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Skunk Train: Fort Bragg to Willits, CA

by Sally Bernstein

What a grand way to spend a day! Take a ride on the Skunk Train and reach back in time to enjoy the beauty of Mendocino’s massive redwood trees. Ride from Fort Bragg to Willits on Highway 101 and back. This 42 mile, 4 hour trip takes you from the Mendocino Coast into the Coastal Mountains, through the Noyo River Canyon and the California Redwoods. Along the way, the tracks cross some 30 bridges and trestles and pass through two deep mountain tunnels. The half-way point of Northspur is popular as passengers stretch their legs and enjoy their picnic lunches before continuing to Willits or heading back to Fort Bragg. The train doesn't always go all the way through from one town to the next.  Be sure and check for seasonal changes. It generally goes to Northspur and then turns around to go back to the original station.  You can however switch trains at Northspur and continue on to the next town earlier in the season. 

Except for the passengers' high-tech cameras and modern garb, a time traveler from the last century would feel quite at home riding California Western Railroads Skunk Train in the 2000's.

The view from the restored rail cars is pretty much unchanged: towering trees, deer drinking from the Noyo River, an isolated fisherman's cabin peeking from the forest. With occasional whistles as it chugs through tunnels, over bridges and past open meadows, the train follows the coastal " Redwood Route" as it has since 1885.

Built as a logging railroad, the Skunk line began that year as a logical vehicle for moving massive redwood logs to Mendocino Coast sawmills from the rugged back country. Steam passenger service was started in 1904, extended to the town of Willits in 1911, and discontinued in 1925 when the self-powered, yellow "Skunk" rail cars were inaugurated. The little trains were quickly nicknamed for their original gas engines, which prompted folks to say, "You can smell 'em before you can see 'em."

California Western welcomed more "modern" equipment in later years, which rail fans can still ride. The vintage 1925 M-100 motorcar -- the only remaining train of its kind in use anywhere today -- runs the line year-round, as does the 1935 M-300 motorcar. During the busier summer months, they are joined by three 1950's diesel-powered engines, and famous Old No. 45, a majestic 1924 Baldwin steam engine, the kind most kids dream of when they think "train."

Moving at a leisurely pace (29 miles per hour maximum), the trains pull covered cars as well as open observation cars -- perfect for capturing photographs of the truly exhilarating journey.

California Western was initially operated as a division of the Fort Bragg mill. In the mid 1960s, Arizona-based Kyle Railways began managing the railroad, and purchased it in 1987. In August 1996, a group comprised entirely of local Mendocino Coast investors purchased California Western, marking the first time is its 111-year history that the line would be operated as an independent business. In 2003 the Sierra Railroad’s Family of Trains bought the Skunk Train and added it to its other two trains: the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train in Oakdale, CA at www.SierraRailroad.com and the Sacramento River Train in Woodland, CA at www.SacramentoRiverTrain.com.


Skunk Train

Foot of Laurel Street, Fort Bragg, CA 95437
299 East Commerce Street, Willits, CA 95490

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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