FELTON, Calif. — The train whistles that echo through the redwood forest here bring visitors back to the 1800s, when sturdy little steam engines hauled carloads of timber down from the mountains.
These days, the historic locomotives are carrying sightseers up the steep grades to view virgin stands of Sequoia sempervirens, the tallest species of trees in the world. Just hop aboard the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow-Gauge Railroad.
The one-of-a-kind railway makes a scenic 12-mile round-trip journey beneath a canopy of coastal redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The excursion takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes, but you can get off to picnic in the woods and then catch a later train back to the depot.
The Roaring Camp station is seven miles north of Santa Cruz in this rural town that was named after a lawyer, Charles Felton, who later became a U.S. congressman and senator.
Nearly 1,800 acres of the adjacent forest have been preserved as Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, where you can explore 20 miles of trails and camp among the evergreens. The park also has a nature display center and a riverside picnic area.
Mexican Land Grant
The redwoods were part of a Mexican land grant, Rancho Canada del Rincon. Some of them came into the possession of a boisterous Kentucky mountain man, Isaac Graham, who established a rough-and-tumble place called Roaring Camp.
After his death, loggers wanted the property, but Joseph Welch, a San Francisco businessman, bought the land to protect the big trees.
However, the lumbermen succeeded in getting right-of-way through Welch's redwoods and built a narrow-gauge railroad from Felton to Santa Cruz in 1875. Later, a connecting line was added from San Jose over the mountains, and tourists by the train load came from San Francisco to see the awesome trees.
Welch operated a rustic resort for visitors to his Big Trees Grove, where some redwoods tower more than 250 feet. After his death a portion of the property became a county park. In 1954 it was absorbed into a state park, with surrounding land donated by the Henry Cowell family.
Another section of Welch's untouched forest was later leased by his descendants so that the old narrow-gauge railway could get up steam again.
Thanks to the dreams and determination of a Los Angeles train buff, the late F. Norman Clark, Roaring Camp & Big Trees RR made its debut in 1963. More than 250,000 people now ride the old-time trains annually.
Get here from Los Angeles by driving U.S. 101 and California 1 north to Santa Cruz, then exiting north on River Street/California 9 to Felton. Turn right on Graham Hill Road and go about a half mile to the right-hand entrance to Roaring Camp.
You'll pass a century-old depot awaiting restoration, and a train yard filled with derelict engines and rail cars. After reaching the parking lot ($3 on weekends in the summer; free at other times), walk through the covered bridge and past a duck pond to the ticket office at trackside.
Excursions depart at 11 a.m., 12:15, 1:30, 2:45 and 4 p.m. daily through Labor Day, Sept. 4. The same schedule applies on weekends and holidays through the rest of September, but on weekdays the only departure is at noon. No reservations are required.
During the rest of the year trains depart at noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m. on weekends and holidays, plus a noon run on weekdays. Christmas Day is the only time that the railroad doesn't operate.
Round-trip fares are $10.50; ages 5 through 17 pay $7.50. The ride is free for children under 5. Call (408) 335-4400 (recording) or (408) 335-4484 for additional information.
Squeal of the Wheels
If the train is returning from a trip, you'll hear its whistle and the squeal of wheels on the tracks as it descends through the trees. Listen for the roar of escaping steam as the engine is "blown down" to keep pressure from getting too high in the boiler.
While passengers climb aboard for the next excursion, the spout of an old-fashioned water tower is pulled down to refill the engine. Then the steam whistle blows and the train circles a grassy meadow before huffing and puffing to get up some of the steepest railroad grades in the nation.
Two of the railroad's steam locomotives are being used--a 1910 Shay called Sonora and an 1899 Heisler named Tuolumne. They pull four open-top cars with bench seats and a covered car at the rear. Passengers needn't worry about soot from the smoke stack because the old engines burn oil instead of coal.
Vandals set fire to a corkscrew trestle several years ago, so the train must stop to back up into a siding that switches to a spur and bypasses the burned section of track. As the train crawls up the mountainside the conductor tells the history of the Roaring Camp railroad and describes the tree-filled scenery.
Ring of Redwoods