The Redwoods Route
Mar 21, 2019 08:20PM
● By Nora Mounce
Everyone has heard of California’s famous drive-through trees. If you’ve paid $5 for the experience, you know it’s a quick novelty thrill best enjoyed with a backseat full of kiddos to impress. Do it once, and you’re probably good. Yet, the allure of penetrating the Emerald Triangle’s redwood forest persists. Who doesn’t want to experience the intoxicating redwoods from a perspective typically reserved for raccoons, owls, and bears? Other creative portals into the ancient giants include cozy treehouses like the One Log House, a carved-out 7-foot by 32-foot “home” built inside a 2,100-year-old redwood. (The One Log Lounge, a permitted dispensary, opened next to the tourist attraction last year). Further north at the Trees of Mystery in Del Norte, visitors can hop in a gondola for a bird’s eye view of the famous forests. Ziplines through the redwoods have come and gone. Overall, the majority of the estimated 31 million people who visit the redwoods each year absorb the towering beauties from hiking trails and car windows. It seemed as though every angle had been considered. But in late 2017, a brand-new mode of exploration materialized right where we’d been looking.
Stationed in the coastal city of Fort Bragg, the historic Skunk Train dates back to 1885, when the railroad played a pivotal role for the region’s robust lumber industry. Later known as the California Western Railroad (CWR), the train transported lumber and cargo through 40 miles of thick redwoods from Fort Bragg to Ukiah on The Redwood Route. In 1925, CWR added motorcars to carry passengers, each outfitted with a gasoline-powered engine and pot-bellied stoves to keep travelers warm. Folks living on the rail line nicknamed the motorcars “skunks” for the stinky blend of fumes that “you smell before you saw.” Despite the pungent reputation, the Skunk Train was a fashionable party on rails at its peak of popularity in 1930s.
By the late 1980s, the region’s timber industry was in freefall and most American families owned a car or two. Like most historic railroads in the US, the CWR was in danger of being ripped up until a group of investors rescued the adorable little Skunk. Today, the Skunk Train is a world-famous tourist attraction that appeals to all ages as it chugs along the rails with old timey charm, an open-platform viewing car, and a bar car serving local beer, wine, and snacks. A very family-friendly experience, even Fido is welcome (with a ticket!) onboard.
After the train lumbers back into the Fort Bragg station, it’s time to clear the tracks for the Emerald Triangle’s newest immersive redwoods experience rail bikes! The new fangled bikes debuted last August, making 2019 the first full season for the Mendocino County attraction. Just as the name suggests, each two-person motor-assisted bicycle sits directly on the railroad tracks. Comfortable leather seats allow two cyclists to sit side-by-side in a slightly reclined position while pedaling (imagine paddle boats without water!). But unlike a rowboat scenario, rail bikes don’t require steering, nor do riders need to match pace while pumping the pedals. Humming gently along the tracks, the soundtrack is a blend of bird songs, babbling streams, and the peaceful solitude of the redwoods.
Setting off for an hour ride along the Pudding Creek Express, each Rail Bike maintains an easy distance from the next by simply easing off the pedals or dialing back the motorized “assist.” During orientation, enthusiastic guides explain how the rail bikes function, including how to operate the throttle. Cyclists can dial up the throttle to take it easy and enjoy the scenery. More athletic riders can dial the throttle down and rely on their heart and legs and to pump their rail bikes back up the hill from the abandoned logging town of Glen Blair.
When the cyclists hop off to stretch their legs at the Glen Blair turnaround, the guides point out the blocked-off tunnel across a narrow wooden bridge. Here, the Redwood Route used to continue, chugging through the mountainside and connecting the eastern rail line from Fort Bragg to Willits. After Tunnel #1 collapsed in 2013, erosion and damage were further exacerbated by powerful el nino storms in 2016. The Mendocino Railway, who now owns the Skunk Train, hopes to unblock the tunnel and re-open the historic route.
Until the tunnel is cleared, longer excursions originate from Willits, where passengers can enjoy a two-hour ride along the Wolf Tree Turn.
Too relaxing to qualify as a workout but uniquely appealing to non-tourists and visitors alike, rail bikes offer a new entrée into the redwoods’ special brand of romance and tranquility. From March through November, duos and couples can book rides along the Pudding Express ($79) to experience old-world scenery on an innovative new ride. While dogs aren’t allowed on the rail bikes and there’s no bar serving cocktails at Glen Blair, just give it time. In Mendocino, they are busy dreaming up new ways to re-event nature and recreation on the Redwood Route.