Donner Pass Summit Tunnels – Truckee, California - Atlas Obscura
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Truckee, California

Donner Pass Summit Tunnels

The now-abandoned tunnels were built for the transcontinental railroad on the route where the first wagon train entered California.  

Theodore Judah was a man with a dream, and his was to build a railroad through the Central Pacific, routed via the Sierra Nevada mountains. In the mid-19th century, the civil engineer surveyed a large stretch of the route to be used and found funds to make the transcontinental railroad a reality.

A key part of this route lies at Donner Pass, where the first wagon train made its way into California. A series of now-abandoned tunnels were completed in August 1867, and the first train passed through it in 1868. Unfortunately Judah did not live to see this happen; he died in 1863 during an eastbound voyage in connection with his dream project.

The tunnels at Donner Pass were constructed by Chinese laborers and took more than 15 months of hard work to finish. The dozen tunnels were some of the most treacherous parts of the transcontinental railroad, linking the rail networks of Omaha, Nebraska, to the West Coast at Oakland. They were constructed through the use of hand drilling, black powder, and nitroglycerin (leading to an untold number of worker deaths).

The tunnels were used by trains for 125 years, until 1993 when the line was rerouted through a new tunnel running through Mount Judah, named after the railroad pioneer. The Donner Pass and the tunnels are named after the Donner Party, a group of explorers en route to California who became stranded in the Sierra Nevada region due to heavy snow and resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The tunnel and snow sheds now sit abandoned and, despite being on private property, are a popular place for curious hikers and snowshoers. Tunnel #6, which took tens of thousands of hours to complete, is the most famous of the tunnels. Tunnels #7 and #8, along with the China Wall, which was built to hold up the trains as they transitioned between two tunnels, are the other parts of the system that are commonly visited. A walk through the dark tunnels, with light pouring in only at points where the wall has openings, can be an eerie experience. Ancient petroglyphs can also be found nearby and are marked with a plaque.

Know Before You Go

This is a popular place to explore but Union Pacific Railroad still owns the property. Although they have been fairly hands-off about enforcement, "no trespassing" signs are said to be up in certain parts of the tunnel. Explorers should be aware that they may be asked to leave or may be be ticketed. If you do explore, please be respectful of the tunnels and their history. Snow sheds and tunnels start near the Donner Ski Ranch. The longer tunnels start at the China Wall, just east of the Donner Summit Bridge.