Hiking into the Abandoned Donner Summit Train Tunnels in Truckee, California

Photo by Stephen Leonardi 

It’s one of the most rare adventures in Northern California.

Nestled in Northern California, Lake Tahoe offers a truly unique adventure – the exploration of the historic Donner Pass train tunnels. This journey, which is particularly appealing to kids intrigued by the darkness of the tunnels, is a family-friendly adventure. However, it’s crucial to consider the risks that come with such an exploration, such as potential tripping hazards, so bringing along a flashlight or a headlamp is essential for safety.

The tunnel system at Donner Pass is made up of several disjointed tunnels, some of which have openings that allow daylight to filter through. The optimal time to embark on this adventure is during the summer or fall seasons when the chances of encountering snow, ice, or standing water are minimal.

Over the years, the tunnels have transformed into an unofficial gallery for graffiti artists. Regardless of one’s personal views on graffiti, it has undeniably become a major attraction for many visitors.

When it comes to the specifics of the Donner Pass Tunnels Trail, it is located in North Tahoe, Truckee, and Donner Pass. It’s categorized as a short day hike and usually takes around 2-3 hours to complete. The trail spans about 5 miles (out-and-back), beginning at an elevation of 7,000 feet, which also serves as the trail’s highest point. The elevation gain throughout the hike is roughly 250 feet, with the trail condition primarily consisting of hard-packed sand and rocky terrain.

A few key considerations for hiking the Donner Pass Tunnels include using a flashlight or headlamp as the tunnels have no artificial light sources, minimizing flashlight usage to avoid disturbing others, and allowing your eyes to adjust to the darkness. It’s also important to be mindful of potential tripping hazards, such as rocks, debris, and uneven terrain, as well as standing pools of water or ice that could make the ground slippery.

View from the Donner Summit trail. Photo by Stephen Leonardi.

In these tunnels, sounds get amplified, so it’s best to keep conversations low to avoid disturbing other hikers. Following the Leave No Trace Seven Principles is recommended, and with limited trail signs and markers in the Tahoe region, turning back when unsure about the route is advisable. Being prepared for inclement weather with warm clothes, food, and water is also crucial. Lastly, keeping dogs on a leash and cleaning up after them is essential for the comfort of all hikers.

The forsaken train tunnels at Donner Summit can be found just off Donner Pass Road, which is also recognized as Old Highway 40. There exist two access points to Donner Pass Road: the initial one is through I-80 at the Soda Springs exit, while the other one is off Donner Lake Road near Donner Lake in Truckee.

When it comes to parking, there are two available options for the Donner Pass Train Tunnels hike. You can start at the west entrance of Tunnel #6, ensuring you explore this unique tunnel right from the start. For this, you would need to drive up Donner Pass Road from Donner Lake, proceed west of Ski Ranch Lane and Sugar Bowl Road, and pull into the dirt lot on the south side of Donner Pass Road. There are no official signs for the train tunnels, but you’ll find a small dirt lot a few hundred meters from Donner Pass Road, at the beginning of Tunnel #6. Here, you can park and commence your memorable hike through the Donner Pass Tunnels.

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