Checking out the Carson & Colorado RR Tunnel

View from the C&C railroad bed on Montgomery Pass.

One of the great advantages four wheeling has over regular road trips is the ability to go places and see things that you can’t normally. Ghost towns, discontinued mines, remote campsites, mountain streams and meadows—among other scenic areas—are within our reach.

As part of my ongoing scouting, I’m always looking for new trails and destinations. Many of my excursions occur over several days, but I also seek shorter routes. One day, I crossed over the bed of the Carson and Colorado railroad. There was a marker and a brief history of the now ghost railroad. I became really fascinated by railroad history in general and C & C line in particular. I wanted to know how much of the railroad bed existed, old stations still stood, and how accessible they are today.

During various trips last year I travelled almost the entire length in Nevada and California. The old route offers an interesting lesson in railroad history because of its importance in the development and growth in the southwest.

This year I decided to organize a trip to one section I could not previously find: the tunnel cut through Montgomery Pass.

History of the Carson & Colorado railroad

The C & C began operation in August 1883. Interestingly it was owned by the Virginia and Truckee RR (V&T) – a short line serving the Comstock mining district in the Carson City and Virginia City NV area. To save money, it was designed as a narrow gauge (3 ft. wide) railroad. Covering about 300 miles, the railroad ran from Mound House, Nev. to Keeler, Calif. Its primary function was to haul the vast minerals, mainly gold and silver, from the mines in Nevada. It also served the Ranchers and farmers hauling agriculture products to markets in the east.

The rail line climbed to more than 7,100 feet as it worked its way through Montgomery Pass. It is there that engineers cut the only tunnel to maintain about a 2% grade needed for the route. (It is that tunnel that is the focus of a recent expedition.)

The name C&C came from the original plan to build the railroad from the Carson River to the Colorado River.

Southern Pacific purchased the C & C railroad in 1900, and in 1905 converted 140 miles of track in Nevada to standard gauge. Most of that track was abandoned in the 1930s and ’40s. The final run on the narrow gauge track occurred on April 29, 1960.

First train through the Montgomery Pass tunnel

Route to the C & C railroad tunnel

Thanks to Roger Mitchell’s guide book Great Basin SUV Trails Vol. II, I mapped out a route from Bishop, Calif., to the tunnel. [Note: you can reach the start of the trail head from Tonopah, NV as well.] It proved to be just as interesting as I imagined. It’s a relatively short drive (as four wheeling goes), and the trail is in good shape.

The drive from Bishop to the trail head took about an hour. We drove US6 for about 50 miles to a point near [N37 58.338 W118 19.785] where the old railroad bed crosses the highway almost at the top of Montgomery Pass.

Although the trail is in pretty good shape, you definitely need a 4WD vehicle. Driving was smooth overall, though you need to use compression braking while changing grade in the mountain passes.

Deep cut through the mountains.

I was continually amazed at the condition of the trail, especially over old washes. Engineers many years ago filled in and leveled those sections. The fill, 10-15 deep in places, was just as solid and stable as the day it was built. It’s a testament to their engineering and construction ability.

The north end of the tunnel is about 2.2 miles in. We were there in 45 minutes. There were some truly awesome views of the White Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains on the way in. The tunnel can no longer be safely entered. By traversing down a steep bypass, we dropped to the lower RR bed as it winds out of the south entrance on the mountain contours. A very short drive put us at the south entrance. We chose not turn retrace out path but follow the south bound RR bed until in came out again on the highway.

Well-constructed fill.

Total distance to and from the highway was about 4.5 miles. We averaged around 3 mph, so the railroad part of the trip took about 90 minutes. But that includes stops for picture taking and walking around. After returning to the highway, we headed back to Bishop.

The entire drive was approximately 150 miles, and took about [4.5 hours]. Most vehicles can make that with a tank of gas. Prepare as you would for any other drive in the remote areas. On your return to Bishop, stop at the C&C Railroad Museum in Laws, CA. (Laws was a major station on the California section just east of Bishop.)

Driving the old railroad beds adds an interesting dimension to four wheeling. These old beds tie together so many historical places and events. The C & C tunnel near (Bishop/Montgomery Pass) offers a unique and fascinating look at railroad history in the southwest. I suggest you consider it the next time you’re looking for a day excursion when you are near Bishop, Calif., or Tonopah, Nev.

North Entrance to the C&C tunnel

South Entrance to the C&C tunnel

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