Donner Ski Ranch may be small, but it boasts a rich history |

Donner Ski Ranch may be small, but it boasts a rich history

Donner is one of the best Lake Tahoe ski resorts for families

Mark McLaughlin
Special to Lake Tahoe Action
Donner Summit Olympian Starr Walton shows her dynamic racing technique in this photo from 1962.
Courtesy of Norm Sayler |

Donner Ski Ranch can’t compete with the large mega resorts in the Tahoe-Truckee region, but for the families that make the quick drive up from Sacramento or the Bay Area to ski Tahoe, it’s a great mountain. The venerable ski area located on Highway 40 near the original Donner Pass (before Interstate 80), boasts more than 500 acres of varied terrain, perfect for beginner and intermediate skiers and boarders. Its base elevation above 7,000 feet and proximity to the Sierra Crest means big powder dumps — the resort averages 33 feet of snow a year. The “Ranch” has 52 runs with 16 of them rated advanced. The slopes are easily accessed by six chairlifts and provide spectacular views of Donner Lake below. Donner Ski Ranch aslo has a relaxed vibe and is one of California’s last family owned and operated ski resorts.

Downhill skiing at the Ranch started in the 1930s with a rope tow, but the Lake Tahoe skiing area wasn’t developed until after World War II when Stan and Madelyn Walton took ownership. From 1946 until 1950 they improved the resort, gaining a steady and loyal clientele. Stan and Madelyn’s daughter, Starr Walton, learned to ski at the Ranch and Sugar Bowl. She began skiing at age three, and when she turned five her father took over as her racing coach. The lessons paid off as Starr went on to become one of the world’s top racers. She was a torch bearer at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, and four years later competed in the 1964 Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria. At Innsbruck she was the top American finisher in the downhill and finished ninth overall in world rankings.

The unofficial “mayor” of Donner Summit, Norm Sayler, started working at Donner Ski Ranch in 1955, digging post holes for the first chairlift towers. At the time skiing at the Ranch cost $1.50 a day for the rope tow and $2.25 for the chairlift. Because he was broke Sayler lived in a little room that had no heat or running water, lit by a single lightbulb. But as Norm says, “It was a great place to live with no money.” After a two-year stint in the Army, assigned to the mountain troops in Colorado, Sayler got married and returned to Donner Summit.

In the early 1960s investors at Donner Ski Ranch wanted to cash out. Sayler purchased his first 500 shares for just 25 cents a share and, before long, was the majority stockholder. As president and manager of Donner Ski Ranch for 46 years, Sayler’s business strategy was all about fun, not restrictions. He was the first to offer night skiing under lights and in the 1980s was the first to allow telemark skiers on the hill and those who wanted to snowboard Tahoe. Sayler also offered visionary programs allowing disabled skiers an opportunity to enjoy the slopes. Sayler’s philosophy was simple: “I don’t show people how to have fun. I let people have fun. That’s what skiing is all about.”

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at Mark can be reached at Check out Mark’s blog at

Originally published in the February 11, 2015, issue of the Tahoe Daily Tribune and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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