Donnells Reservoir is one of the three lakes within the Oakdale and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts’ Tri-Dam project. It is located on the Middle Fork Stanislaus River about 15 miles northeast of Pinecrest and five miles upstream from Beardsley Reservoir. Donnells Reservoir was created by the construction of the 317-foot thin arch Donnells Dam back in the mid 1950’s for the purpose of supplying water for irrigation to the San Joaquin Valley as well as power generation. Since Donnells Reservoir sits in the steep, rocky Middle Fork Stanislaus River canyon access is limited and there is virtually no shoreline but it is worth every bit of effort it takes to get there.
The views from the dam are spectacular with a backdrop of granite cliffs reaching hundreds of feet high. The ambitious adventurer may wish to cross over the dam and explore the nearly 400 step staircase to the bypass outlets below. The cave above the north side of the dam provides remnants of the dam’s construction. This cave, I believe, was the anchor point for the cableway system that carried the large buckets for pouring the dam’s concrete. Recreation opportunities at Donnells include fishing, day-use, rock climbing and dispersed camping. There are no developed recreation facilities and no easy boat access. If you want to launch your boat you must do so by packing it in 1/2 mile from the gated parking area to the dam. From there you will have to hoist it over the railing to the waters below. There is also access to the river below the dam via a service road.
To access Donnells drive three miles past Pinecrest on Hwy 108 east. Turn left on Beardsley Reservoir Rd (FR 5N02) and drive one mile. Turn right on FR 5N09X, aka the 4,700′ road. This road is the original access for the construction of Donnells Dam and is very rocky and bumpy. I highly recommend a high-clearance vehicle with sturdy tires (4wd not necessary). Take this road for about 11 miles to the gate. Park and hike in 1/2 mile to the dam.
I believe there is also access to the headwaters of Donnells at the northeast end of the lake. An update will be added once I get a chance to explore it.
If you prefer to view Donnells from above you may wish to drive three miles past Beardsley Rd to the Donnells Vista. Here you will find picnic tables, vault toilets, a 1/4 mile nature trail and scenic overlook of Donnells Reservoir and the Dardanelles.
For area status visit the Stanislaus National Forest website here.
If you want to learn more about the history and construction of Donnells Dam, the Tri-Dam Project has posted a three-part video on YouTube. Access them here: