Riding Rails Back to Old California

<i> Flenniken is a La Jolla free-lance writer</i>

When you sometimes wish you’d been born 100 years ago, to have lived in the exciting days when California was a new “discovery,” head for Roaring Camp and follow the Grizzly Bear Route through the giant redwoods in Santa Cruz County just south of San Francisco.

As the little locomotive Dixiana rounds the bend, open passenger cars and yellow caboose rattling along behind, its shrill whistle pierces the morning stillness and steam billows in huge clouds across the horizon. You step from the depot waiting room onto the platform and enter a bygone era.

Ticket in hand, you board one of the last of the nation’s steam-powered passenger trains on the historic Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow-Gauge Railroad. The six-mile journey will take you through groves of mammoth trees, some more than 2,000 years old, and past station points with such colorful names as McSkunk Junction, Indian Creek, Grizzly Flats and Shotgun Pass.

Steepest Climb

After little Dixiana is filled from the old wooden water tower alongside the track, you start your trek up the steepest railroad grade in North America, so twisting that at times from the caboose you can see the engine chugging its way up the mountain.

You can almost reach out and touch the redwoods. Dainty blue flowers and yellow vines carpet the ground, and far below are vast areas of reddish madronos whose bark was used centuries ago by the Indians for medicine.

The engine’s sooty smell reminds you of the faded sign posted in the depot, warning that the company will not be responsible for cleaning “authentic 1890 steam locomotive soot” from your clothing.

Up ahead is Cathedral Grove, popular for moonlight weddings. A circle of redwoods surrounds a giant stump that serves as the pulpit. In silence and awe you gaze at the grandeur and beauty of the world’s tallest living trees, many more than 200 feet high.

The train route takes you directly through the Welch Big Trees Grove, bought in 1867 to preserve the trees for posterity. Marring the breathtaking beauty of the forest are the remains of the burned-out trestle that arsonists set afire on July 4, 1976. Plans are in the works to rebuild the bridge by 1990.

Bear Mountain

After you arrive at the peak of Bear Mountain, you can spend the rest of the day picnicking or hiking and return on a later train.

The narrow-gauge rails carrying you on this one-hour journey were manufactured in the early 1880s and brought around Cape Horn on a sailing ship. Not only did gold miners, lumberjacks and desperadoes travel over these rails, but also such notables as Prince Edward of England and Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt.

Established in the 1830s, Roaring Camp was the first U.S. settlement in California. Home of the first whiskey distillery in the West, it got its name from the Mexican authorities who found its occupants wild and boisterous. A single gold nugget worth $32,000 was discovered six years before the 1849 Gold Rush. It is also the locale of Bret Harte’s short story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”

Take time to walk the winding paths of nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Browse in the general store, where you will be tempted by colorful stick candy, unusual blends of tea, old-fashioned toys, books and handwork typical of the 1880s. Stop in at the Red Caboose Saloon for a bite to eat or a drink.

Old-Style Feasting

Feast on the chuck wagon barbecue (open from noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from May through October) with a choice of Dixiana steak, chuck wagon chicken, lumberjack ribs or gold rush steak, along with tossed green salad, Western-style beans and sourdough rolls. Top it off with Santa Cruz mountain cider as you roast marshmallows over the campfire. Enjoy the banjo and guitar tunes of pioneer days.

Trains depart from Roaring Camp Depot daily with the exception of Christmas--one to eight departures each day, depending on seasonal demand. The fare is $8.75, $5.75 for children 3 to 15, children under 3 free. For groups of 25 the fare is $7.90 for adults, $5.25 for children.

During summer, Moonlight Steam Train Parties are scheduled on certain Saturday nights from 7 to 11, with barbecue.

To reach Roaring Camp from San Jose, drive California 17 to the Felton exit, then go west three miles to Graham Hill Road and Roaring Camp.

California Pacific Coast Tours offers escorted tours for groups of 25 or more from San Francisco. For more information, write to Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow-Gauge Railroad, P.O. Box G-1, Felton, Calif. 95018, or call (408) 335-4484.