The 40 mile stretch of railroad from Northern California’s coastal town of Fort Bragg to Willits on US Highway 101 is essentially the same “Redwood Route” that was established here back in 1885. And although the original engines of that era are no longer in use, visitors who come to ride the California Western Railroads Skunk Train will get a real thrill being pulled through the rugged back country by one of the vintage collection of gas and steam-powered engines still in operation here. But the Skunk Train route hasn’t changed at all in all these years. It still winds through mountains gorges on hundred-year-old tracks, snaking past majestic redwood forests and rocky cliffs, just as it did back in 1885.
This railroad was originally built for the bustling logging industry here, meant to carry coastal redwood from the dense inland forests to a lumber mill at Fort Bragg. But passenger service was later added in 1904 and the route as we now know it today, a winding 40 miles which roughly follows along the course of the Noyo River and ends in Willits, was finally completed in 1911. The rather peculiar looking, self-powered, yellow “Skunk” rail cars were later introduced in 1925, nicknamed so because of their original, if not somewhat smelly gas engines. The locals soon began to quip “You can smell them before you can see them.”
Depending upon when you choose to travel, “your” engine can vary. The famous M-100 and M-300 “Skunk” motorcars run most of the year through, but during the busy summer season they are also joined by several diesel-powered engines which were built in the 1950’s. And if you’re really lucky, don’t hesitate to take Old No. 45, a classic 1920’s steam engine right out of your favorite old action film.
And except for all of the modern clothing and high-tech equipment we bring along with us these days, anyone visiting from the area’s past would hardly notice that well over a century has passed since this railroad first opened, so little has changed here. The route still passes through two deep mountain tunnels and over dozens of bridges and trestles as you twist your way through the rugged countryside. Moving at a relaxing pace, never more than thirty miles per hour, travelers are pulled along in open observation cars through the towering redwood groves, past green meadows and lonely cabins spread out along the way. The midway point between Fort Bragg and Willits is Northspur and is a popular stop where passengers can get out and stretch their legs a bit. Some even chose to bring picnic lunches with them and enjoy a longer stop here before either continuing on to Willits or turning back to Fort Bragg.
A ride on the Skunk Train is a brilliant way to spend the day – and a visit to Mendocino County just wouldn’t be complete without it!
And how do you get here? If you are coming from San Francisco or the greater bay area, drive north on US Highway 101 until you reach Cloverdale. At Cloverdale exit on State Route 128 going west. Continue west until State Route 128 connects to State Route 1 (Highway One). Continue north on Highway One until you reach Fort Bragg. You’ll find your Skunk Train at:
Foot of Laurel Street
Fort Bragg, CA 95437