I’m not a train person, per se. I don’t show up to train events in an engineer’s hat and overalls draped with pins and patches of past train glories. But I do appreciate the romanticism of old steam engines and the bygone eras they represent. Plus, those old engines are something of a marvel, the way their parts have to work together just so or the whole thing doesn’t move, or worse, explodes.
But that’s not why I went to Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton, off Hwy 9 on the far side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I wanted to ride the Redwood Forest Steam Train to experience the big trees of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in a way I hadn’t before. (Ok, technically the train doesn’t go through the park, but it’s directly adjacent so basically the same.) Plus, I’m always up for an adventure, especially what promised to be a combination of spectacular Bay Area nature, regional history and unintended kitsch.
Unless you live in Santa Cruz, the easiest way to get there is to drive over the hill on Hwy 17 and exit at Scotts Valley. You’ll have to meander around (just Google map it) before you finally pull into the rather large parking area and up to a gatehouse where someone was waiting to take our parking fee. He looked like a local kid, as did many of the camp’s employees, a tradition I imagine goes back to when RCR opened in 1963 as a family run business.
Even if you have no interest in trains, it’s a pleasant area with wide lawns dotted with shade trees, picnic tables and a horseshoe pit, encircled by the larger forest of redwoods. Part of the camp’s raison d’etre is to take visitors back to the era when logging was big business here and railroading for work and travel were the norm. It does to a degree, but this is no theme park.
After a walk from the parking lot along a dirt road/path, you pass simple wood clapboard buildings not unlike those built in that Old West era. There’s a little building for the “town marshall,” a photography studio, and a large barn type structure set up for a wedding reception. Which is a big part of what they do here: events. There’s also a real forge and an actual blacksmith working it, more for demonstration and flavor that out of usefulness. There’s a gift shop where you can by those aforementioned train-themed patches and pins and other memorabilia for your home, plus hard candy in flavors like sarsaparilla, a model train circling above in the rafters, and a cat I was wary of petting.
But the whole point is the train ride, and thankfully we’d bought our tickets online ahead of time, because they were sold out on what seemed an uneventful Sunday in February. We stood with the other passengers at the station for our 12:30pm departure, and watched as the train chugged up to the station with steam billowing out its engine and whistle toot-tooting to dramatic effect. It was pulling half a dozen open top cars; as we later learned, there’s a limit to how much the engine can pull up the steep grade. We scrambled aboard and found seating on benches that ran the length of both sides of each flat-top car, and waited as the vest and suspender clad staff scrambled around readying the train. This included filling the engine’s boiler with water from an old water tower.
We pulled out, slowly looping around the camp grounds and disappearing into the forest. The train chugged methodically along through the redwoods of Big Trees Ranch, a preserve first purchased in 1867 by businessman Joseph Warren Welch who wanted to save some trees from all the logging going on at the time. Most of his preserve became Henry Cowell SP.
The passengers seemed to be a mix of locals and international tourists, retirees, young couples, families, all of us sitting shoulder to shoulder. Interesting for people watchers, but the forest of mostly redwoods was the main attraction, and all enveloping; close enough to reach out and touch a branch or trunk along the way as sunlight filtered through the treetops. Our car also came with a guide who offered up nuggets of history and other factoids throughout the 90 minute or so ride, though it was sometimes hard to hear.
At one point we passed a burned out trestle where the train used to cross, and where a suspicious fire in 1976 (its smoke seen all the way in San Francisco) meant the tracks were diverted to switchbacks with 9.5% grade, which seemed steep. The engine bellowed out a huge plume when we got to this part, our guide upping the drama by implying it was touch and go. We went steadily upward the whole way until we arrived at the top of Bear Mountain. Everyone got off and walked around for 15 minutes, then back on, and we resumed our trip down. As we got near the station, the engine let off steam, which created a big plume of mist that filled the surrounding forest while moistening the passengers.
Back at the camp, we bought some food from the concession stand, which serves up basic fare, and ate at a nearby picnic table. An older gentleman was singing and playing old timey music on a guitar, but otherwise it was mostly families enjoying the nice day and setting.
Was it worth it? Yes, if you have kids, or are on a date, or retired, or like nature but not hiking. Or you like trains. Otherwise? Hmm. Maybe. You’re in the midst of Northern California’s splendid nature, which is great, but you’re not exactly communing with it. Besides all the people, who I found to be just as interesting to watch as the forest, your attention is also being diverted by a big noisy antique engine at the front of the train. So if you simply seek the quietude of nature, just venture into the nearby Henry Cowell SP and go for a hike. The redwood forest here is pretty spectacular. But if you do plan to come to RCR, book ahead, especially during the many special event weekends that take place mostly in the spring and summer. Some of them look interesting and may bring me back, like the Redwood Mountain Faire or the Summer Gathering of Mountain Men, with encampments that reenact how trappers and other adventurers lived here in the 1830s.