Donner Summit Railroad Tunnel Snowshoe

One of my Winter Bucket List goals was to try new winter activities. I went on a fairly typical snowshoe earlier in the winter, but a couple of weeks ago, I had a pretty unique snowshoe adventure!

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On Donner Summit, there are some old train tunnels that the train used to run through. The train has since been re-routed and the tracks have been pulled out, making it an interesting destination for a snowshoe (winter) or hike (summer). The tunnels are technically on railroad property, but I didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs, and my friends have visited dozens of times over the years. Just be warned! They’re pretty easy to get to – we parked at the pull out a few hundred yards below the Donner Summit Scenic View Area (on your left when you’re heading up hill). Even in the winter, there was parking for at least 10 cars, but it is a popular sledding area and can get full.

view
View from Donner Summit

Most of our group had snowshoes and poles – it gets icy in the tunnel so you’ll want something with grip. Greyson just wore hiking boots and carried poles and made it pretty well, but I wouldn’t recommend this to people not used to hiking on ice. It was warm for February when we headed up; it was in the 50’s and sunny, but the tunnels are at least 20 degrees colder inside. I appreciated by soft shell and gloves on the return trip. We all brought headlamps and flashlights, but didn’t need to use them. There’s enough light in the tunnel to see fairly well during the day.

It’s pretty straight forward once you’ve gotten out of the car – put on your snowshoes and head up towards the very obvious train tunnels. It’s a pretty steep climb, but the only hard part of the whole hike.

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Heading into the tunnels.

Since there’s not a lot of scenery inside of the tunnels, the natural ice sculptures and human made graffiti are the attractions.

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greyson ice sculpture

I was really surprised by how much light made it into the tunnels! There are some sections with windows cut into the concrete, and sunlight travels far from the openings. I was expecting the whole inside to be concrete, and loved that many of the tunnel walls were simply exposed granite that the tunnel had been cut through.

kelly in tunnels

Along the way, there are several spots where you can pop out of the tunnels and enjoy the view.

pano view

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Myself, Reyna, and Kelly pose outside the tunnels, overlooking Donner Lake.

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The entrance back into the tunnels looks more foreboding than it actually is. After less than a mile of hiking (which is slow going on all the ice), you’ll get to the end of the accessible tunnels. We hiked around on the snow some, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, before heading back towards the cars.

other side

We hiked back the same way we came, through the tunnels, but we did see other groups snowshoeing along the outside. I imagine it would depend on snow levels if there is enough room on the outside to do that. Of our group of five, Greyson was the only person who had been to the train tunnels before, and we all had a great time. To be honest, Greyson had suggested doing this snowshoe or hike a couple of times before, but I didn’t really have much interest. In my head, it was just going to be a cold, slippery walk in the dark where I couldn’t see anything. It definitely was not on my Tahoe bucket list. I’m happy to report that I was totally wrong! While not exactly strenuous, action packed or filled with “best of” views, this hike is totally unique and worth doing!