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 a fantastic 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 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.

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

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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

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

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From here we headed up the rocky hills to the onset of the tunnel and the old China Wall. Almost right away we stumbled on the petroglyphs that are near the turn-off.


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Look carefully, because you can blink and miss them. The petroglyphs were 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 fascinating start to the hike.

China Wall

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After seeing the petroglyphs, proceed up the incline until you eventually reach the historic China 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 incredible craftsmanship, especially to think that it is still standing over a century after it was completed.

The Tunnel

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After marveling at the China Wall, the real hike begins as you enter the tunnel.

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

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

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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 awaits you. The first of these exit points is especially surprising as it showcases both the Donner Summit Bridge and Donner Lake from a high vantage point.

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After this, continue walking into the tunnel. 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.

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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.

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There is so much graffiti in this area though which is sad, as it 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.

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

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From up here, you got a fantastic 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.

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

All in all, I 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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