The Donner Summit Train Tunnel Hike nestled in the Sierra Mountains above Donner Lake is historic and unique. Basically, the hike consists of walking through an old abandoned railroad tunnel that has been overrun with graffiti, but still gives a wonderful example of early Northern California history. Walking through the tunnel with the light shining in different spots, the artwork explodes with color making it a photographers dream. Every so often large exits along the side of the tunnels provides vistas of the valley and lake below. This is a must-do hike with a friend or as a family and here is the full review.
This 1,659 foot tunnel was the first Railroad line to traverse the Sierra Nevada Range. More than 8,000 Chinese workers toiled for years to build the railroad from Sacramento to Utah. They endured many hardships as they drilled and blasted over 15 months to complete the Central Pacific Railroad.
The tunnel was completed in August 1867, and the first train passed through it on June 18th, 1868. For more than 125 years the tracks were used until 1993 when it closed switching to a new location.
While there are many different ways to access this hike, we started at the bottom of the grade, parking in the Donner Summit Canyon trailhead lot, and hiked 1 mile through the forest until we reached the turnout. This was a somewhat strenuous hike lasting over 1 hour, but well worth it.
We would recommend driving halfway up Donner pass road to the turnout just below the Donner Summit Bridge. (Our mistake was getting a late start, and staying late in the tunnels. By the time we were ready to head back down it was dusk, so one of us had to catch a ride back down to our car. It all worked out.)
From here we headed up the rocky hills to the start of the tunnel and the old China Wall.
China Wall is a great example of the hard working Chinese laborer. 15 tunnels had to be blasted through solid granite, high spots had to be cut, trestles and bridges built to span rivers and low spots needed to be filled in. China Wall is one such low spot, needing to be filled in with debris from the nearby tunnel. Today it would be easy, a few hours with bulldozers. The Chinese moved the rock and dirt and the filling was done by hand. Incredible craftsmanship still standing after all this time.
After marveling at the China Wall, the real hike begins as you enter the tunnel.
To say this place is unique would be a complete understatement. From the moment you enter to the moment you exit the amount of graffiti artwork you see will amaze you. Each section of the tunnel provides new drawings from floor to ceiling. You immediately realize how big it is. Don’t forget to bring a camera and flashlight to be safe.
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 vistas await you.
After looking around continue walking into the tunnel. This hike can be a short or as long as you want. We hiked through 3 tunnel section before we decided to turn around. Openings to the top of the tunnel exist, but be very careful if you choose to climb them as the gravel can be loose.
During our hike we encountered a few couples and a family with their dogs. We were thankful for being able to walk through a part of history and highly recommend you make this trip to see it.