Explore the historical train tunnels at Donner Summit
Type: Out & Back
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT REQUIRED: Headlamp and/or flashlight (a really bright one)! You can stop by Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee if you need to rent or buy a headlamp.
Start/Finish: Dirt parking lot just to the West of Sugar Bowl Road. Click Here for map.
Distance: 5ish miles. It’s hard to tell since the GPS signal is spotty in the tunnels, however you can make this run as long or as short as you please – just keep running until you want to turn around.
Elevation: 500 ft +/-, but again the GPS data is questionable. According to one historical reference I found, the maximum grade required for trains to maintain traction up and braking capacity down is 105 feet to the mile. So, there you have it.
Difficulty: Easy – it’s flat but the footing is uneven, and visibility is limited in the tunnels.
Surface: Dirt trail, loose rock
Features: Incredible views and a taste of Truckee history
Getting there: This run is best accessed via the gravel/dirt parking lot across the street from Donner Ski Ranch which is located just west of Donner Summit along Old Highway 40 (aka Donner Pass Road) and just past Sugar Bowl Road. In fact, once you park and head to the trail, you actually travel under Sugar Bowl Road. So, as an alternative, you can parallel park on Sugar Bowl Road and clamber a short distance down the hillside to the trail.
Once you pass under Sugar Bowl Road, you immediately come upon the entrance of the first train tunnel. As you approach, you’ll notice that much of the granite above eye level is left untouched while the surrounding rock walls and concrete are splattered with crude graffiti. I say crude, not because it’s offensive in content, but more so because the graffiti further along in the tunnels becomes truly artistic in nature and very impressive while the “art” at this stage seems to be more rudimentary. Oh yeah, this is right about when you realize that you really do need a headlamp and that it better be a good one.
See that teeny-tiny light at the end of the tunnel? Well, that’s the other end about a half a mile away. It gets dark quick – as in ten feet in, you can’t see anything in front of you. Even with a headlamp, the back lighting coupled with the faint light ahead makes for a very strange optical sensation – tunnel vision!
You can hear everything – small drops of water, your breath, your footsteps, small noises that could be birds or bats or both. The smell is oddly clean, like wet clay, and you notice every pebble under your feet. It’s a sensory delight.
Once you emerge from the first tunnel, you’ll continue out in the open for about a tenth of a mile and then quickly enter a shorter and more “structured” tunnel. The next photo is a panoramic shot from the floor at one end of the tunnel up to the ceiling and then over to the other end. As always, don’t forget to look up. The ceilings of these tunnels are fantastic and beautifully marked by the water that seeps through and trickles to the floor.
The tunnels aren’t the only visual treat on this run. Each break in the tunnels affords the breathtaking views and picturesque scenery that we’re surrounded by up in the Sierras.
The graffiti really starts to get interesting in the tunnels with flatter surfaces. Each of these tunnels is canvassed with artwork ranging from paint smatterings to full murals. Some of the tunnels are fully enclosed and extremely dark, while some have windows and massive roll-up doors that let in plenty of light to appreciate the art. The doors also provide great access to view the exterior of the tunnels, Donner Lake and beyond.
You’ll run through about 2 +/- miles of tunnels. Once you emerge out of the last, you can continue on the former train route for as long as you heart desires. Turn around and head back whenever you’re ready.
Lastly, these tunnels have some very interesting historical significance and background. While I have only read a bit on the subject, let’s just say that they very well could be haunted. For some quick historical context and photos, check out “Images of America: Truckee” by Sherry E. Jennings and “Images of America: Donner Summit” by Arthur Sommers.
Click the links below or stop by Tahoe Mountain Sports
in Truckee for more local trail information!
This trail review was written by Tahoe Mountain Sports Ambassador Mone Haen.