Skunk Train’s Railbikes on the Noyo – a railbike adventure deep into California redwoods

by Jan 31, 2023California

Railbikes On The Noyo Crossing A Trestle Bridge

Ride custom-built electric railbikes along historic railway tracks deep into the heart of a Mendocino redwood forest on the Skunk Train’s Railbikes on the Noyo experience.

Redwoods. Entering a Mendocino California redwood forest feels rather like entering a sun-dappled natural cathedral, endless green carpets of ferns and towering trees reaching toward the heavens. Walking among them is certainly special. But riding a railbike deep into a forest of California redwoods inspires a different sort of magical experience. Skunk Train’s “Railbikes on the Noyo,” taking riders deep into the heart of Noyo River Canyon and among old-growth redwoods, is a railbiking enthusiast’s dream adventure.

Launched in mid-2021, the “Railbikes on the Noyo” experience follows abandoned train tracks for 12.5 miles along the Noyo River. This is a serious railbiking adventure, one that does require riders have a certain level of fitness and endurance. Plus, you must be able to walk down and back up a steep trail in Fort Bragg with numerous switchbacks to actually get to the railbikes. The initial meeting point and parking area is located high above the Noyo River and Tunnel No. 1 –where the railbike adventure truly begins.

Skunk Train Railbike Redwoods Bridge over the Noyo River

Therese and I embarked on a “Railbikes on the Noyo” experience in October 2022, on a sunny but cool fall day in Mendocino County. We parked our car and joined eight other riders and one of our two guides at a picnic table to sign waivers, check out bike helmets (required, but you can bring your own if desired), and pick up mini lunch coolers with our individual lunch selections inside. Unfortunately, when Therese and I signed up for the trip, we were never asked about lunch choices or we somehow missed an email or notification. Which meant we never selected a sandwich choice, so our guide told us he just tossed in a granola bar to accompany the apple and bag of chips into our coolers. Seems to me if a lunch order is somehow waylaid, the guide should decide to pick a generic sandwich (cheese and tomato or peanut butter and jelly) as opposed to leaving out a sandwich completely! Neither of us were happy about just a snack bar instead of a sandwich for lunch, but there was no turning back now.

HITT Tip: The trips run rain or shine, all year round. It can be chilly, hot, or even wet, depending on the weather forecast, so plan your clothing layers accordingly. Be sure to pack along sunscreen, water and, even though lunch is included, I’d recommend a few snacks, too. The full excursion lasts approximately four hours. This is not an inexpensive adventure, with a charge of $495 per bike (or $247.50 per rider) so you want to ensure you are prepared to enjoy it fully.

With helmets on, lunch coolers slung over shoulders, and our camera gear in hand, we headed off down the trail to where our other guide and the railbikes were waiting for us. The mile-long trail is steep, but well-maintained, and a beautiful introduction to the beauty of the Noyo River canyon.

Railbikes on the Noyo Trail To The Railbikes

It wasn’t long before we arrived at the entrance to what is called “Tunnel No. 1” and, just across a bridge and the river, our awaiting railbikes. The Skunk Train used to chug through this tunnel, until part of it collapsed in 2013, followed by a landslide in 2015. We had ridden railbikes on tracks shared by the famous Skunk Train to the west end of Tunnel No. 1 in 2020. Now, we would be riding on the same historic tracks, to the east of the tunnel, ones that hadn’t seen use since 2015 until this railbike adventure began.

We quickly selected a railbike from the lineup and then spent a few moments working with our guides on adjusting seats, learning how to work the e-bike controls, ensuring our issued two-way radios were on the correct band, and getting settled in. Each 250-pound railbike is specifically designed by Skunk Train engineers, seats up to two riders, and has a small basket at the front for carrying a few things (you can also hang backpacks on the back of your seat). There is an electric motor which assists in pedaling as much or as little as desired. In fact, it is possible to power the railbikes along the tracks at up to 10 miles per hour without turning a pedal crank at all – though this will quickly deplete a battery and is not recommended. While the guides do bring extra battery packs for each bike, running out of the electric assist for pedaling, with bikes this heavy, would not be fun!

Railbikes on the Noyo start and safety talk at Tunnel 1

After a short safety talk, during which about half the group didn’t really appear to be listening, we headed out – one guide in the lead, and one bringing up the rear of our crew of railbike adventurers.

During the first 30 minutes, as we pedaled steadily along, our lead guide would chime in with various railbiking instructions, some natural history knowledge, and a bit of regional history to boot. We also were passing over several of the 12 wooden trestle bridges as the rails crisscrossed from one side of the Noyo River to the other.

It was late in the season, of what had been a rather long period of drought conditions in California, so the Noyo River was not very impressive. I could only imagine how spectacular some of these river crossings on narrow trestle bridges might be with the river flowing at full strength.

Skunk Train railbike Noyo River Trestle Bridge

About 45 minutes into the ride, we all came to a stop to prepare for the next section: For that part, our guides sent us off one bike after the other, with about a minute between each. The goal here was not to have us pedal as fast as possible to catch up to the riders in front, but to allow all of us to experience the peace and beauty of the redwoods in our own space, without the distractions or noises from railbikes before or behind us or the chatter of radios. I have to say, even with the rubber wheels making muffled clattering noises as they rolled over the rails and even with the various minor squeaks and creaks from the railbike as we pedaled, it was supremely peaceful. It bordered, for me, on a religious experience, to be able to pedal, just Therese and I, through the cool shadows of the redwoods.

Almost too quickly, the solo experience was over, and the group came back together. Then we pedaled onward, as a group, toward the turnaround and lunch break at Camp Noyo. Our lead guide walked us into the rustic family and group camp and showed us a sweet lunch spot, actually on a little beach alongside the Noyo River.

Camp Noyo Skunk Train railbike tour lunch stop in the redwoods.

We had an hour to sit, relax, eat, explore, hike, or swim as our hearts desired – I was still wishing for the missing sandwich, but I digress. While we relaxed, the guides turned our railbikes around for the return journey to where we began — at Tunnel No. 1. Therese and I had fun checking out the swinging bridge in camp. And you should too when you visit.

Camp Noyo swinging bridge at our Railbikes on the Noyo lunch break.

Once lunch was over, we were back on our railbikes. As before, our guides spread out our departures so we could once again experience the wonder and joy of pedaling on our own through the redwoods. I was very happy for the second chance, although I will admit Therese and I pushed the pace a bit this time, choosing to experience pedaling through the redwood forest with the wind blowing through our hair and railroad ties flashing past beneath us.

Railbike on the Noyo Redwoods pedaling along the railroad tracks

WARNING: A word of caution – it is far too easy to jump the tracks on a railbike if you don’t control your speed around corners, or through areas where the tracks are not aligned perfectly, or where rocks and debris have fallen onto the tracks. If you choose to push the pace as we did, you do so entirely at your own risk, with the full knowledge a crash could result in serious injury, or worse. You have been warned.

As we headed back, following the railroad tracks out of the depths of the Mendocino redwood forest and the Noyo River basin, we once again passed through historic spots (some just a crumble of wood and old foundations) such as South Fork, Ranch, Grove, Redwood Lodge. Every now and again, our radios would crackle as the guide would drop some additional natural history or historic knowledge on us.

Railbiking in Mendocino county in the redwood trees

Tired, but very happy, we glided up to the last trestle bridge, right before Tunnel No. 1, and disembarked. It had been just over three and a half hours since we began pedaling. Now it twas time to hike the trail back up to our cars and to Sherwood Road – funny, that it seemed less steep than I had imagined on the way down, or perhaps it was because my steps just felt lighter. A wonderful day with a railbiking adventure will do that to a person. Now, if the Skunk Train folks could just fix the tunnel, maybe our next trip will start in Fort Bragg, and we can pedal a railbike through Tunnel No. 1 and on to Camp Noyo, or perhaps even Willits, like the old Skunk Train used to do? That would be a grand adventure, indeed.

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  1. Darryl Taggerty

    Thank you for this travelogue. I’ve been riding a Linear LWB folding recumbent on Guam since 1999, and taking it for touring on trips to Rota, Tinian, Saipan and Taipei. Earlier in life, I used to bike/camp the C&O Canal NHP extending NW of DC in the ’70’s. Used to hike the old B&O Railroad wood trestles over the Potomac near Paw Paw. This seems to pull it all together. Really good to hear that adventures as this are available to enjoy!

    • <div class="apbct-real-user-wrapper"><span>Michael</span><div class="apbct-real-user" title="The Real Person (TRP)"><div class="apbct-real-user-popup"><span class="apbct-real-user-title">Michael acts as a real person and passed all tests against spambots. Anti-Spam by CleanTalk.</span></div></div></div>

      Wow love to hear how active you are on the recumbent … the similarities between railbikes and recumbents are many. Thank you for taking the time to comment, the appreciation of our post, and sharing your adventures.

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