This hike has all my favorite things: abandoned tunnels, [sh]Arts, nature and lots of incredible history.
This water wise PSA brought to you by PETA. This message actually obscures one of the “Private Property/No Trespassing” signs that are posted on this gate.
On the 5th day of our massive NorCal roadtrip after leaving SF, we made our way towards Lake Tahoe to hike the abandoned train tunnels at Donner Pass.
Looking east from the former location of Norden Yard. Mount Judah Road crosses the abandoned right-of-way on the overpass in the foreground. Beyond that, the entire bore of the 1,659-foot-long Tunnel #6 aka the Summit Tunnel is visible. Chinese laborers constructed the tunnels with picks and black powder for Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860’s as part of the country’s first transcontinental railroad, which still passes through historic Truckee. After the merger of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads in the mid-1990s, a portion of the railroad line near Donner Summit was abandoned and the tracks and ties were removed.
Inside Tunnel #6, the Summit Tunnel. The granite that composes these walls is some of the hardest rock in North America, yet this quarter-mile-long passage was constructed with little more than picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, sweat and blood.
Tunnel #6 is fairly long so make sure you bring some light if you’re afraid of the dark. Water inside the tunnel created a glittery effect when I took this photo.
Walking through this huge snowshed, one can hear the hundreds of bats that live within the sheds cracks along its ceiling.
From here you can look across to the rugged cliffs that the infamous Donner Party desperately struggled to surpass, and that lesser known Stevens/Townsend/Murphy Party successfully pioneered two years earlier.
Facing east towards Tunnel #8 with the Summit Tunnel immediately behind, this area is known as the China Wall.
This is a 75 foot high hand-built retaining wall that was created to prop up the track as it moved between the two tunnels. It is amazing craftsmanship, especially to think that it is still standing over a century later. Thanks Chinese slave laborers.
Cavernous wooden (now concrete & steel) snowsheds/tunnels were constructed in many sections along the track where snow drifts or avalanches threatened to close the tracks during the winter months.
East of Tunnel #8, the cavernous and sometimes dust-filled interior of the mighty Donner snowsheds lends itself to some interesting lighting effects. The shed complex near Norden developed into a virtual underground city for railroad workers, with homes and even a restaurant all interconnected by wooden tunnels. Today, many of the wooden snowsheds have been bypassed by a new tunnel or replaced with concrete and steel sheds.
The views of Donner Lake and the surrounding peaks are stunning, and the old granite tunnels, trestles, and snowsheds make for an incredible hike.
Every so often the tunnel opens via a large door or broken piece of concrete to the outside revealing even more historic artifacts from its past.
Abandoned Rails/Abandoned Trails
There’s actually some pretty decent [sh]Arts inside.
This upper route was abandoned and the tracks and ties removed in the early 90’s.
When the black keg powder was failing to blast through the granite during its original construction period, the CPRR decided to use a new explosive during that time period called Nitroglycerin. This may have been the first time it was ever deployed in the United States, especially for construction. Nitroglycerin was highly volatile and would explode unexpectedly thus during transport many fatal deaths occurred. So after awhile the explosive was manufactured on site however, black powder kegs and nitroglycerin continued to be responsible for many Chinese laborer deaths.
After exiting the east portal of Tunnel #12 we decided to climb on top and check out the snowsheds from a different perspective.
The views were spectacular.
The tunnels were built so that the trains could maintain a maximum grade of 105 feet per mile.
Discarded railroad ties can be seen from the top of the snowsheds.
I guess they felt this would be a good spot to discard them since they can’t be seen from Interstate 80.
Theodore Judah laid out the route of the transcontinental railroad over Donner Summit. He noted that it snowed but was sure snow would not be a problem for the railroad over Donner Summit. The snow just had to be pushed out of the way before it accumulated.
“Donner Summit gets 35-40 feet of snow a year and sometimes 60 or 70 feet. Snow drifts can be dozens of feet high. And then there are avalanches. In January, 1870, just a few months after the Golden Spike was pounded into place completing the first transcontinental railroad, an avalanche covered and tore away hundreds of feet of track. A blizzard followed, miles of track were blocked and it kept snowing. The snow shovelers and buckers (engines with plows) could not make headway. Workers cleared for six days and still there were 7 miles of snow covered track to go. California was cut off from the nation.” – Source
“Passengers were irate as train after train was stopped. After six days the railroad took stranded passengers up to the snowblocked tracks and told them to walk. Without proper clothing they walked through the snow past small stations with their telegraphers and railroad facilities, and through tunnels all the way to Emigrant Gap.” – Source
“After that winter the Central Pacific built more snowsheds, forty miles of snowsheds, to protect their tracks. They used 65 million board feet of lumber and 900 tons of bolts and spikes. The wooden sheds, sitting in the summer sun, were terrible fire hazards acting sometimes like flues. The mountains of accumulating winter snow could collapse them. So the snowsheds spawned jobs for thousands of workers: fire train crews, track walkers, fire lookouts, carpenters, and snow shovelers. There were so many workers, that some lived in old freight cars all along the railroad line. Railroad shops, buildings, turn tables, local businesses, worker houses, and even the school and hotel on Donner Summit were connected by snowsheds. In winter some people would never see the light of day.” – Source
“The snowsheds worked. The railroad had conquered the snows of Donner Summit – usually. Passengers were not thrilled however. Imagine traveling past some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, but you could not see it. Or traveling for hours through a long, dark, smoke-filled tunnel.” – Source
“Eventually snow removal improved and sheds were removed. Remaining sheds were rebuilt of concrete so that collapse was no longer a threat. The thousands of workers are gone and with them their towns.” – Source
The beginning of the trail can be accessed from the maintenance yard just south of the Donner Ski Ranch parking lot. Keep away from the active rail line that is rerouted through the Mt. Judah Tunnel. It is very busy with freight and passenger trains moving quickly through the mountainous terrain. If its got track…STAY BACK. If you ever find yourself along I80 on your way to/from Lake Tahoe, this is a hike that shouldn’t be missed but if you don’t have time to stop you can always see them from the interstate.
Protecting and preserving historic, sacred, and sensitive sites should be practiced by all. Locations, directions, and names to some of the places found on this site are not listed, please don’t ask for them. Tread lightly, leave no trace and always respect the wonder that surrounds you.