Date: Monday, August 10th 2015
Type: Out & Back
Start/Finish: Dirt parking lot just to the West of Sugar Bowl Road. Click Here for map.
Distance: 5ish miles – it’s hard to tell since the GPS signal is spotty in the tunnels.
Elevation: 500 ft +/-, but again the GPS data is questionable. According to one historical reference I found, the maximum grade required for trains to maintain traction up and braking capacity down is 105 feet to the mile. So, there you have it.
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT REQUIRED: Headlamp and/or flashlight
This run is best accessed via the gravel/dirt parking lot across the street from Donner Ski Ranch which is located just west of Donner Summit along Old Highway 40 (aka Donner Pass Road) and just past Sugar Bowl Road. In fact, once you park and head to the trail, you actually travel under Sugar Bowl Road. So, as an alternative, you can parallel park on Sugar Bowl Road and clamber a short distance down the hillside to the trail.
Once you pass under Sugar Bowl Road, you immediately come upon the entrance of the first train tunnel. As you approach, you’ll notice that much of the granite above eye level is left untouched while the surrounding rock walls and concrete are splattered with crude graffiti. I say crude, not because it’s offensive in content, but more so because the graffiti further along in the tunnels becomes truly artistic in nature and very impressive while the “art” at this stage seems to be more rudimentary. Oh yeah, this is right about when you realize that you really do need a headlamp and it better be a good one.
See that teeny-tiny light at the end of the tunnel? Well, that’s the other end about a half a mile away. I have to say that I ran this route solo the day before the Trail Teaser to scope things out. This tunnel in particular is a little freaky when you’re on your own. At least it was for me. It gets dark quick – as in ten feet in, you can’t see in front of you. Even with a headlamp, the backlighting coupled with the faint light ahead makes for a very strange optical sensation – tunnel vision! I found it to be really claustrophobic and pretty spooky. It doesn’t help that there actually are ghoulish faces painted on the sides of the walls. Since your sight is limited, other senses kick in. You can hear everything – small drops of water, your breath, your footsteps, small noises that could be birds or bats or both. The smell is oddly clean, like wet clay and you notice every pebble under your feet. Anyway, when running it solo, I actually had the urge to turn around and head right back to the start of the tunnel and call it a day. Somehow I talked myself down and the conversation in my head went something like this: “you can hear everything, so there is no boogie man waiting to jump out at you- just keep moving”.
Running with the group, however, I didn’t find the tunnels spooky at all which was great. I also didn’t experience the other details my senses had picked up when I was solo; probably because I was too busy gabbing away. Moral of the story – depends what you’re comfortable with. It was super cool to experience the sensory overload, but having other runners there provided a sense of comfort that I definitely appreciated.
Anyway, once we emerged from the first tunnel, we continued out in the open for about a tenth of a mile and then quickly entered a shorter, and more “structured” tunnel. The next photo is a panoramic shot from the floor at one end of the tunnel up to the ceiling and then over to the other end. As always, don’t forget to look up. The ceilings of these tunnels are pretty fantastic and beautifully marked by the water that seeps through and trickles to the floor.
The tunnels aren’t the only visual treat on this run. Each break in the tunnels affords the breathtaking views and picturesque scenery that we’re surrounded by up in the Sierras.
The graffiti really starts to get interesting in the tunnels with flatter surfaces. Each of these tunnels is canvassed with artwork ranging from paint smatterings to full murals. Some of the tunnels are fully enclosed and extremely dark, while some have windows letting in plenty of light to appreciate the art.
The last tunnel (I think it was the last tunnel anyway, as I’ve lost track at this point) has massive rollup doors – some of which are missing. These openings provide for great access to the exteriors of the tunnels and some incredible views of Donner Lake and beyond.
After about 2 +/- miles, we emerged out of the tunnels and continued on the former train route for another half mile.
Of course on our return trip, we stopped at once of those massive rollup doors I mentioned earlier for a group shot.
Lastly, these tunnels have some very interesting historical significance and background. While I have only read a bit on the subject, let’s just say that they very well could be haunted. For some quick historical context and photos, check out “Images of America: Truckee” by Sherry E. Jennings and “Images of America: Donner Summit” by Arthur Sommers.