SODA SPRINGS, Calif. — If you drive along Interstate 80 over Donner Pass, you may notice some long concrete structures along the mountains.
Those structures are known as the Donner Summit Train Tunnels. Once an engineering marvel, today they are a unique hiking trail, and one of the best times to visit is in the winter.
At Donner Pass Road near the summit bridge in Nevada County, you will find the trail head. You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you see backcountry skiers making their way down the mountain.
It’s not required, but snowshoes make it a heck of a lot easier to get to the entrance, and make sure you bring a flashlight before you enter. It gets dark inside.
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Now abandoned, the 1,659-foot-long tunnels were once part of the Transcontinental Railroad and designed to help locomotives pass through the snowy Sierra. Designed by engineer Theodore Judah, the tunnels were completed in August 1867 and took over 15 months to finish. Without them, trains could not get through the pass in the winter because there was too much snow to plow out.
As you make your way down the tunnel, look at the rock and concrete walls. They were built by Chinese laborers who used hand drills and explosives to get through the mountain. The work was dangerous and lead to untold deaths.
If you have ice cleats, it's suggested you bring them. Water drips through cracks and freezes on the ground, the walls, and overhead. The ice formations are spectacular, but they can be dangerous. Avoid walking under them.
Also, it’s hard to miss all the graffiti. There is a group that comes and paints over it, so please don’t make their job harder.
The Donner train tunnel was used for 125 years until the rail line was rerouted in 1993. Today, it’s a popular hike and a testament to the hard work of the Chinese laborers who made it possible.
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