For Adventurers: Mendocino County’s Skunk Train
Folks itching for adventure will find much to appreciate about the Skunk Train’s railbike experience. Journey into the towering redwoods on the historic track that dates back to 1885, when it was used to transport loggers and their bounty between Willits and the California coastal community of Fort Bragg. The stench of the self-propelled motorcars, which had gasoline-powered engines and pot-bellied stoves to keep passengers warm, created a very pungent odor. This skunk-like smell inspired the train’s less-than-savory nickname, which the railroad now embraces with pride.
A tunnel collapse in 2015 shortened the Skunk Train’s popular passenger excursions and halted passenger and freight transport over the mountain. But that didn’t stop Mendocino Railway (which owns and operates the Skunk Train) from figuring out ways to continue luring tourists to Fort Bragg. In addition to providing train aficionados with short rides into the redwoods, they also patented their own railbikes.
Today, they offer two motor-assisted railbike excursions and will unveil an evening ride, Railbikes by Moonlight, in April. The most popular trek is along Pudding Creek, a two-hour seven-mile roundtrip pedal on their two-person railbikes. On a rainy December morning, my family and I fastened our helmets, clicked the seatbelts, and headed out on our first railcycle excursion.
Led by two guides (one at the front of the pack and another at the back), we cycled along Pudding Creek and journeyed past redwood forests. As we spaced out from other riders (this wasn’t a bumper car excursion, our guide explained), I told my teenage son to turn off the electric motor and stop pedaling, so we could take in the scenic views of Pudding Creek. When I didn’t break a sweat, my teenager was quick to remind me that it would be harder when we trekked back up to town.
At the collapsed tunnel, also a historic rail stop, we snacked and then hiked about a mile into the redwoods while our guides turned the bikes around. Out here, what surprised me most was the quiet. Unlike trains, railbikes allowed us full immersion in nature: the wind (and, in our case, light rain) on our faces, the breeze on the redwood needles, the creek trickling, the birds tweeting from the madrones. On the way back, that sense of peace lessened a bit as I tried to pedal uphill without the engine. Turns out my son was right—enabling the engine at its lowest power and both of us pedaling got our adrenaline going, but not so much as to feel winded.
The Skunk Train’s more rigorous excursion is a 25-mile roundtrip pedal along the Noyo River. Beyond the collapsed tunnel, guests hike a mile down to the tracks to pedal through dramatic old-growth redwoods and over 11 wooden trestles crossing the river. These five-hour trips include pre-ordered lunches of gourmet sandwiches, chocolate, potato chips, cans of wine (or juice), and water.
If you’re still itching for adventure after your railbike trip, sign up for a guided kayak trip to spot harbor seals in Noyo Harbor and sea lions in the Pacific with Liquid Fusion Kayaking. If you’d prefer to remain in the forest, trek the 2.5-mile ecological staircase at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve to view the Monterey pines and pygmy cypresses before meandering back down to the dramatic windswept coast. Cap off your day with locally caught petrale sole at Little River Inn, local wine at the Waiting Room, or the rich Brazilian fish stew at Mendocino Café.