past the entrance to Royal Gorge, and I was a little bummed, but we did pull over and hike across a wooden bridge and down to a creek to play for a while.
The ares was absolutely beautiful, much sleepier than tourist-crazy Lake Tahoe, and many of the homes are indeed stunning. But the lakes are small, you can only swim in one of them, and almost everything we would want to go do during the day would be too far away to walk, hike, or ride our bikes, so we ruled Serene Lakes out as a vacation destination.
Serene Lakes History
Serene Lakes wasn’t always the name for these two majestic, sparkling mountain lakes. Originally they were called the Ice Lakes.
Before modern refrigeration was invented, ice was transported from the east coast or Alaska to west coast cities, and it was expensive! When the railroad was completed, the Ice Lakes became the primary source of ice for the The Summit Ice Company who transported ice via railroad to San Francisco. This lasted for four years before ice operations were moved to Prosser Lake because temperatures were colder and there was less snow.
Later the individual lakes were named Serena and Dulzura, and local lore claims that Mark Twain was the one who named them. Eventually the two lakes became known as Serene Lakes, a name appropriate for their natural beauty and peaceful surrounding.
Van Norden Lake
After exploring Serene Lakes, we drove over to Van Norden Lake and the Van Norden Dam to get a closer look at the wide, shallow lake and go for a hike. Van Norden Lake sits at the west end of the Donner Summit Valley. Surrounding the lake, is a wetland habitat that is home to a diverse population of flora and fauna, as well as Osprey and Bald Eagles.
We hiked the Summit Valley History Trail that leaves from the parking area by the dam and goes around Lake Van Norden.
From the parking lot, we climbed up a short but steep hill to the top of the Old Van Norden Dam next to the spillway and were immediately greeted with a gorgeous, panoramic view of Lake Van Norden and the meadow. It was spring and the dark green trees boasted bright green new growth and the water was bright blue and sparkling in the sun.
Water was pouring over the spillway, so we took a narrow dirt trail to the left, following it across the top of the dam to a dirt road, Lake Van Norden Road, which was part of the Old Lincoln Highway. We followed Lake Van Norden Road across Castle Creek Bridge and then turned right onto the trail, which brought us to the West Van Norden warming hut used by the Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort in the winter. The trail continued for a while along the ski routes, which we followed but…
At this point we decided to turn around and head back to the parking area by the dam because we weren’t prepared to hike around the entire Van Norden Lake and wetland area. If you want to do the entire hike, here are a couple sites that tell you where to go and what to look for on your adventure — like Native American mortar holes.
After exploring the Serene Lakes and Lake Van Norden area, we set out for a picnic at Donner Lake, but hit a major detour. We found the abandoned train tunnels at the top of Donner Summit and spent hours hiking through them.
Know Before You Go
- The entire Serene Lakes area is beautiful. You can swim, boat, and fish (in non-powerboats) in Dulzura Lake, but the water is shallow, freezing, and there are very few areas with public access. Most of the access is restricted to residents. Luckily, there are a lot of vacation rentals in the development.
- Serene Lakes vacation house rentals are a great idea if you’re a cross country skier and want to stay somewhere close to the world famous Royal Gorge, and be near Tahoe but not in Tahoe (to avoid tourists and crowds).
- If you’re planning on hiking at Lake Van Norden, park at the spillway parking area and plan for at least half a day to hike all the way around the lake. That way you have time to take breaks, enjoy the view, have a snack, and take photos.
- The Lake Van Norden hike is relatively flat — in most places is it more like a walk. But depending ont he time of year you visit, you may get your feet wet, so bring a change of socks or a change of shoes with you.