California railbiking: pedaling Skunk Train railbikes in Mendocino
On a Skunk Train Railbikes Explorer Package, pairs of riders pedal a two-seat, motor-assisted railbike along historic railroad tracks beside Pudding Creek and up into majestic redwood groves. Trips depart from Fort Bragg, Calif.
A quiet clickity-clack and an occasional squeal were the only sounds as the rubber wheels of our railbike glided over railroad tracks beneath towering redwoods, passing in and out of the sun. A motor assist made pedaling almost ridiculously easy. With no need to worry about steering, I let my mind wander and enjoyed the passing beauty as I breathed in fragrant mountain air.
Therese Iknoian and I were on a Skunk Train Railbikes Explorer Package adventure in Mendocino County, Calif. The seven-mile roundtrip departs from the depot in downtown Fort Bragg year-round, traveling along the Pudding Creek Estuary to the turnaround at Glen Blair Junction.
The railroad tracks we traveled were some of the first tracks ever laid down by the California Western Railroad in 1885. Trains operated as a division of the Fort Bragg mill (Union Lumber Company, Boise-Cascade). In the mid-1960s, Arizona-based Kyle Railways began managing the railroad and its Skunk Train passenger service, and purchased it in 1987. Then, in 1996, a private group, Mendocino Railway, purchased the railway and began operating it as an independent business. In 2019, the company added railbiking as another option to taking the Skunk Train.
What are railbikes?
Railbikes are pedal-powered carts that resemble recumbent bikes in how you sit and pedal. The specially designed carts feature large rubber-covered wheels for quiet, smooth rolling over railroad tracks. Companies such as the Skunk Train typically design their own versions of a railbike, but each is decidedly similar in approach, with either two or four-seat versions. Some, such as Skunk Train railbikes, offer a motor assist (just like you find on an electric bike) to help with the uphill sections.
Pedaling them is relatively easy, making it a suitable adventure for any age or level of fitness.
One person in each cart becomes the designated driver, operating a hand brake to ensure you don’t go too fast or bump into carts in front of you, and controlling the level of motor assist needed.
Skunk Train Railbikes turnaround at Glen Blair Junction
Once we reached Glen Blair Junction, we disembarked for a 50-minute layover. Our guides turned the railbikes around and pushed them to the end of the tracks in preparation for the Skunk Train which arrived 30 minutes later – the nose of the giant engine car nearly kissing the front of the lead railbike. During the break, one of our guides offered a short bit of history to those interested.
While on the layover, there are picnic benches if you choose to sit (they get pretty crowded when the arriving passengers from the Skunk Train disembark for their 15-minute break). Bring a snack or beverage, if you want since nothing is available there.
At Glen Blair, there is a short loop trail of about a mile. If you do it clockwise, the first section is flat, then climbs (over the beautiful arch stone bridge), then heads downhill back to the start. If you only do part of it, then do it counterclockwise (ignore the arrows!) and just go up to where you can look down on the tracks above the tunnel the Skunk Train once traveled through. If you want to avoid hills, just go straight out until it turns uphill and turn around. Allow 30 minutes for the entire hike but since it includes a good uphill section, judge your ability and timing well. If you opt for the hike, be sure to arrive back in time to watch the Skunk Train chug off back to the depot. Once the train departs, it’s time to mount up and head back too … under pedal rather than the train’s diesel power.
Trips go rain or shine, so dress accordingly. And be sure to pack along a camera or smartphone, water, sunscreen, snacks, rain gear, and insect repellent, depending on the time of year.
More railbiking opportunities
Not heading to Mendocino County in Northern California but still want to experience pedaling a railbike? Here are some other railbiking companies around the United States and Europe.
River Fox Railbikes – Sacramento, California
Another California railbiking company, River Fox (a sister company of the Skunk Train railbikes) offers railbike tours that follow the tracks alongside the Old Garden Highway beside the Sacramento River. Picturesque views and cool breezes are on tap for this 90-minute round trip journey.
Carson Canyon Railbike Tours – Carson City, Nevada
Carson Canyon Railbike Tours offer motor-assisted railbike adventures along the historic Virginia & Truckee train tracks combined with a visit to the Halfway House Stage Stop. Trips last 90 minutes into the Carson River Canyon.
Rail Explorers – Catskill Mountains, Rhode Island, Las Vegas
Rail Explorers USA offers railbike tours in the Catskill Mountains along the historic Ulster and Delaware Railroad, in Rhode Island along the 1862 Old Colony Railroad, and in Las Vegas.
Revolution Rail – Adirondacks, New York
Revolution Rail allows riders to pedal special two-seat and four-seat railbikes along abandoned railroad tracks in the Adirondacks. The section of track begins at the historic North Creek Railroad Station just outside of Lake George and passes through dense forest and alongside the banks of the Hudson River – crossing the Hudson via an amazing trestle bridge (pictured below).
Joseph Branch Railriders – Oregon
The Joseph Branch Railriders pedal along an inactive section of the Joseph Branch Railway, with tracks passing through forest and farmland, over creeks and marsh. The Wallowa Mountains serve as a backdrop. The company offers two tours. One is six hours and covers 26 miles.
Vance Creek Railriders – Washington
Vance Creek Railriders offers railbike tours on the historic Simpson Logging Company Railway on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Explore the lush, mossy, fern-filled forests on a 14-mile round-trip railbike adventure.
Flekkefjordbanen – Norway
This company offers railbike tours at Flekkefjordbanen on a railway line that saw service until 1990. Tours run every day in the summer.