Donner Summit Canyon Trail

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This point-to-point hike, with a relatively short car shuttle, began with an exploration of the old railroad tunnels and snow sheds above Donner Lake and continued back down the Donner Summit Canyon Trail.  There is quite a bit of interesting history associated with the route of this hike.

Generally I make an effort to record a complete GPS track of each hike.  This time I expected to lose signal within the tunnels and, possibly, the snow sheds.  As it turned out, my batteries died shortly before our group entered the first tunnel, and I didn’t notice until after we had emerged from the last one.  Consequently my GPS track is in two sections with a significant gap.  However, the walking route follows the marked railroad track route as it winds around Donner Peak.

GPS track

GPS track

The initial climb up to the railroad track gained about 700 feet.  The walk along the railroad right-of-way included a very gradual 300 feet of gain, followed by the descent down the Donner Summit Canyon Trail.  I think that the climb is actually within Donner Memorial State Park, though the railroad right-of-way seems to be within Tahoe National Forest.   The Donner Summit Canyon Trail is a project of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Several days before this hike the Donner Summit area experienced the first snowfall of the season – on the last day of summer, no less!  For a few hours chains were required on I-80 over the summit.  There was another light snowfall before the hike, so there was still some snow remaining on trees, making this hillside look like a fairyland.

photo of fairyland snow near the trail

Fairyland snow near the trail

Once we reached the railroad, we walked next to the currently-used track for about 0.7 mile, until the old right-of-way departs from the current track.  For the next 3 miles we were in and out of tunnels and snow sheds.  This picture shows one of the tunnels, which goes under a hill.

image of former railroad tunnel

Former railroad tunnel

Both the snow sheds and tunnels had acquired quite a repertoire of graffiti near the entrances, where there is sufficient daylight to paint.  Some of the graffiti is quite impressive and intricate.  Here is one example.

picture of colorful graffiti at the entrance to one of the snow sheds

Colorful graffiti at the entrance to one of the snow sheds

Some of the longer snow sheds have openings with garage-door-like covers.  I’m not sure whether these were used for maintenance access, fresh air, or some other purpose.  Between the snow sheds and tunnels there were views across the Billy Mack Canyon, through which I-80 passes between Truckee and Donner Summit.  Castle Peak dominates the skyline.

photo of Castle Peak across the canyon from the railroad tunnels and snow sheds

Castle Peak across the canyon from the railroad tunnels and snow sheds

Sometimes successive sheds are very close to one another, with only a small gap between.  Here is a view through two sheds near the top end of the Donner Summit Canyon Trail.

image of successive snow sheds

Successive snow sheds

We intercepted the trail about ¼ mile from the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead.  As soon as we were on the Donner Summit Canyon Trail we passed under the so-called 1913 underpass.   This apparently was a “first” at the time: the first time an underpass was built to carry a road (the Lincoln Highway) under a railroad.

picture of the 1913 underpass

The 1913 underpass

After the 1913 underpass the trail follows the old Lincoln Highway and passes close to Donner Pass Rd (Old Highway 40) a short way above the famous Rainbow Bridge.  There is a well-signed place next to the trail where it passes some petroglyphs, thought to have been created several thousand years ago by the Wa She Shu, an ancient Washoe people.  Other signage notes the so-called China Wall, which denotes a place where Chinese railroad workers filled in a low place along the railroad route in order to achieve the requisite less than 3% slope for the railroad.  The railroad passed on top of this wall, which was built by hand.

photo of China Wall

China Wall

As the trail descends, there are several places with nice views of Donner Lake.

image of Donner Lake, viewed from the Donner Summit Canyon Trail

Donner Lake, viewed from the Donner Summit Canyon Trail

The lower part of the trail passes through a pretty, forested area.

picture of Donner Summit Canyon Trail

Donner Summit Canyon Trail

This was a quite enjoyable hike.  Perhaps because of the well-known association of snow with the Donner Party’s passage through the area, it seemed fitting to do the hike just after a hint of the coming winter’s snow.

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One Response to Donner Summit Canyon Trail

  1. Pingback: Glacier Way Snow Hike | trailhiker

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