Author’s Note: This article “Riding the Skunk Train: Fort Bragg Through the Forest on California’s Mendocino Coast” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
Small railroads played an important role in the historic development of Northern California. They carried products out, especially redwood lumber. They carried people when there were few roads. The train was also the mail carrier for those who lived along the railroad. Today one of those railroads, the Skunk Train, continues to flourish as an excursion train into the forest from Fort Bragg. A ride on the Skunk can be an engaging outing. The train has no smell today, but the name arose from the noxious gas engines used in the 1920s, when patrons said, “You can smell ’em before you can see ’em.”
The Historic Story
Fort Bragg, the blue-collar balance to Mendocino’s artiness, is known for its California Western Railroad, aka the Skunk Train.
While waiting to board the train, be sure to peruse memorabilia about the lumber industry and railroad in the Guest House Museum (707/964-4251), near the train depot. Historic photos of the train and the lumbering operation can put a traveler in the appropriate nostalgic mood for the trip. On display are copies of eight Carleton E. Watkins photos of the Mendocino Coast from 1860. The Guest House is a three-story Victorian from 1892, noted for the ornate woodwork in its interior, a typical Victorian flourish. Until 1912 the house reserved a room for C. R. Johnson, founder of the Union Lumber Company and Fort Bragg’s first mayor, whenever he visited from San Francisco. In 1984 it became a city museum.
Then board the train for a one-hour round-trip excursion called the Pudding Creek Express. Check with the train operators on the time, usually 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in summer. The former trip possibility from Fort Bragg to Willits had to close because of potentially dangerous hillside slippage at Tunnel #1 outside of Fort Bragg. A separate train runs from Willits to Northspur every day. Willits is on Highway 101, 40 miles east of Fort Bragg. Patrons on the trains ride in vintage 1935 M-300 Motorcars, pulled by ancient engines, including a noted “Ole’ No. 45” Baldwin Steam Engine.
The train’s former eastern destination, Willits, is named after an early store owner, Hiram Willits. The California Western Railroad station in Willits is a handsome and craftsmanly building made of redwood and cedar shingles.
While en route, you can rest in enclosed cars if you wish or stand in open-air viewing cars, allowing for an intimate look at the redwoods and Douglas fir, the streams, wildflowers, cattle grazing, apple orchards, and occasional wildlife, especially deer. The train proceeds up Pudding Creek and the Noyo River. If the train ever operates again on the full route, you cross 30 bridges and pass two tunnels on the way to Willits. As you travel, breathe in the fragrant fresh air of the redwood forest.
The town of Fort Bragg is named after a fort begun here in 1857. Founder of the military post was Lieutenant Horatio Gates Gibson, who named it in honor of a Mexican War hero, Colonel Braxton Bragg. The life of the fort was brief, only until 1867. Later, a lumber company took over the fort grounds.
Fort Bragg is a much less pretentious town than Mendocino. Lumber and fisher folk, rather than artists and retirees, populate the place. The Main Street is indeed the major street in the town. Noyo Harbor is popular for sportfishing and whale-watching excursions.
Anyone with an interest in California plants, especially the azaleas and rhododendrons of the redwood forests, will want to stop at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (707/964-4352), two miles south of town. The plantings cover 47 acres of coastal bluffs and can be explored with a self-guide trail map.
The most direct route to Fort Bragg would be driving north from San Francisco on Highway 101 to Willits, then west on Highway 20 to the ocean. Fort Bragg is just north of the junction of Highway 20 and the Coast Highway 1.
Be Sure to See
The Skunk Train, at the foot of Laurel Street, and the nearby Guest House Museum, which are the historic highlights of this trip.
Another cultural treat awaiting you in Fort Bragg is a visit to the Mendocino Coast Photographer Gallery at 357 Franklin Street, www.mcpgg.com. There you can see notable fine art photography of the Mendocino Coast from five major local photographers, including Ron LeValley and Ken Van Der Wende. It is likely that at least one of these visual artists will be at the gallery. LeValley, for example, is known for his wave photos, which capture the essence of the Mendocino Coast.
Best Time of Year
The Skunk Train operates all year, but the summer schedule is more extensive.
Check the train website to see if special trips are available at festive times from either end. In past years, before the recent hillside issue, there have been special excursion trips, often in conjunction with celebrations. In January there was a Crab and Wine Festival lunch train. February brought a Presidents Day Special. Wine and chowder tastings in March were part of the Whale Festival. Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June were big days for the train. There was a Wine Train tasting special in May and a Beer Train in June. A Steam Train pulled the cars around the Fourth of July weekend. A Halloween Train in October was guaranteed to spook the young.
One of the charming seaside destinations along this Mendocino Coast is Heritage House Resort and Spa at Little River. This large property has luxury rooms and some separate houses, plus a fine-dining room with a view. Guests can walk the bluffs along the coast and enjoy a glass of wine with sunset. Heritage House is at 5200 North Highway 1, Little River, www.heritagehouseresort.com, 707/202-9000.
When staying at Heritage House, fine dining occurs in their on-site restaurant, named 5200 after the highway address. Good choices include starting with the Day Boat Scallops and then proceeding to the Half Rack New Zealand Lamb.
For Further Information
Write or call ahead to confirm the train schedule. The contact is California Western Railroad (Fort Bragg, www.skunktrain.com, 707/964-6371).
For other tourism info contact the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce (217 S. Main Street, Fort Bragg, www.mendocinocoast.com, 707/961-6300).