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.
Entrance at Donner Pass
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.
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
Break in the Tunnels
Collapsed Roof in the Center of the Tunnel
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
Overlooking Donner Lake
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
Pools of Light
Light in the Shadows
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
End of the Line
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 at the End
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.
Woman in the Dark
Watcher at the Entrance
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.