We're baaaaaack. I've finally taken the time to post another adventure. This one is easily accessible and can be done in a day.
During the day I often search online like everyone else looking for new and adventurous things to do with the family. Well, it all started when I searched for tunnels in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The one site that piqued my interest was one that had these amazing pictures of some graffiti covered abandoned train tunnels located near Donner Lake close to Tahoe. This trip eluded us for months, every time we planned to go it would either be raining, had just snowed or kids sports. The day finally came when the kids had no sports and the weather was favorable and we were off.
Here's a little history behind the tunnels. It began with a fellow named Theodore Judah who was obsessed with finding a way to construct a railine through the Sierra's even when everyone around him thought he was crazy. The pass had many obstacles to overcome, the biggest was the granite in which the mountains were made of. His big break came from a storekeeper from Dutch Flat named Doc Strong, Doc suggested Judah should consider looking at Donner Pass. After surveying the pass, which took over a year, he finally found his route which started in Sacramento and continued over Donner Pass. Construction began in 1862 after President Lincoln passed the Pacific Railroad Act, which gave approval to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Back in the 1860's the Central Pacific Railroad used black powder and Chinese laborers using hand tools to contruct a portion of the rail line near Donner Summit. As you walk through tunnel #6 and continue towards tunnel #7 you can see how their skills were put to use. Tunnel #6 is a little over a quarter of a mile long and took over fifteen months to construct. As you walk out of tunnel #6 you can see the "China Wall" which is a series of retaining walls built to support the passage of trains. Unfortunately Judah never saw his dream come to fruition, during a trip to Panama he contracted yellow fever and died soon after in October of 1863. As you walk through the tunnels (there are several) you'll notice different types of construction, from old methods of black powder/picked tunnels to modern precast concrete slabs that were hauled up on flatcars and put into place by cranes to create snow sheds. In 1993 track #1, the track on which the tunnels were built for, was decomissioned due to another route that was bored through Mt. Judah.
We started our hike from the old Norden railyard which is locate 1/4 of a mile past Sugar Bowl ski resort on the right. Most postings online suggest that you start near the Native American Petroglyphs which are just a little further down the road. We were just driving and saw a train tunnel with a group of people getting out of their cars and figured this was the place. It wasn't the right place, but in my opinion if you're here to go through the tunnels and not to see the petroglyphs this is the place to start. From here you don't have to climb up a hill to get to the railine, and if you choose to see the petroglyphs you can walk down to them after going through tunnel #6. Go past the red gate and continue under Sugar Bowl Rd towards tunnel #6 to start your journey.
Tunnel #6 is pretty cool I must say and the fact that it was dug by hand is truly amazing! As we were walking through the tunnel I mentioned to the kids that I should have thought ahead and brought my bluetooth speaker. Why you ask? The kid in me I quess. If your close to my age you may remember the Scooby Doo episode called "The Miner 49er". In that episode Scooby and Shaggy scared the ghost miner by sounding like they were a train going through the tunnel. Lets just say a little steam locomotive sound coming through a tunnel that you thought was closed may be a little unnerving, right? He he. Next time.
Next stop, the "China Wall". As you walk out of tunnel #6 you will see tunnel #7 ahead. On the right, past the Old Donner Summit Rd crossing (it's the one lane road that goes under the rail line), is part of the retaining wall and to your left is the lower section. Below the wall to the left you'll also find the petroglyphs and a plaque.
When you walk through tunnel #7 and #8 you may smell urine and it can be quite strong in some places. It's not from humans, but from bats. It's usually strongest at the entrances where the tunnels are of precast construction. If you look at the ground you may see a dusting of poo going from one side of the tunnel to other. For obvious reasons I suggest not to stand under or look directly above these particular areas. The bats roost in the gaps between the precast slabs.
As you hike through tunnel #7 you'll see the iron ladder we took our J-Crew picture on. There's also a metal platform just past it you can get onto, but you need to be part monkey because the ladder there has either been removed or destroyed.
Tunnel #8 is the longest of the three that we toured that day. It consists of tunnel and snow sheds. While we hiked through the tunnel we could smell paint, as we kept going farther into the tunnel we came across some artists painting over some graffiti. They were preping the wall for some new artwork. I asked them what they intended on painting on their new canvas. They responded with a smile and said, the "Simpsons". We continued on walking and came to a break in the tunnel which is about half way through tunnel #8. I say halfway because at one time this 30' gap was still tunnel. If you look down to your left you will see some of the bent anchor bolts that are in the concrete foundation. These were/are used to secure the precast slabs. You'll probably notice all the holes near the bottom of walls along the way. If you look down the mountain you'll see the remanents of the snow shed that once covered this section. Here's my theory that may or may not be true on how this gap in the snow shed came to be. I believe a boulder or boulders fell from above and damaged the top of the snow shed. Due to the location and the amount of damage there was no way to repair it, so they simply pushed it down the mountain to make it safe for passage. If anyone knows what really happened please share.
At the gap we decided to go left on the outside of the snow shed to where you could easily access the top of the tunnel. The view from up there is breathtaking. From what we saw it's common for people to walk to the end of the tunnels and then walk back on the top. There were several groups of people doing just that. We took lunch at this point. Originally we set up kitchen on top of the snow shed but had to relocate due to a plethora of yellow jackets. The gap between the snow shed was where the yellow jackets were gathering water that was weeping from the rocks. We eventually set up a little ways into the 2nd part of tunnel #8. For lunch we had Subway sandwiches and some fajitas.
After lunch we continued down #8 until we reached the end.
Suggested items to take along:
Lite jacket to keep warm (some of the tunnels can get chilly).