Donner Summit Train Tunnels
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Thread: Donner Summit Train Tunnels

  1. #1
    Member Davis's Avatar
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    Donner Summit Train Tunnels

    I have always wanted to ride the Donner Summit train tunnels. I am sure a lot of the Nor Cal Nut Jobs have done this ride , but I never have. It looks to be a magnificent ride. Once the snow clears up I am thinking that this will be the year. I found this very informational site from Stephen Fischer mapping out the ride. He has several other good ones also.


    Anyone interested? Anyone ridden this before?

    Donner Summit train tunnels dual sport ride
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  2. #2
    Senior Member Fred's Avatar
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    Someone who looks like me has ridden and driven through the Donner Summit snow sheds many times in the past ( it has always been illegal trespass on RR property and Southern Pacific takes this seriously so I admit to nothing). Really a lot of fun with great views over Donner Lake through the periodic ventilation windows. Good rock climbing and granite scrambling opportunities too. Various artifacts from Chinese pottery fragments to left-over iron oddities can be found outside the tunnels on the exposed slopes. The coarse rail road ballast on the roadbed can be annoying, being all about the same size it can be like riding of golf balls.
    However last time there the uphill tunnel exit at the Sugar Bowl ski resort parking lot had a blocking locked wire gate. There is limited, but scenic riding on the eastern downhill Cold Stream side but being so close to Tahoe one encounters private property holdings where legal use of the roads is questionable.
    Still lots of regional dual sport riding can be done. Simply riding the old highway route from Donnor Lake over the Rainbow Bridge to Sugar Bowl should be added to anyone's visit.


    The abandoned snow sheds that protected the trains from avalanches can be seen on the far canyon wall around the 1:20 minute mark. The original transcontinental railroad grade here was replaced with extensive continuous taller tunnels once double-stacked trains became the norm. I always though S.P. should sell the old alignment to the government as part of the Rails-to-Trails Program as the avalanche tunnels are safe, scenic, accessible historic testaments of the dramatic settlement of the west in the 1860s.
    Last edited by Fred; 04-16-2018 at 10:04 AM.
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    Senior Member stagewex's Avatar
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    Pretty cool. Urban abandonment in the middle of the mountains.
    Worth watching the video at the end of the link.

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  5. #4
    Member Davis's Avatar
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    Thanks for the information Fred.

  6. #5
    Senior Member Fred's Avatar
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    Nearby riding south of the Interstate can be done at a variety of places including Royal Gorge, a cross country skiing destination as well as taking the Soda Springs Road all the way to Auburn. However these trans-sierra summit routes can be fairly rocky and often do not melt out untill June. Last year roads were blocked untill late June.



    One can burn a few tanks of gas exploring all the riding between Norden through the gold country down to Foresthill and Auburn. An extensive ORV park outside Foresthill just re-opened 4/1 which is ridable now but rather hot in the summer months. It was about 105 degrees when I rode through there last June.

    Some of the roads outside Foresthill can be a little tight and twisty and good TW cornering practice. I think I bombed through here at at least a outrageously reckless 8 mph.

    Last edited by Fred; 04-16-2018 at 11:03 AM.
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  7. #6
    Senior Member Fred's Avatar
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    Back to the Snow Shed Ride: This was the most famous and difficult to build portion of the trans continental railroad.
    Often cited are the Chineese coolies on ropes drilling and blasting with black powder and highly unstable nitroglycerine. This was before Nobel stabilized nitroglycerine in a sawdust and clay matrix invention he patented and called Dynamite generating the millions in revenue that still funds the annual Nobel Prize. He just knew his powerful invention would certainly end all wars for all time.

    The Donner sheds were but a portion of some 62 miles of snow sheds built originally out of wood in the 1870's. Smoke and soot from the trains trapped in the tunnels made for an unpleasant journey for the passengers. Better than walking over the Sierras though. Terrible fires were not unknown as the continuous sheds acted like chimneys spreading conflagrations. Eventually telescoping sheds were implemented in areas so that in summer a section of avalanche shed could be rolled inside another section creating an open fire break and ventilation access. At one point Southern Pacific gave up on maintaining a large labor force to either shovel snow off the sheds in the winter or repair the subsequent collapses. Thus they ultimately turned to concrete construction. The leftover timbers can still be found re-cycled in many historic homes and businesses.

    "Circus Train Wrecks
    One night in 1904 a circus train decoupled just east of the summit., As the locomotive continued blithely along, not knowing it had lost the circus, the circus cars stopped and then began to go backwards. As they gained speed they derailed and many animals got out. No one knew it had happened until a railroad worker, heading home after work, came across a tiger in the snowsheds. He ran in the opposite direction. A couple of lions were retrieved from the forest and monkeys from the snowshed rafters. A snake charmer had to be brought in to get a boa to come down from the timbers it had gotten into."

    EDIT: I believe this is the photo of the first motorcycle trespass was back in 1903. Actually it was more of a motorized bicycle. Rider reported he had to press himself tightly against tunnel walls to avoid passing trains.
    donnor bike.jpg
    Last edited by Fred; 04-17-2018 at 09:34 AM.
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    Senior Member admiral's Avatar
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    History is cool. Thanks Fred.
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    Senior Member PlacerLode's Avatar
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    what a cool bicycle that design would sell well today lol !!!
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    Senior Member Trail Woman's Avatar
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    Bring lots of food and don't get stranded... If you haven't heard about the Donner party.
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  11. #10
    Senior Member Fred's Avatar
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    Yeah, the Donner Party should have wintered over by my place for the route they took is but just a mile away. Of corse wouldn't have been any of my Darlin'g home cooking but there is a milder winter and lots of year round game.
    Several of our TW200 Group Rides from here have traced the Donner's trail out and back and we haven't had to eat anyone yet.
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