Dylan and I recently drove to Truckee, California to hike the Historic Donner Tunnels. It turned out to be more of a walk than a hike, but it was interesting and a little bit creepy. The tunnels are dark and there are bats and rats living inside them. If you walk through all of the tunnels it is about 5 miles roundtrip. Most of the path is gravel or hard-packed sand.
Where to Enter Donner Tunnels
There are a few places to start this hike. We decided to start closest to tunnel 6. The day we went to the Donner Tunnels we encountered multiple road closures due to construction. We were finally able to circle back to Donner Pass Road (Old Highway 40) and we parked in the Sugar Bowl dirt parking lot. The entrance to tunnel 6 is a short walk through this parking lot.
The History of The Donner Tunnels
In the late 1800s, the Central Pacific Company wanted to extend their railway lines from Sacramento, California to Ogden, Utah and that meant that they would have to cross Donner Pass. CPC employed Chinese immigrants to dig tunnel #6 by hand. One man would hold a drill bit while two others hit the bit with a sledgehammer. They would continue hammering until their hole was big enough for explosives. Using this method the men only averaged 14 inches of progress a day. CPC completed the tunnel in a year and a half and the first trains were able to pass in 1867. Trains ran on this route for 125 years until 1993 when the route was changed and the railroad tracks were taken out of the tunnel.
Tunnel #6 is the most impressive of all the historic tunnels. It is the longest at 1,600 feet. When I looked up at the top and at the sides, I could see the solid granite. It is amazing to think that men had basically carved out this tunnel by hand. As soon as I walked inside the tunnel I couldn’t believe how cool it was. It was at least 20 degrees cooler than outside. Although it was the middle of August and the snow had long since melted we had to watch where we were walking, because of all the standing water throughout the tunnel.
Walking Through the Historic Donner Tunnels
Not all of the tunnels are pitch black. Some of the tunnels have slits on the walls near the top and these let in light. These slits were my favorite part of all the tunnels. The lighting is amazing as it bounces through the slits and lights up the corridor.
There are also a few spots where the wall is open either via a rolled-up door or a broken wall. Step back out into the light and you will have a great view of Donner Lake.
I Was Scared in the Donner Tunnel
I thought I knew what to expect in the tunnels, but I was unprepared for the bats, rats, and pitch black. We brought flashlights, but when we were in the middle of tunnel #6 it was pitch black even with the flashlights on. The bats never bothered us, but we could hear them. The rats freaked me out. I lost my cool when I almost stepped on a dead rat that was as large as a small house cat. At one point we heard a noise that at first sounded like the wind and then it got louder and louder until it sounded like a train coming through the tunnel. I looked down to make sure there were no train tracks and then I had visions of a ghost train. It turned out it was a truck from the railway company driving through the tunnel.
Like it or not there is plenty of graffiti in the tunnels. For the most part, the graffiti is all contained on the inside of the tunnels and is not spilling out into the surrounding areas. Some of the graffiti looks like art and some look like just a normal tag. I’ll leave it up to you if you think it belongs here or not.
Tips to Help You Enjoy the Donner Tunnels
- Bring a sweater or jacket even in the summer. It’s much cooler inside the tunnels.
- Wear good shoes. You will be walking on lots of uneven gravel.
- Wear closed-toe shoes. Even in summer there is standing water inside the tunnel. I wouldn’t want that water on my feet.
- Bring a big flashlight. The tunnels are dark!
- The tunnels can be dangerous in the winter and spring because of falling icicles.
- Bring a friend because only the brave would want to do this hike alone.