Railroad Anniversary Trip

Saturday 25 - Sunday 26 July, 2015

The Skunk Train locomotive. Photo by Eric.

We're almost to that really big 25th anniversary (for which we are trying to save up the money to do something particularly spectacular). We celebrated our 24th with a train-themed getaway. I'd been trying unsuccessfully for the last two anniversaries to make a reservation at the Napa Valley Railway Inn in Yountville (from Lucy Poshek's Offbeat Overnights in California, of course), attempting to make the reservation at successively earlier intervals. I failed in May 2013, I failed in April 2014, but I succeeded in February 2015. As part of the train theme for the trip, we booked at ride on the Skunk Train from Willits. Anyone who knows more than I do about Napa and Mendocino Counties probably wouldn't have planned these two attractions for the same weekend trip, as they turned out to be something like two hours apart. If you were going to take a train from anywhere near Yountville, you would take the wine train, right? No matter, we would just be spending some time together with Sydney. Because, no, we did not take the train, or ride Scheherazade and Screech, all the way from home.

Saturday, 25 July

The Inn

The inn was next to this cute little train-themed shop. The entire town was adorable.

We slept in a caboose! This is the third anniversary we've spent sleeping in cabooses, as we've spent two at The Dunsmuir Railroad Park further north in the southern Cascades.

Hallway of cabooses. Very different design from the Dunsmuir Railroad Park, where the cabooses are separated from each other and arranged in concentric semicircles around a beautifully landscaped area.

These are real cabooses. Eric took a detail shot with shadow.

Eric's picture of the bed area inside the caboose. The bed was more firm than most hotel beds--I did not have to use a heating pad on my back in order to sleep.

We adored this cabinet with antique-style maps.

I say antique "style" because, if you look closely, you'll see places like North and South Korea and Myanmar.

We had breakfast at the extremely delicious but also extremely popular Bouchon Bakery. Yountville is very chi-chi. The best thing Eric had was something called an "OhNoYouDidn't," a chocolate-dipped macaroon filled with salted caramel.

The Loose Caboose Cafe

We set out around 11:45 for the long drive up to Willits for the Skunk Train. By the time we were halfway there, our delicious breakfast was beginning to wear off, and we had begun to consider lunch. Eric looked at Yelp! reviews of restaurants in Willits and found a soup-salad-sandwich place called the Loose Caboose Cafe. It had 4.5 stars on Yelp!, and, given the theme of our anniversary trip this year, we decided this had to be the place.

The restaurant was not actually in a real caboose, but it had a lot of railroad memorabilia and a cute outdoor seating area with this little caboose replica. Photo by Eric.

I had Eric take a picture of the cute railroad-themed decorations in the bathroom.

Some other patrons had an adorable 10-week-old puppy.

The food was well-prepared and tasty. The cafe specializes in shakes, particularly a chai shake, but they were out of chai so late in the day.

The Skunk Train

It turned out the Loose Caboose Cafe was only a couple of blocks from the Skunk Train Depot. We got there in plenty of time. The boarding process was more chaotic than we would have preferred, but in the end, it wasn't crowded and there was plenty of room. The people running the railroad apparently are entirely unaccustomed to any crowding at all, because the railroad usually has two lines running. But, earlier in the year, one of the tunnels on the Fort Bragg line (which comes inland from the coast) was structurally damaged, shutting down that line for the time being. Passengers from Fort Bragg are now coming by bus over steep, windy CA 20 to Willits and boarding there, then being bused back to Fort Bragg after the train trip, so all passengers are currently on only one train line. We had spent some time debating whether to take the Willits route or the Fort Bragg route, and we're quite glad we avoided at least two hours in a bus by choosing Willits!

Eric's photo of the Skunk Train rounding a sharp curve.

The Skunk Train runs through lovely redwood country, along a steep and winding route. The odiferous name comes from some self-powered gasoline motorcars used starting in 1925, where passengers were warmed by pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil.

The atmosphere was convivial, obviously intended to induce strangers to talk to each other. One of the cars was open to the sky and the trees, but had no seats. Photo by Eric.

There was live entertainment, a train singer with a guitar and harmonica who sang train-themed songs and told jokes.

You can hear the whistle blow
A hundred miles

The outdoor car was lively and fun, but when we wanted to sit, we sat in the concession car. The bartender promised that he would make the best bloody mary you would ever have on a train from Willits, and that his margaritas would have you singing along with the train singer.

They had a special Skunk Beer, made locally in Booneville. Photo by Eric.

The conductor pointed out a 1,200-year-old tree.

Eric took a picture of the train's amusing GPS tracks.

When the train went through a narrow tunnel, the conductor made everyone come in from the outdoor car until we exited the tunnel.

Trains from both Willits and Fort Bragg come to Northspur.

Morning train trips have lunch for sale; afternoon train trips include a barbecue dinner. It was nothing particularly special, but it was serviceable. Even though it seemed almost everyone was from northern California, the side dishes were all designed to be comforting and familiar to midwestern Americans--corn on the cob, iceberg lettuce salad, potato salad, macaroni salad--bland as toast.

The Skunk Train.

The skunk logo.

Eric took my picture posing among the redwoods.

Eric pointed out that, while the Skunk Train now showcases the beauty of the redwoods to tourists, the original purpose of the railroad (built in 1885) was for "turning the forest into a meadow."

Eric photographed the traditionally-attired engineer opening a cabinet in which he lit the engine to restart it. Wow, did that make a loud noise and a big puff of smoke!

The train rounding a curve on the return voyage.

We got into a conversation with a mother from Marin, who talked about how the amazing redwood forest around us was but a shadow of its former self from 150 years ago. So many of the logged old-grown trees had been much larger, and only 5% of California's original Coast Redwoods are left (according to Save the Redwoods League). She talked about the fabulous trees she had seen on the McKenzie River in southern Oregon. She was fascinated Eric's pictures of the Neskowin Ghost Forest further north in Oregon, until she had to take her child back inside because he kept sticking his arms out of the train into the trees.

Not sure whether these are redwoods, but some of the forest is still being cut down.

Re-entering Willits, I took a picture of the large "Gateway to the Redwoods" sign from the train.

While it's true that the densest Coast Redwood forests are north of Willits, and Willits is approximately where US 101 starts calling itself the "Redwood Highway," California's Coast Redwoods extend further south all the way to Big Sur. Of course, we were riding through them on bikes rather than on a train three weeks ago in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. Save the Redwoods League says Sequoia sempevirens, the tallest trees in the world if not the most massive (that would be Sequoiadendron giganteum, or giant sequoia), run for 450 miles (725 km) along the California coast.

Our thus-far touristy trip took a turn for the adventurous on the way back to Yountville, earning us some more quality time with Sydney while costing more than half an hour of sleep, when Eric missed a turn somewhere and we ended up back on US 101 when we were supposed to be on CA 29. We took one of Lulu the GPS' "shortcuts" back to the east, barely managing 25 mph on the dark, precipitous curves where Lulu claimed the speed limit was 45. Eric felt that he was totally operating the wrong vehicle; Screech (with new calipers) would have been much more appropriate for Lulu's back road.

The Skunk Train ride through the redwoods was worthwhile and enjoyable. I don't think we'll need to do it again, but it was nice to have done it once. Cycling through the redwoods is definitely a more intimate experience with the trees, but any experience with these beautiful trees is lovely.

Last updated: 29 July, 2015 by Eric and Beth Zuckerman