Donner Pass Tunnel – Truckee, CA

Donner Pass Train Tunnels

Just a short distance away from the Pacific Crest Trail at Donner Pass, near Truckee, California, extends a massive abandoned train tunnel. Dating from the time of the gold rush in the late 1800’s, the tunnels now stand completely empty, extending for several miles from Truckee up to the summit of Donner Pass.

Donner Pass Train Tunnels

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Just a short distance away from the Pacific Crest Trail at Donner Pass, near Truckee, California, extends a massive abandoned train tunnel.  Dating from the time of the gold rush in the late 1800’s, the tunnels now stand completely empty, extending for several miles from Truckee up to the summit of Donner Pass.

Entrance at Donner Pass

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Abandoned in 1993, the tunnels once marked the first transcontinental railroad crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  They now stand derelict, covered in graffiti and stripped of the tracks which once carried freight and people through the treacherous mountains at Donner Pass.

Tunnel Mouth

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The tunnels can be easily accessed by parking near the PCT trailhead along the Lincoln Highway west of Donner Lake, at the top of the winding summit ascent.  Through a small, unmarked back trail heading east from the trailhead, the tunnel quickly comes into view and can be walked for its entire length.

South PCT Trailhead at Donner Summit

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Break in the Tunnels

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Tunnel Opening

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Collapsed Roof in the Center of the Tunnel

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Into Darkness

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Donner Pass itself is a famous site, being the location of the infamously ill-fated pioneer expedition in 1846 that claimed the lives of over half the people in the party, many due to cannibalism.  A monument and museum now stand at the eastern edge of Donner Lake, below the pass, marking the location where the Donner Party met their grisly fate.

Railroad Ties at Donner Pass Overlook

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Overlooking Donner Lake

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The tunnels were carved out of the mountainside over a period of 15 months from 1866-1867, by Chinese immigrant laborers.  Using dynamite and hand drills, the laborers dug from either side, and eventually down through a hole in the middle of the tunnel to achieve the monumental feat of carving through the granite of the Sierras.

Small beam of Light in the Tunnel

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Pools of Light

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Light in the Shadows

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The use of Chinese labor by the Central Pacific Railroad was a common practice at the time, and one of the great injustices of the mid-1800’s gold rush.  Immigrants were brought in as cheap labor and generally mistreated, with low wages and terrible working conditions forcing them to work long, grueling days carving out the length of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

Carved from Stone

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End of the Line

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Cement Archways

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The entire walk is eerily quiet, and the walls of the tunnels are lit intermittently only by stray beams of light filtering through windows and collapsed openings in the ceiling.  The play of the light on the ground is fascinating, and the stillness of the air makes every sound reverberate in your ears as you walk.

Light Beam

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Penetrating Light

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Dim Shadows

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Light at the End

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Bright Spot

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The artwork covering the walls ranges from basic tagging to intricate works of graffiti that wouldn’t feel out of place in downtown LA or New York, where street art is at its finest.  Keen eyes will spot curious references to the Fallout Games, beautifully drawn faces, rampant obscenities, and all sorts of interesting stuff that overwhelms you in its abundance.

Gallery Walls

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Woman in the Dark

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Flaming Heart

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Watcher at the Entrance

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Lover’s Declaration

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Squid Guards

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For those passing through Donner Pass, on the way to Truckee or Reno or Lake Tahoe, this is a must see place, tucked away and not obviously available to visit.  For those who hike the Pacific Crest Trail, especially those looking to take a Zero Day in the Donner Pass area after slogging through the Sierras, this is a fantastic day walk, right off the trail, and well worth the extra miles.

2 thoughts on “Donner Pass Tunnel – Truckee, CA

  1. I can’t believe I’ve never been there. This has to be corrected as soon as the snow melts. It’s on the list for 2016! Thanks for sharing! This is a great find!!! Love it!

    Like

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