By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our Mendocino, California weekend sojourn continues. From the Brewery Gulch Inn, where we stayed our first night, it is a 20 minute drive up the scenic coast to Fort Bragg for the Skunk Train, a vintage steam train that weaves through the redwood forests of the Noyo River Canyon. That was alluring enough, but what really captured our imagination was the idea of riding a “railbike” on the same train tracks through the forest. Railbike?
Train buffs will delight to visit the historic train station, walk across the tracks to a fantastic model train exhibit and historical society exhibit housed in appropriately aged buildings (so atmospheric), then board the train for a fairly short ride about 3 ½ miles down the track along the Pudding Creek, to Glen Blair Junction before returning, for a total of 7 miles. Weather permitting, you can ride an open car or sit inside the vintage cars.
Since 1885 the historic Skunk has made its way through these old-growth redwood groves, over scenic trestle bridges, through tunnels, and into the heart of the Noyo River Canyon, primarily for logging purposes. Today, the repurposed train offers five scenic trains that ply two different routes and two different railbike experiences.
First the railbike experience.
Eric and I have already gotten onto our two-seater railbike – custom-built, patent pending, specially designed like a recumbent, where you sit back, outfitted with electronic-assist, and virtually silent so you can really appreciate the forest.
We take the more modest of the railbike trips that are offered, The Pudding Creek railbike trip, which gives you an excellent taste and can be done by just about anyone.
It is 7 miles roundtrip traveling along the same tracks as the scenic train – in fact, the trips are coordinated so the railbikes leave first, then the train, then the train leaves and the railbikes follow. (Note: it is downhill most of the way but uphill most of the way back, along a grade that is higher than most railroads – no problem, you have the motor assist!). There are two guides who accompany us – one in front and one in the back. People follow one after another but everyone is independent.
One person is designated the “driver” (the other is the passenger) who is given an orientation before we set off how to brake and use the electronic assist; the passenger just pedals (it is manageable for a parent and young child). It is fun, and you get this wonderful opportunity to just chat and be together as you roll through the forest.
The Puddle Creek railbike excursion takes less than two hours, including time at Glen Blair Junction where we get off (as the railbikes are reversed for the return), and can walk a delightful forest loop trail.
This gives the historic train time to arrive, the train passengers to also get out and stretch, and depart before the railbike riders start back. The guide gives us some narration here and points to where the train tunnel has collapsed.
While Eric and I set out on the railbike, Sarah boards the train at the Fort Bragg depot for the relaxed, scenic 7-mile roundtrip journey on the Pudding Creek Express, traveling along the same Pudding Creek Estuary through primeval ancient redwoods forest to the Glen Blair Junction.
Trains also stop at Glen Blair Junction for 15 minutes, allowing the passengers to get off and explore and appreciate the majesty of the forest. But if you would like to spend more time walking the trails among the redwoods, you can stay behind and catch the next train (roughly two hours later). You can bring a packed lunch (to enjoy at the picnic tables set out there.
We organize it so I switch off with Sarah who has come on the train so she can experience the railbike and I can experience the train on the way back (how clever of me since the return was more uphill). Both were delightful experiences and the length well suited to families with young children.
On the way back I hear the narrator say these were some of the first tracks ever laid down by the California Western Railroad, in 1885, and have been used in some fashion just about ever since. He claims it is also the most crooked train in the West, possibly the world (though I would need confirmation of that). 1940s music is playing as we roll along. I mostly stay in the open car but wander through the passenger cars to see what that is like.
The Skunk Trains operate with both Diesel-Electric engines and a #45 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado Steam Engine, the Super Skunk, pulling the passenger cars, including a bar car with snacks, non-alcoholic drinks, beer, wine, and spirits, as well as an open air car.
Train buffs will love the back story of this historic train: the Fort Bragg Railroad was formed in 1885 to make transporting lumber easier, eventually being incorporated into the California Western Railroad, commonly known as The Skunk.
The train played a vital role transporting families and workers to their logging camps along the route, making The Skunk a different type of railroad, the website notes: It not only was key to the area’s economic activity but also its social and cultural life. “No other logging railroad in America has made the deep impression on American life that was created by the line from Fort Bragg – first by the natural beauty of its route and later, by the distinctiveness of its equipment,” the website boasts.
How did the train come to be called “Skunk Train?” The nickname originated in 1925 when motorcars (actually railbuses or railcruisers) were introduced on the line. These single unit, self-propelled motorcars had gasoline-powered engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep the passengers warm, but the fumes they emitted had a very pungent odor that people living along the line said smelled like skunk. “You could smell them before you could see them.” (No longer the case.)
The California Western Railroad was first operated as a division of the Fort Bragg mill (Union Lumber Company, Boise-Cascade). In the mid-1960s, Arizona-based Kyle Railways began managing the railroad and purchased it in 1987. In August 1996, a group of local Mendocino Coast investors purchased California Western, marking the first time in its 111-year history that the line operated as an independent business. Today the Skunk Train is owned and operated by Mendocino Railway.
The Pudding Creek train operates year-round and the railbikes operate rain or shine (so just bring raingear if the weather isn’t great). The Pudding Creek railbike excursion is $250 for one or two people; the train is $41.95 (Ages 13 and up); $25.95 (Ages 2-12), Infant: $10.95; Dog: $10.95.
True train buffs should consider the longer excursion, the two-hour Wolf Tree Turn a scenic 16-mile roundtrip journey departing from the Willits valley floor that takes you over the summit of the line (1740 feet elevation), through Tunnel #2, and down into the Noyo River Canyon where you are immersed in the redwood forest that made Mendocino County famous. The train stops briefly at Crowley, giving passengers the opportunity to visit one of the oldest and most iconic trees along the route, the Wolf Tree (named for the large growth off of one side which woodsmen called “wolf trees”) (Adult: $49.95; child: $29.95; Infant: $10.95; Dog: $10.95).
There is a much longer, more ambitious railbike experience, as well: a four-hour excursion that travels the Redwood Route takes you 25 miles along the meandering Noyo River and deep into old-growth redwood groves on a section of track now reserved exclusively for the railbikes ($495/railbike for one or two people).
This experience begins at the Skunk Train’s Sherwood Road property with a hike through the redwoods down to the Noyo River and the east end of Tunnel #1. The guides orient you to the railbikes and then you set off. Trips are staggered by a few minutes so you can experience the solitude of the route as you pedal 11 miles inland along the tranquil river. You pass South Fork, Ranch, Redwood Lodge, Grove, and other historic stops, crossing over 12 wooden trestle bridges that provide stunning views of the river below. The railbikers pull into Camp Noyo for an hour’s break, where you can have the picnic lunch that is provided, swim in the river, stroll among the redwoods or just relax before setting back. “This is a strenuous and lengthy trip, requiring excellent mobility to descend to the railbikes from Sherwood Road.”
There are loads of seasonal and themed events as well: Cinema in the Redwoods; Music in the Redwoods; Magical Christmas Train; Easter Express, Pumpkin Express; summer BBQ trains, murder mystery trains, the Mushroom Train, the Crab & Cremant train and Railbikes by Moonlight. The trains can also be used to host corporate meetings, picnics, parties, proms, weddings, baby showers, and team building.
The Pudding Creek railbike excursion is $250 for one or two people; the Pudding Creek Express train departing Fort Bragg year-round is $41.95 (Ages 13 and up); $25.95 (Ages 2-12), Infant: $10.95; Dog: $10.95.
Skunk Train, 100 West Laurel Street Fort Bragg, California 95437;299 East Commercial Street Willits, California 95490, www.skunktrain.com.
From here, it is a very short distance to go to Glass Beach in Fort Bragg – one of the absolute highlights of this place. The intriguing name and spectacularly picturesque scene belie the origins of the beach and why it is covered with tiny, shimmering pebbles of sea glass: Rather than the sea glass floating in on waves from various places and mysteriously collecting here the way sea shells collect on certain beaches, the sea glass is in this space because it was once a garbage heap and the glass bottles tossed away over the years have broken down, smoothed and rounded by the rhythmic waves. There is a finite amount of glass, so though it is illegal to remove any glass, people take what they think is an insignificant amount, and over the years, has drained the beach of much of what it used to have. Still, it is magical.
The water crashes against rocks just off the shore here, making for dramatic scene (but not suitable for swimming or letting kids venture into the water). You can hike north up to Pudding Creek Beach where a paved multi-use trail crosses over an old train trestle; other trails go south from Glass Beach to other glassy beaches.
Glass Beach is at the southern end of the sprawling MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg, which is noted for birdlife and harbor seals.
From here, we follow the Brewery Gulch Inn’s concierge recommendation to lunch at Princess Seafood in Noyo Harbor, an actual fishing port where various restaurants have sprung up to serve the fresh catch. Princess Seafood. (Brewery Gulch Inn, 9401 North Highway One, Mendocino, CA, 95460, 800-578-4454, brewerygulchinn.com.)
We take the short drive into Mendocino to explore this charming place.
For excellent planning help: Visit Mendocino County, 866-466-3636, 707-964-9010, www.visitmendocino.com.
Photo: What captured our imagination about the Skunk Train, besides its history, was riding a “railbike” through the California redwood forest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
(For more photos, visit https://goingplacesfarandnear.com/weekend-in-mendocino-historic-skunk-train-introduces-a-novel-railbike-experience/)
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