North California Trails Take Hikers Through Abandoned Railroad Tunnels

by Amy Myers

This California hiking trail will leave chills down your spine as it takes you through old, abandoned railroad tunnels full of shadows and mysteries.

The Donner Pass Summit Tunnels, located in the Sierra Nevada near Norden, were once the route for local trains for over 100 years. Eventually, though, officials rerouted the line, and so the train tunnels became an attraction along some of California’s hiking trails.

There’s no big scandal or crime that occurred at the Donner Pass Summit Tunnels. However, you can’t help but feel a bit weary when passing through one of the dark tunnels. The graffiti on the walls can add to the effect, too. So, hiking with a buddy through this region is a popular choice.

Once you get over the initial jitters, though, the experience is nothing short of breathtaking. Past the tunnels’ corridors are gorgeous views of the surrounding mountain range. For miles, you can see the tops of the sycamores and aspens and even the crystal blue waters of Lake Mary. An easy, five-mile out-and-back trail, it’s the perfect spot for a photoshoot as history and natural beauty combine in one location.

According to Only in Your State, the Donner Pass train tunnels came into existence thanks to the hardworking hands of Chinese immigrant workers. These workers managed to complete the project in just 15 months by 1867. For 125 years, California utilized these tunnels until it rerouted the line in 1993.

Both Donner Pass and the train tunnels derived their names from the infamous Donner Party. Back in 1846, the Donner Party began its journey to California in a wagon train. As many know, the group underwent a multitude of debilitating obstacles. This includes spending an entire winter trapped in the Sierra Nevada. With limited resources and tools at their disposal, some members of the group resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the 87 people in the party, only 48 survived.

California has commemorated the harrowing tale of the Donner Party in a few ways. Outside of the Donner Pass Summit Tunnels, the state also named a state park, memorial and lake after the group. In 1918, the state erected the Pioneer Statue in the Donner Party. The statue honors both the survivors and the fallen of the journey and underlines the often unforgiving and fatal elements of nature.

Perhaps the tunnels’ names are a part of the reason so many hikers feel that the trails have a sinister nature. Surely, there are terrifying components to the Donner Party’s story. But more than anything, the tunnels offer an opportunity to appreciate the stunning qualities of California’s wildest parts, for both their beauty and their danger.

As always, when visiting the Donner Pass Summit Trails, be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles.