Built in 1885 to harvest timber deep in the redwood forests of Northern California, the California Western Railroad—better known as the Skunk Train—is a scenic railroad ride through Mendocino’s famed, old-growth, redwood groves. The ride takes passengers along the historic “Redwood Route," as it has for more than 130 years, traveling 40 miles between the coastal town of Fort Bragg and the quaint town of Willits.
Why Take a Ride?
Get up close and personal with towering giants: The redwoods are the star attraction in Mendocino, and the deep link of Mendocino to California’s lumber history is nowhere more alive than aboard the historic Skunk Train. Arguably one of the most unique and authentic ways to see the redwoods, passengers say there is simply nothing else like it in the world. The train allows a freedom inaccessible any other way. Not to mention being able to step back in time aboard a 1920s train, feel the movement of steel and steam—the rumble and gentle swaying—and to see 1,000-year old trees towering above.
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The Skunk Train offers two excursions: a one-hour round-trip from Fort Bragg, or a four-hour round-trip out of Willits. From Fort Bragg, the train travels along the Pudding Creek Estuary to Glen Blair Junction on a short and scenic seven-mile round-trip over some of the first tracks laid down by the California Western Railroad in 1885. From Willits, the train climbs the Eastern slope of the Coastal Mountain Range then cuts through it at an 840-foot tunnel at the summit before descending into the old-growth redwood-lined Noyo River Canyon. The ride is about a 4-hour, 40-mile round-trip.
The Skunk Train also features onboard narration by its conductors and boasts a train singer who entertains guests with train-themed songs while wandering freely among the passengers. The train is pet friendly—all well-behaved dogs are able to ride the train for a $10 per-animal fee.
What’s in a Name?
The Skunk Train got its name from the way it used to smell. Made up of single-unit, self-propelled motorcars—which look similar to trolleys—the cars are propelled from beneath, unlike a train car which is pulled by an engine. In 1925 when the motorcars were introduced, they had gasoline-powered engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep passengers warm. The combination of the fumes created a pungent odor, and those living along the line said these motorcars were just like skunks: “You could smell them before you could see them.”
Trains in operation include the eponymous 'Skunks,' self-propelled 1925 M-100 Edwards Rail Cars, operating out of Willits; steam engine No. 45, a 1924 Baldwin Locomotive Works 2-8-2 "Mikado," operating out of Fort Bragg; GP9m Diesel Engines, operating out of Fort Bragg and Willits; and the classic Baldwin Steam Locomotive. Most trips carry open observation cars -- the best spot to truly experience the redwoods.