Donner Pass, Summit Tunnel Hike: Old Abandoned Railroad

A few people have said in the comments that this is Union Pacific Railroad property. I did not see any signs when I went but be sure to do your research and abide by any signs to avoid getting a ticket.

The Donner Pass Summit Tunnel Hike is one of the best hikes I have been on in a long time, if only because it is so historic and unique. The entire hike is basically walking through an old abandoned railroad tunnel that has been overrun with graffiti but is still an amazing example of the history of Northern California. It was a photographic dream with the way the light entered in different spots along the tunnel, as well as with the frequent exits that provided vistas of the valley and lake below. This is a must do hike and here is the full review. Side note, bring a friend as it would probably be a little creepy on your own.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 9

History

This 1,659 foot tunnel was the first railroad line to traverse the Sierra Nevada Range. It was built largely by Chinese workers and was hand drilled and blasted over 15 months.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 19

The tunnel was completed in August 1867 and the first train passed through it on June 18th, 1868. The last train passed through in 1993 when the route was changed to a new location.

The Hike

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 21

While there are a few different ways to access this hike, we started about half way up Donner Pass road at a turnoff 100 yards from the Donner Summit Bridge.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 23

From here we headed up the rock hills to the start of the tunnel and the old Chinese Wall. Almost right away we stumbled on the petroglyphs that are near the turn off.

Petroglyphs

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 20

Look carefully, because you can blink and miss them. The petroglyphs are carved into the rock near where we started the hike. There is a sign that marks their location and if you didn’t see the sign you probably would not notice them because they are very faint on the rocks below. However, it made for a really interesting start to the hike.

Chinese Wall

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 22

After seeing the petroglyphs, proceed up the incline until you eventually reach the historic Chinese Wall. It 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 after it was completed.

The Tunnel

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 15

After marveling at the Chinese Wall then the real hike begins as you enter the tunnel.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 26

To say this place is unique would be a complete understatement. From the moment you enter to the moment you exit you will be seeing all sorts of different things. Some of the things we saw were rats, old walls, makeshift water run-offs and cable. Every turn has something different.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 28

As you proceed into the tunnel you immediately realize how big it really is. I would recommend bringing a flashlight just to be safe.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 5

Every so often the tunnel opens via a door or broken piece of wall to the ledge outside. These are great places to go out and see what vista waits for you. The first of these exit points is especially amazing as it showcases both the Donner Summit Bridge and Donner Lake from a high vantage point.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 11

After this, continue walking into the tunnel. It is a good time to say this hike can be as long or as short as you want. Even I did not make it all the way to the end, I turned around about halfway through from what I could tell.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 8

One of my favorite parts of the tunnel was an area we walked through that had slits along the entire outer wall, making for a good amount of light to see the tunnel and also to show off its craftsmanship.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 12

There is so much graffiti in this area though which is sad, as it is would be so much better if people would preserve the history without defacing it. I did take a picture next to this quote though as I enjoyed the quote, just didn’t enjoy it painted on a piece of history.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 18

As we neared the exit and our turn-around point we also saw a way to climb up onto the top of the tunnel. Be careful if you choose to do this as the ground can be very loose.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 16

From up here you got an amazing view of the valley below and the tunnel’s construction from above. I am glad we did it because it gave me even more appreciation for what the builders were able to accomplish here.

Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass 10

Like I said before you can keep continuing into the tunnel or just turn back around like we did. Here is a video I made of the hike.

All in all I really wish this hike was closer to me because I would love to be able to spend a whole day just exploring the nooks and crannies and seeing what else I could find. I am thankful to have been able to walk through a part of history though and highly recommend you make the trip up there to see it. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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  • stephaine

    Wow!Awesome.. I don’t know about the rats lol.. I will be heading to NoCa next week – Pioneer Ca. I don’t even know if this hike will be the same way as Pioneer, Ca… Thanks for sharing! I wanna check it out with my hubby. I guess it’s safe to say not a ” family hike “. Right?

    • I saw a few families there when I went. The hike is long and pretty dark in places so I guess it totally depends.

  • Seth from hikespeak

    Cool hike! Wish it was closer to me too…

    • Agreed, you travel a lot though, I am sure you will get there soon! Make sure to do Sierra Buttes as well if you do!

  • Eric Burgess

    Sick shots, Josh! Another bit of information about that area – it’s been the location of many, many snowboard videos. Heavy snowfall and the steep incline leading up to the tracks make for the perfect bomb drop!

    • Thanks for the comment Eric, I will have to look up some of those videos it sounds awesome!

  • Marco Paganini

    Looks like a pretty cool hike. Did you GPS track the (outside) parts of your hike? Can you provide some GPS coordinates for interesting points (such as which point you used to enter the trails, the petroglyphs area, etc?) Also, can you give us an idea of how long (in miles) is the hike?

    • You can see where I parked at the map at the bottom of the post. The petroglyphs are right near there. The hike can be as long or as short as you would like since you just turn around when you want to go back. I only made it through one of the main tunnels. Hope that helps!

  • mark

    About how long in time was your hike and is there a time of day you would recommend for photography?

    • I spent about 2 hours exploring, I would recommend the afternoon as you can explore and find a good spot for some sunset shots.

  • whatever_dude

    This makes an amazing mountain bike ride, too.

    Leave a car in town at Smokey’s BBQ, then shuttle to the start on Glacier Way in Tahoe-Donner. Ride down and around Johnson Canyon, past Summit Lake, then down the Castle Peak trail to I-80.

    Pedal under the freeway to Boreal, work your way up and over the resort and into the top of adjacent Donner Ski Ranch, then down the runs to Donner Pass Road (you can also use the Hole-In-The-Ground wrap-around from Boreal to Donner Pass Rd. via the Snow Lab for less climbing).

    Pedal up the road toward the pass until you see the tunnels, and head on in. It’s eerie to ride it without a light–there are a couple of short sections that are pitch black. FWIW, I’ve never seen or heard rats in here.

    Out of the tunnels on the other side, follow the gravel road until you get to the new tunnel and can cross the railroad track on your left. Drop down Coldstream Canyon to Donner Lake and back to town (or take JP’s trail) and pedal across the freeway overpass to get to your car. If you are energetic, you can skip the shuttle and just ride all the way back up to Glacier Way.

    • Thanks for the comment, this sounds like an amazing bike ride, I will have to add this to my list!

  • Cyn

    Hi Josh,

    I am heading up to NorCal this weekend and this is on my itinerary. So you have any recommendations on where to park and where to enter to get to the tunnel, also, what coordinates or address should I put in my GPS for this destination?

    Many thanks in advance,

    Cyn

    • We started at a turn off about a 200 feet south of the Donner Summit Bridge. If you put that bridge into your GPS you will see the tunnels on your left as you are driving up Donner Pass road. Hope that helps!

  • Jacob

    Hey so what about overnight parking. Do you think that would be a possibility parking where you did?

    • Honestly I have no idea about where to park for overnight, I would recommend calling a ranger for the area to see if they have any recommendations.

  • kodi

    Thanks for blowin up the spot jerk.

  • John Eilers

    I hate to be a party pooper and I know a lot of people hike this, but the rail line is absolutely positively not abandoned. It is the private property of Union Pacific Railroad and they can fine people for being on it. If you would like to hike this, it is highly recommended that you contact UP and ask permission. I am unsure if they will give it. The summit tunnel under mt. Judah is Track 2. This is track 1, for many years both existed. The tracks were removed because in the early 90s the former Southern Pacific could not afford to maintain it. Over the past few years, UP has put millions of dollars into revitalizing the entire line from Roseville to Sparks. When they upgraded Track 2 at the summit, they also regarded this. There are plans to relay the rails sometime in the future. Again, not trying to be a party pooper, think everyone should experience this, but please be aware that it is still private property.

    • You can not be fined for trespassing unless the property is posted, or you have been told to leave by an agent of the property owner, and either refused to leave, or returned at a later date.

    • j_blokhed

      Union Pacific is not the government and can not fine anyone. They can file a trespassing complaint and you could be cited by the Sheriff’s Department, CHP etc. if they are on the scene.

      • John Eilers

        This is absolutely not true. Union Pacific Railroad Police have Federal Jurisdiction under Section 1704 of the U.S. Crime Control Act of 1990 and can indeed fine you. Further, in California, they have full policing authority across the state. In fact, they can be pretty aggressive down in Roseville on Roseville Road which is adjacent to, but not on Railroad property.

        This blog and my comment has been sited on a couple other websites, so I thought I’d update, In general Railroad property in California is covered under 369i of the criminal code and does not need to post no trespassing signs. This does not apply to Summit track one, because the rails have been pulled up. However, UP HAS posted a keep out sign at the Western Entrance to the summit tunnel. Therefore, the Railroad police and CHP may very well consider it posted.

        Many many people hike down this especially as a number of trails cross it. All I’m saying to readers is that it’s a simple call to Union Pacific’s Roseville Office to get the permission. And with that, you go from a small chance, to zero chance of getting a fine.

  • RenoFrank

    I’m a little concerned about getting in trouble for trespassing. Did you see any “No Trespassing”,”Private Property”, or “Keep out” signs?

    • I didn’t when I was there but it has been over a year at least so it could have changed since then.

      • RenoFrank

        I was there 5-6-15 and did not see any signs. In fact we met a CHP at the exit of one of the tunnels. He was cool. Thanks for posting, we enjoyed the hike.

        • Thanks for the comment and the update, I am sure it will be helpful to others!

    • skylane807

      “No Trespassing” is at least spray painted on just about every tunnel.
      Yet, hundreds of people are touring the tunnels year round. On foot, mtn bikes, dirt bikes 4wd vehicles (in spite of the gate at the west end of tunnel 6.
      A couple of years ago, I helped some kid look for his brand new high performance LED flashlight (unsuccessfully). He was on a field trip with a good 30-40 kids that came up in two school buses.
      I’m sure the No Trespassing signs are just for liability purposes.

  • Zach

    There aren’t any rats. Never seen one up there and have been going for twenty years. It’s way better to go in the winter as well, there are big ice formations that form inside the tunnels. Also, this is owned by Union Pacific railroad, and they will ask you to leave if they see you.

  • Thanks for the comment and for sharing your post with me! You took a lot of fantastic photos! I am glad you enjoyed the adventure as much as I did

  • Samantha Jade

    Pretty cool, you have to love the Truckee area. I will check this out.

    • Ya that area is fantastic and yea this is a fun spot to explore for sure!

  • nasttynate

    What city is this in?

    • This is in Truckee, above Lake Tahoe.

  • Surius

    How long is the hike???

    • You can hike as long or as short as you like. I think it goes for many miles but I only did a mile and a half each way or so probably

  • NorCalGal

    Can you bring your dog? Any signs? Thanks!

    • I am sorry, I don’t remember seeing anything related to dogs but I went about a year and a half ago.

    • Jenn

      You can bring dogs!

      • Thanks for the comment!

  • Shortcake5

    Josh, I have now done a few trips from the recommendations of your lens. Now, I want to do this one. Thank you. Is this a hard hike to get to the tunnel? Would older people be able to get there? My parents are going to be visiting. I think they would enjoy seeing this. I guess I should ask if it is an easy or intermediate hike level.

    • Depending on where you park there is a decent amount of uphill to get to the tunnels, but there may be a better spot to park at closer. Once you are in the tunnels it is flat but make sure to bring a strong light so you can see what it is in front of you. Hope that helps!

      • Shortcake5

        Thank you Josh. So glad I found your website.

    • Torrey Summers

      Park at Sugar Bowl and walk right into the tunnels, easy.

      • skylane807

        That would be an all day walk, at least. Park at or across from Donner Ski Ranch or near Sugar Bowl. Tunnel six starts at the big dirt parking/maintenance area Across from Donner Ski Ranch

        • Torrey Summers

          Don’t know why I typed Soda Springs, thank you!

  • Alaska_Paul

    I used to know a lot of train crews on the SP in the 60s, as well as the interlocking plant operators at Norden. We got to ride in the engines from Roseville to Sparks, and on Spreaders in winter— Norden to Truckee on Tracks 1 and 2, through some DEEP snow . My buddy and I were 16 years old and went along Track 1 (this route) during construction activities in summer, and walked to Eder, which is the east end of Tunnel 41 (2 mile tunnel under Mt. Judah. To make a long story short, we walked a shortcut through the tunnel and were lucky—no trains, or we could have got gassed by locomotive exhaust—lucky fools. NEVER DO THIS!!!

  • Gary Pam Ludwig

    How long did it take you to hike half of it… Thanks

    • We were there for only 2 hours or so.

  • Tahoe Truth

    I wouldn’t recommend this. A lot of gang activity, a great place to get jacked. Lock your car and pack high caliber heat..

  • Oddity Odysseys

    Your blogs and dedication that goes into each one never fails to amaze us. Thank you for sharing this place and we completely agree with you about it always being disheartening to see graffiti on historic structures and in beautiful places. Another job well done, good sir 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment, I look forward to seeing your video on it!

  • dianateo_101

    whats the address to get here

    • skylane807

      It’s right across the street from Donner Sky ranch. At the top of old Donner Summit.
      The “serious gate” is just a heavy duty gate to keep vehicles from driving through. Because there are a few stupid people out there. You can walk or bike right past it.

  • davdanger

    Union Pacific has put a very serious gate and trespassing warning signs at the west end (across road from Donner Ski Ranch).There has been much police activity there due to STUPID 4×4 drivers and taggers. Usually if caught by UP Police you will be told you are trespassing and told to leave. There are several ways to hike into the area, and one way without a locked gate,from cold stream Canyon.To go thru all the tunnels is a 3+ mile hike, one way.

    • Ida Leung

      I wonder how many count as the Chinese built ones. I am trying to track them all down.

  • BJ Hansen

    Our family has taken the “tunnel” walk for years! It is a great place to take visitors to the area. We’ve gone to a point where we stand on a concrete structure that begins the tunnel that the trains now take through the mountain and have exchanged waves with the train engineers as they are entering the tunnel. Thanks for your photos and commentary! It’s great!

    • Thats awesome, thanks for the comment! I haven’t been that far

  • Torrey Summers
    • Wow, thanks for sharing! That is a really cool photo!

  • skylane807
    • Wow, this is a crazy photo. Thank you for sharing it!

  • Bruce Byers

    Thanks for the pics and info. I have long been curious about whether part the original CP roadbed was still used. You have answered most of my question. Do you know if there are other abandoned stretches west of Donner Pass?

  • William Bogue

    U.P. hasn’t relinquished property rights. The right-of-way is being preserved for possible (albeit unlikely) future railroad use.

    This historic route is currently open to the public, but I suppose that will end after the first lawsuit over a scraped knee.

  • Sarah Byrne Peterson

    I’d like to take this hike within the next week, but with all the snow, I am wondering if I could hike up to the tunnels with no path to guide me and if there is too much snow to even enter the tunnels. Have you or anyone else done this hike in the last few weeks or in a lot of snow?

  • Ida Leung

    This is fascinating. Do you think this is one tunnel or a series? I am trying to figure out if any of the old Chinese built tunnels are still in use or if they were superceded by newer lines. Cool if you find Chinese calligraphy, aka graffiti.

    • SRhoades

      The petroglyph’s are Native American, not Chinese. About 4000 years old. Just and FYI. 🙂

  • Thanks for the comment, feel free to share it if you think it would be of interest to others.

  • Jeff Johnson

    As a 5th 6th grade teacher,my teaching partner and I wrote and lead an outdoor education program taking our school kids on these hikes back in the early 80’s…there was no graffiti in those days…we had a guide from Nevada City who would teach the kids details about the original Donner Party and their quest to travel over the summit in the winter months…so much fun…a must for anyone interested in CA History of that area,…

  • Brian Dinsmore

    just did this hike for the first time on my way home from 4th of July celebrations at Lake Tahoe. Can’t believe I’ve driven or walked by this gem of California history 100 times, and had no idea it was accessible. Nice going!!

    • Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the hike!

  • Edie Di Dio

    Is there an area that is flat for access to the tunnels? My husband can’t climb

    • Unfortunately, I am not aware of a flat area. Maybe someone in the comments will be able to advise though.