Scouting the Great Redwood Trail
By Charlie Gandy
All Aboard! The Pineapple Express just left Willits, California at 4:20 last Sunday headed north for the Great Redwood Trail and Eureka beyond. Take a seat as I conduct this expedition report on the railroad's ghosts while coming face-to-face with its present day, way off-the-road personalities, its wild, natural beauty and its inherent dangers. And may those who take heed avoid my own low-risk mistakes.
Governor Brown just signed a new law moving this wild, scenic and unneeded rail line into the future as the Great Redwood Trail. The defunct Northwestern Pacific Railroad once operated from Marin County just north of San Francisco all the way north to Eureka. This section north of Willits ceased operations in 1998 and has been owned and held in suspense by the citizens of California.
Fans and advocates know about the power of converting rails-to-trails. This one will be an extraordinary legacy project for rail enthusiasts, a trail building, environmental restoration project for land and river stewards, and frankly anyone who loves a spectacularly scenic hiking and biking trail.
I come from both camps. My grandfather was a train crewman on a short line taking cotton from deep east Texas to Dallas. My last name, Gandy, is synonymous with laying the rails. Gandy Dancers were the workmen who swung picks and shovels while rhythmically chanting in unison to leverage their strength. Their tools were made by the Gandy Tool Company of Chicago Illinois. Since 1990 I've been a professional advocate for active living, dedicated to growing bicycling, walking and transit as healthy, sustainable, viable means of transportation. I began my work on the state level in Texas, and have had the privilege of working on groundbreaking projects on the national level as well. Helping to make “The Great Redwood Trail” a reality is my next big, hairy dream project. Come with me and learn why this once rail line and future trail is so enchanting.
I got to the Willits California's old school, overhead Welcome sign about 4:10 Sunday afternoon after three easy, fast and ridiculously cheap bus rides from southern California. (LA-SFO $20. Don't tell anybody.)
Sunday 4:20 pm
After the time/date stamp selfie under the tourist sign, I walked around the Safeway to the empty tracks and turned north. The path ahead was mowed, cleaned and silent.
Speaking of date/stamping and ghosts, it's late 2018, and according to the Willits Chamber of Commerce website the current President of the United States is Barack Obama.
This hiking and scouting trip takes me from Willits as it follows the Outlet River roughly 25 miles northward. Near Dos Rios the Outlet flows into the Eel River and the rail line winds alongside it all the way to Eureka. Some 150 miles of adventure lay ahead and I'm nervous.
It’s not the distance that’s daunting. I’m comfortable at a 20 mile/day pace. I'm nervous because of known and unknown threats. I know about surprised rattlesnakes, hungry bears, vicious poison oak and razor sharp blackberry thickets. I also know about eroded washouts, unstable rock falls and mudslides. Unknowns to me on this exploration include paranoid pot growers, ranchers and their attitudes about stray solo hikers. With maintenance neglected for several years, along with erosion from annual rain cycles and recent flooding, would passage even be possible? And how does the state manage for trespassers? And what happens when a solo hiker screws up and gets hurt?
Oh well, I'm armed with some 50+ years of trail experience, a week's worth of food, and pepper spray. So let's go.
An open air museum-in-progress starts the narrative in Willits. Left on the tracks as I pass by are engines, passenger and freight cars of different eras standing idle on sidings, some retired, and others ready to pull out when called back to service. In fact The Skunk is a famous tourist train that runs west out of Willits.
I had only one real conversation Sunday (which would become the daily pattern), with a young German guy who was traveling up to Northern California to check out cannabis. The Industry, as it's known in Humboldt County and beyond, is the gold rush of the day. Entrepreneurs and "trimmigrants" from all over are working behind tall wooden fences along winding mountain roads producing crops of various strains and size. Demand is stronger than ever although the price isn't going up because supply is too. And this young German with a backpack looks like the enterprising type who will carve out his bit of the action.
Beyond the Willits city limits the route quickly gets clogged with overgrown blackberry vines that reach out to stab you. Those waist high or lower can be stepped on and temporarily strangled underfoot as you pass. Those above waist high need to be gone under or around which means moving them by hand. Tricky bloody work and slow going. After the first road crossing about a mile out the rail line became impassable so I walked the road up to the cut off road that follows the Outlet River for a couple of miles then dead ends.
Trail maintenance note: Two guys with chainsaws could clear a nice walking path along this section of rail in about a week. Young pines and other softwoods are thick but only about a two-foot wide trail needs to be cleared. And that could be on the tracks or either side, wherever the best route exists.
At the last road crossing the rail right of way was clear enough to hike so I launched out into the unknown till dusk then rolled out my sleeping bag next to the rails and slept till dawn.
Anxiety of the day is my first encounter with a pot grower. During the planning phase of this adventure I used Google maps satellite view to scope out trail info. I could plainly see a pot grow operation on the right side at about mile 8. Would there be dogs? Booby traps? Deranged modern day moonshiners with guns? I'd heard the stories. My plans included friendly innocence and pepper spray.
As I quietly approached the homestead and garden I noticed the rail line was being used to store firewood and a child's plastic slide. So I detoured around while no dogs barked, and the only sound was of my shoes avoiding sticks, leaves and other noise making obstacles. I held my breath the whole way past about 30 ganja plants 20 feet away.
Immediately beyond this rite of passage is the first of twenty something train tunnels I’ll encounter on this trip. This one has collapsed but a handy dirt road parallels it to the other side. A couple of miles along I saw the next tunnel and as I approached it my spirits sagged because at the portal it was completely dark and I presumed collapsed. My way underperforming headlamp offered no help beyond about 15 feet. I walked in expecting to be engulfed by darkness as I approached a wall of impasse. All emotions flipped when a faint light appeared revealing how sharp the tunnel was turning. As I rounded the long turn daylight illuminated the tunnel's curve, with relief a pleasant stroll ensued.
Until lunch it was slow bushwhacking and detours due to overgrown vegetation and downed trees. Some of those trees were obviously chain sawed down to obstruct the route. The Outlet River was a constant right side companion. Still, dark pools were sometimes carpeted with fallen autumn leaves so thick that from the tracks they appeared to be flat ground. Other pools were so dark from the underlying rock color and overhead shade that they perfectly reflecting the forest above. All emptied into short rippling rapids and the next pool downstream.
Bridges were a welcome treat. As if in a big time capsule, all the bridges in this area were solid with hardly any wear or rot down the middle. However, some of the walkway timbers along the sides look questionable. They provided periodic trail drama and great views of the now slow moving creek below. Judging by the rock patterns this tributary gets its share of water drama during the rainy season.
I climbed out of the poison oak infested river bottom that had swallowed the rail line about a mile before the Hwy 162 exit. Strolling the road I could see the track opened up again and seemed relatively clear up to its Hwy 162 crossing. From here for the next few miles a long-range trail can be easily visualized. Mostly large ranches are on my port side and the Outlet River meanders starboard. A rough dirt road runs creek side of the rails for a couple of miles then it narrows to an ATV track. It's a delightful stroll with little bushwhacking. Not many good access points to the river except where ranches have cut into the jungle. My midday break coincided with one of these access points and boy am I glad that I had waited a little.
A beaver slapped the water surface warning all of my arrival to his cool water Shangri-la. Sweet blackberries vines had been pulled back, tamed and were still ripening. A shallow wading ledge dropped off into a luxurious, cool swimming hole.
Back up on the line after an hour things got interesting. In mountain climbing the hardest most dangerous move is the crux of the climb. Today's crux was just ahead. At about mile six of this section the ranches turned to pot growers. Things were going well because I was moving quietly through a tunnel of trees and some distance from any plants. Going well until the tunnel opened up into a mowed yard and two large dogs started barking and moving toward me.
I kept my pace while sliding the safety off of my department store grade pepper spray. The German shepherd seemed most aggressive as she was snarling and trying to get behind me. The Doberman barked his opinion but was distantly friendly. As I moved along out of their space and past the pot grows the tension released. But then my luck really ran out. Fifty yards down the track was an impassable blackberry/poison oak clusterfuck. So I turned around and walked back to the yard with the dogs barking and the bearded, camo wearing, man of the grow bounding out of the house.
"Hiking the rails huh," he observed.
I said yeah and told him it's blocked ahead. "May I go out to the road using your driveway?"
I'm lucky, he explained to me as a helpful threat. He told me about even meaner dogs he has locked down and that wouldn't have been so nice to me if let off their chains. And anxious people around here this time of year carry guns. He suggested I get out to the road, turn right, get back to the Willits highway and don't come back. Sensing this wasn't the time to inform him of anything, I thanked him repeatedly and took most of his advice. I turned left at the road and walked a couple of miles past his neighbors. At the Eel River confluence I reentered the off road world. Another handful of miles then I slept well next to the river.
Tests and more tests. Recent mudslides have hardened over the tracks and feature steep, slippery surfaces. Deer and other wildlife have chipped tenuous footholds into the “blu-goo”, as it’s known locally – a mud and rock formula that slides when water logged then hardens dry to near concrete. Fleet of foot is suggested here. Move through the obstacles, don't linger.
Most of the railroad right of way is about a 50-foot wide ledge hanging 50 to 150 feet above the river. Sometimes it's much wider to accommodate sidings and other storage/maintenance needs. Sometimes it’s much narrower due to steep slopes. The wildcard is washouts. As they blasted the rail line ledge through the Outlet and Eel River canyons they created a long dam. At water drainages they bridged the big ones, placed culverts in smaller ones and dammed up or diverted seeps. As long as annual maintenance was done to keep the water flowing these facilities generally worked for the railroad. How did it work for the fish in the river? Not so much. They suffered from less water actually reaching the river from these drainages and from barriers built at the mouth of tributaries blocking upstream migration for spawning.
Since there's been no maintenance in years many culverts clogged with mud and rocks have exploded. Some show signs that the event happened years ago but most are fresh and likely happened during the 2017 flood. It's not hard to see how the water saturated the dirt and rock rail bed. Then the big storm came and built up a lake of water that first cracked the dam destroying its designed strength. As trickles became raging torrents crossing above and below the tracks, rail bed ballast was ripped out and carried over the ledge down the canyon and into the river. Whole chunks of mud/rock walls would fall away taking the culvert and leaving the track with cross ties hanging by two nails suspended in the air.
Most of these washouts are small and passable. Follow the deer trail up and around. Or the cow trail if there's one. Cows are more conservative than deer, less nimble, and don't take as many risks. But some washouts are impassable even for deer. Tall walls of rotten rock and unreliable mud formations forbid entry. Time to backtrack down to the river bottom and detour around which is no walk in the park.
About noon I strolled under the road bridge in Dos Rios, the last public road I'll see for 50 miles hiking along the Eel River Canyon to Alderpoint. A mudslide just north of the Dos Rios has overwhelmed the track and forced a difficult passage for a quarter mile or so. Then things tamed down and my pace picked up.
From here north for 50 miles there's no public roads and only an occasional ranch road. There's no internet, no phones, no police. In a state where 40 million people live, there aren't any around here.
What is here is a 50-mile, scenic, wild and dangerous obstacle course. This course uses miles of relatively smooth deer trail flowing with the canyon's contours. Through some ranches rough truck tracks run alongside the rails and provide easiest passage. Sometimes the trail is the rail bed where, with a shortened stride, one can skim over cross ties. And sometimes there is no trail at all.
My first tunnel collapse detour was a few miles back. I went up and over the top because I could see steep deer trails just outside the portal and passage to the river was obscured and unknown. As a mountain climber my instincts say go up and in this case I followed them successfully. Coming down was sketchy but passable. Confidence gained here set me up for my first judgment mistake about two hours later.
When the river made sharper turns than a train could manage or rock outcroppings blocked the route, the railroad builders blasted holes through the rock. And in one case, at Island Mountain, it made sense to them blast a straight as an arrow tunnel some 8/10 of a mile through the mountain rather than follow the oxbowed river.
There are 20 or so train tunnels from Willits to Alderpoint. Some are short, straight and well sunlit. Others are long and dark. All have high cathedral like vaulted ceilings providing clearance for fully stacked freight cars. Five of these tunnels are collapsed and impassible. Three more are partially collapsed and passable if you're comfortable climbing to the ceiling over loose rock, dirt and fallen timbers while wondering just how stable the cavity above you is. Plenty of things to focus on here in this almost completely dark obstacle.
I learned my first lesson in trail hubris at a tunnel a few miles north of Dos Rios. Fully collapsed, I looked at my options. No easy path to the river and a steep but doable grassy climb up about 75 feet to a possible deer trail crossing. I regretted climbing up it because it appeared too dangerous to go back down that way. So at the top there was that deer pass traversing to the north side. I took it and felt relieved until I got a view of the other side. There was nothing back down to the tracks but rotten rock outcroppings and steep rock slide chutes.
Seeing I was about to use some mountaineering skills learned while summiting 14ers in Colorado and the Sierras, I picked the most innocent looking chute and started down. Rotten rock won't hold you up or slow your slide down much. At one point I was riding a raft of rocks down about ten feet thinking this isn't so bad. Dust billowed up as we stopped. I stood up and staggered down the rest of the way. Later I found the ripped shorts and scraped butt scabs.
Next time I'll find a way to the river.
A handful of fairly clear miles later a large rock fall smothered the tracks at the portal of another tunnel. After a few Class 3 moves I was looking through to the other side and relieved to find it open. On the north side the tracks were gone and I came to about a 40 foot drop off-dead end. Looking around I could see the whole area had been disturbed and denuded. No trees or plants in a tributary flowing from the west. About a mile away an excavation crew was working so I figured they would have some answers.
As I hiked down a narrow path they had cut just around the corner, I put the pieces together. The area had been groomed with huge tractors and straw put down to help hillsides stabilize and plants regrow. They had reopened this tributary allowing for steelhead and other fish species to migrate upstream to spawn. And they were returning the railroad ledge back to a more natural condition. Frequent water drainages were shaped so most water reached the river. This created a fresh undulating trail very different from a flat rail bed.
The excavation crew was friendly and helpful. They had spent the whole summer working on this 8,000-foot long project funded by a state grant focused on restoring fish habitat. Having completed another similar project downstream closer to Eureka, this crew was working with friendly ranchers and enjoying camping along with the company of resident eagles and curious bears.
On the topic of friendly ranchers, while not meeting anyone with adjoining property on this journey, I'm friends with many and am familiar with their issues. None of them want anybody to get hurt on their property, and they want to be left alone. Therefore trespassing is taken seriously. So is responsible land stewardship, which is a key reason this restoration project is possible.
Buoyed by the one conversation of the day, I hiked another two hours then bedded next to shallow river rapids from dusk to dawn.
Solitude and challenges. A glorious morning of hiking in cool air and autumn colors. The only smart way to hike this route is northward, it's downhill from 1,400 feet elevation at Willits to sea level at Eureka and the sun is at your back almost the whole way. Two river otters frolic in and out of deep pools below. Deer graze across the canyon and wild turkeys carry on a conversation undisturbed. Plenty of signs of bear and coyote using the route as they roam. Occasional mudslides and clear tunnels punctuate the route. Deer trails provide the best passage. Their key imperfection is height. Deer can get much lower under tree branches and briars than this six-foot, 60 year old with a backpack.
Late morning I'm in much rougher terrain. Washouts, mudslides and seismic activity have mangled the rail into roller coaster configurations. Detours to the riverbed and shallow wading offered suitable passage around the most treacherous. Dropping down to the river is often no picnic. Narrow, steep and slippery deer paths are better than nothing.
In the area around Ramsey ghost town ranch roads have been cut running next to tracks, across tracks to access the river and across rail bridges. Sometimes ATV tracks are used. They seem to fit perfectly between the rails gauged at 4’8.5”.
Settlements such as Ramsey were built to house long-term railroad workers building and maintaining the track. Spyrock, Nashmead, and Island Mountain are all ghost towns on private property now with some of the old buildings still in use.
Several cow fences have been stretched across the track in this area and beyond. Cattle grazing appears seasonal here. They're mostly here when it's wetter and greener. I only saw a dozen cows the entire hike but signs of a lot more. The fences were easy enough to get around although a gate or ladder stepover would be my preference.
Late in the afternoon the river and canyon made yet another bend and abandoned train cars, excavators and other heavy equipment appeared. Rusted and worn down buildings litter the sidings. I'd reached Island Mountain and was rewarded with the most dramatic feature of this very remote ghost town. A tunnel just under a mile long was blasted straight through the mountain to avoid following the river around about two miles of difficult terrain. And you access it from a long rail bridge that crosses the river some 140 feet up in the air.
How straight is this tunnel? As you stand at the portal on the south end you can make out a tiny dot of light from the north end. It's grows as you go towards it. I've heard there's been partial cave ins and fires over the years. Today it is clean and clear and cool. There's a small bat colony close to the south end and guano from another one further north. Guano carpets everything. It's several inches thick on tracks and ties in some areas. And its ammonia smell is there but not overwhelming. Bats and guano, a half eaten deer carcass, and some real deep darkness with light at the end of the tunnel were all there was.
In my mind Island Mountain was about mid point between the bridges and so I had cause to celebrate my progress. Having not seen or spoke to anyone today was another unique experience. Solitude Rocks! I added a couple of more miles to the tally for the day then bedded down next to the tracks.
Woke up with a swollen right eye. Figured out later poison oak had snuck past me while bushwhacking sometime yesterday. It didn't cause any problems but it looked like I had just been beat up in a bar fight or stung by a bumblebee.
By hiking this dormant state owned rail line, was I trespassing? Technically yes. Will I get prosecuted by the state for trespassing? Probably not, based on their apparent acceptance of many other public uses along the corridor. Warning signs at major road crossings serve to shift legally liability away from the state. These signs don't impede entry. So all users who ignore the state's warning are assuming a higher level of legal risk. And I see no indications that the state is doing anything else to impede free use by ranchers, hunters, ATV enthusiasts, river runners, cows, hikers or, with one exception in Alderpoint, pot growers. So we users assumed significantly more legal risk and potential liability for our own personal injuries than on public property groomed to avoid risks. And things seem to be working fine.
Otherwise what a glorious morning! Cool temps with fog in the west sky and sunshine in the east. I'm continuing mostly northward but circuitously, following the tracks across dry yellow grasslands punctuated by past seismic and weather events. Sharing the morning with squadrons of ducks executing touch and goes on the smooth river pools, surprized jackrabbits and coveys of quail, and the occasional sun bleached skeleton of dead animals. Climbing under and around some more cattle fences and using cow paths as my selected tread. Cows avoid walking on the tracks. They're curious though, and will scale surprisingly tough slopes for greener grass. And since most of them are grazing here during and after the wet season, they leave ankle-twisting holes in the blu-goo that dry up and last until the next rain season.
My goals for the day include crossing the next long tall bridge across the river and getting to Alderpoint. Anticipation of these treats is a pretty good drug for the day. I feel trail hardened and ready.
Terrain is treacherous and refuses to be tamed. It appears docile, like a dry English pasture, until you step up to the washout's edge. There you learn your fate. Can you find the safe passage or are you forced to abandon forward progress and go around an impassable cavern? I never went to the river in this section but did use some mountaineering moves to get through. Aromatic dill grows in some of the washouts serving as somewhat reliable barbless handholds while desending in controlled slides or steep, slippery climbs out.
In places where the tracks raised up a foot or so or the ground had dropped the same amount due to seismic events or minor mudslides I sometimes perfected my single-track balance moves. A little shuffle I like to call the Gandy Dancer. It was actually useful avoiding detours around low risk obstacles.
This route changes annually. After the rains some of these washouts will be easier to cross and some more dangerous. And there will be new ones. Ongoing maintenance will need to be addressed in any trails plan.
There's plenty of railroad debris strone about. Those sharp-edged metal bands used to strap cross ties together while shipping are a hazard. Treat them like rattlesnakes and don't step on them.
As the elevation drops more springs, seeps and waterfalls spill out of the hills on the right side creating shallow marshes, creeks and mud holes. A few tunnels are all open and short.
After a late lunch break in the shade I finally rounded the bend and caught my first glimpse of the bridge and was reassured that Alderpoint wasn't far away. I fished my camera out and turn it on to record the landmark ahead.
My last obstacle before the bridge was a large mud hole where the tracks were lifted up two feet high next to a small willow tree. The size of the mud hole and therefore the distance of the detour around it overcame trepidation about the outcome resulting from failure here. Buoyed by confidence found in practice, I mounted the rail with the limp willow branch in hand to execute the soon to be famous Gandy Dancer. Ten feet out on the rail I faltered and fell back into the mud up to my ankles and wrists. My phone launched from by backpack pocket, stabbed the mud and stuck. My shin scraped a muddy cross tie and was bloody. I laughed in relief and embarrassment. My hubris was showing.
After a thorough wash up at the river I was crossing that bridge and headed to town.
One last washout impeded my direct route to town. It looked fresh and impassable. So down to the river and around. With the river level seasonally low, a wide and flat river bottom worked for me and lots of recreational vehicles based on their tracks left in sand bars.
Blackberry briars and poison oak blocked the approach to Alderpoint so I took to the local roads and found the grocery store.
Alderpoint is way away from everything. It was a train town that the ghosts didn't get. It's where recreational vehicles go to die and people go to hide. The law is a long way away and people seem ok with that. Everybody knows you are not one of us.
Using the ten dollar bill I found back close to Ramsey, (trail magic), I bought some snacks and started a conversation with the young woman running the store. She's from Wasilla, Alaska and used to be Sarah Palin's neighbor. When I asked her why she liked Alderpoint, she said because she's an isolationist. When I asked her if they had Wi-Fi I could use she said no but she wouldn't let me use it anyway. Security I guess.
After a break I headed down a different road back to the tracks. Troublemakers had moved into the area and were using the rail property to squat, trash the place, and grow weed. Adjacent property owners, many growers themselves, arranged for the railroad to authorize the Sheriff to move them out as trespassers. They were gone when I came through but the overgrown briars and bushes weren't.
After accessing the situation as hopeless and seeing pools of water I would need to swim through for passage, I decided Alderpoint would be a good place to bifurcate this journey and pick it up from here next spring from a kayak.
So at roughly 4:20pm I backtracked to Alderpoint, stuck my thumb out and got two rides shockingly fast to Garberville. (Hitchhiking is great. Don't tell anybody.)
After a good shower and rest at a clean hotel in Garberville I took the bus up to Eureka and another to Arcata. Serendipitously on the Arcata plaza I met a retired veteran who's retirement hobby is trail building. He's familiar with plans for the Great Redwood Trail and he knows some it's visionary stewards. So with his help I've connected with an important network. That night and next day I took two long buses rides back to SoCal.
When the river's running high next spring I'll return, maybe with a friend or two, and explore the roughly 75 more miles downstream of Alderpoint to Eureka by kayak.