Enter Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest (est. 1902), and the redwood-seeker’s Bay Area alternative to Muir Woods National Monument, up in Marin County. Nestled deep in the coastal valleys of northern Santa Cruz County, Big Basin offers a far more expansive area of old-growth coast redwoods than its counterpart to the north. Located about two hours south of San Francisco, the park sees huge numbers of visitors throughout the year, but its size allows visitors the opportunity to get deeper into the redwoods and feel much more thoroughly enveloped by these massive giants than they can at the much smaller Muir Woods.
While there are miles of excellent trails in and around Big Basin Redwoods State Park, one hike in particular stands out as the signature redwood walk of the region, if not the entire Redwood Empire—the Berry Creek Falls Loop.
This 11-mile round-trip loop starts at Big Basin Park Headquarters, and for several pleasant miles follows the rolling track of the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail through a dense forest pierced by a meandering creek, eventually reaching a junction with the Berry Creek Trail, immediately downstream from Berry Creek Falls, the lowermost waterfall in the series. From there the Berry Creek Trail climbs steeply past each of the three waterfalls, a route at points sufficiently precipitous so as to justify the presence of the steel railings that have been bolted into the rock at strategic points. From the top of the Golden Cascade, uppermost of the three falls, the Sunset Trail winds its way back to Park Headquarters, along the way passing through several expansive groves of old and second-growth coastal redwoods. Plan for 5-7 hours round-trip.
Needless to say, this route can also be done in reverse- it just depends on whether you prefer to descend the falls or climb up them.
Also, to make a figure-8 loop, you can add in the Timms Creek Trail, which links the Sunset Trail to the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail, roughly halfway between Park Headquarters and Berry Creek. The Timms Creek Trail is less than a mile long, and passes through some positively Jurassic terrain, with stands of lofty redwoods through-cut by the trail’s namesake creek, along which flourishes an abundance of lush greenery.
Springtime is the best time to go if you want to maximize your chances of seeing the three waterfalls in all their misty glory.
Just like in real-life, where most things turn out anticlimactic, morning on Kekawaka Beach found all three of us alive and well- if a bit sandy. The locals had not molested us; and we were starting to wonder if they were even really as bad as we’d been hearing; but nevertheless we were fully content to avoid them altogether, so long as it proved doable.
Up early with the sun, we kept the morning mellow- no rushing. The day was gorgeous; and with apparently nothing to fear from the locals, we aimed to enjoy a few hours on the sunny beach before heaving on our packs for the day’s slog.
Sleeping out under the stars last night had caused our gear to get damp from morning dew; so we spread it out on the sandy rocks of the beach to dry. That process underway, we passed the time by playing a little wiffle-ball, taking a leisurely dip in the river, and resting our profoundly-aching muscles with a mid-morning nap. It was exceedingly difficult to motivate ourselves to action; so we consulted with the cannabis, which really helped us hold to our unambitious itinerary.
A Derelict Railroad Town
We set off late in the morning, clawing up through the tick-filled dry grasses of the embankment to regain the railroad tracks. Today would be a long, hot day- perhaps the trip’s hottest-, and would culminate in our arrival at what promised to be the single biggest challenge of the trip: the long, dark, dampness of the Island Mountain Tunnel. First, though, we had to consume several more miles of old rusty rail and broken splintered railroad ties.
Almost immediately we passed over the Kekawaka Creek Bridge, another like the Steelhead Creek Bridge of two days ago. Here we passed the site of the old railroad town of Kekawaka- the first of several abandoned outposts of the Northwestern Pacific that we would be passing by on the latter half of the trip, into which we would pass before the day was out.
The remains of Old Kekawaka were few, as the land had been absorbed by some private entity or another at some point since the abandonment of the Northwestern Pacific; and there weren’t any old buildings lying about that might have described the history of the area- there was just the bridge over the creek, and the tunnel beyond.
Escape From Kekawaka
Before the trip, I had had apprehensions over whether or not we would encounter any impassable tunnels- be they collapsed, blocked, or visibly structurally unsound. But the three we had come to so far had all been in fine shape, offering no resistance whatsoever; and so my concerns had for the most part dissolved away.
So when we arrived at the fourth tunnel, just south of the Kekawaka Creek Bridge, nobody was expecting to encounter a steel fence spanning the width of the portal, and blocking our passage. Though not even six feet high, the fence was too wobbly to climb over safely, especially with a loaded pack, but was too low to the ground to crawl under with a pack. It was actually quite a pain in the ass to pass our packs over the fence, and our bodies under it; but we weren’t about to be stopped by something this chicken-shit.
Several minutes later we passed out of the far end of the tunnel, and back into the rapidly-escalating oven of a day. We stopped after a half an hour for a swim in the river, and a power-up on tuna and mustard, and continued on.
The Parched Ridge Family
Spreading out to enjoy each a bit of personal space, we marched away south, beneath tired shoulders painfully reddened by the pitiless 95-degree sun. The wide-open canyon curved gradually to the right, the railroad slowly rising up and away from the river, gaining elevation in order to position itself to pass into the long tunnel that lay ahead. Behind me, the distant bodies of Jake and Chalk appeared as tiny, distinct blotches of color set against a dry-grass background, each moving imperceptibly along the bending ridge, as it seemed from my vantage point further on up the tracks.
Curious (or menacing) bees molested my sense of peace and reverie, swooping in close to size up what was most likely the first person to pass this way in years. I sprung a hole in my hiking shoe, and had to stop to repair it weakly with duct tape. If I stepped on a rusty nail, or a loose railroad tie, I might very well be promptly run-through in the foot by painfully-gnarly tetanus, or stubbornly-tenacious splinters. I kicked my way carefully through the grass and over several large washouts, the most dramatic of which obscured the rail bed for hundreds of yards, uprooting the tracks like a snake crawling under a rug, or some subcutaneousparasitic bug making its way up your arm, below the surface of the skin..
I tried to talk to myself, to sing the day away; but my parched throat wouldn’t allow it, instead only gasping desperately, like an engine that won’t turn over. No sooner had I begun to stumble from exhaustion, thirst, and hot-sun delirium, than I happened upon a cheerful little creek, which crossed beneath the rail bed through an arched-rock tunnel/culvert, spilling steeply down the cliff on the river side of the tracks, and passing out of sight beneath the hulking corpses of some crumpled old railroad cars. Here, clearly the earth underneath the tracks had at some point given way, dumping the rail cars parked thereon down into the canyon bottom. I took a dip and waited for my fellows, admiring the waterfall, and the canyon view from the mouth of the spillway tunnel.
Reconvened, we continued southward along the derelict rail bed, under a 95-degree scorcher of a sun. Not a wisp of cloud peppered the azure sky above. The roar of the rapids emanating up from below echoed between brittle cliffs of 160 million year-old sedimentary rock. As soon as each rapid was passed, and its sound faded to nothing, the crunch of dry grass underfoot would once again give the only rhythmic report to be heard.
The Island Mountain Tunnel
We passed some more abandoned heavy railroad equipment: a rusted backhoe, and a broken earth-mover, following the rising railroad tracks as they curved around the wide canyon. Just ahead, perhaps a half mile or so, the railroad tracks bent to the left and out of sight behind a protruding piece of the mountain’s flank.
Soon we rounded the leftward bend and found ourselves at the entrance to a long, dark, hole in the mountainside. The Island Mountain tunnel. At 8/10 of a mile-long, this straight bore through the solid rock of the mountain was at least forty times longer than any we had yet encountered; and this impenetrable darkness we must walk through in order to pass onward. The Island Mountain Tunnel here pierces the belly of its namesake monolith, around which the Eel River swings a huge oxbow, descending steeply with rapids over this stretch. It would have been far more costly to build and maintain a bench wrapping all the way around the mountain to prop up the railroad; so instead they poked a hole straight through the middle of it, and threaded it through with the tracks of the railway.
We stood regarding the dark portal in the mountainside. The blood-curdling screech of a million cicadas swept across the landscape like a tumultuous wave on the sea, the awful fury piercing the stillness of the afternoon. The sound of heat, if indeed there could be said to be such a thing. I chomped on some trail mix, and augmented that with a small pouch of pink salmon in water.
We had known about the tunnel all along; but we hadn’t had any idea one way or the other just what type of obstacle it would present to our march. For all we knew it would be impassable: filled with water, caved in, or something else; and finding information about it had proven difficult. Since the tunnel is more or less right at the midpoint of our route, it wasn’t a place I had been able to visit and evaluate on my reconnaissance mission the previous month. And the few locals that I had tracked down and attempted to engage on the topic were reluctant to give anything up- if they even knew anything to begin with. One old-timer had warned me that there might now be animals using the tunnel as a home, particularly bears.
I had decided on my own, however, that no self-respecting bear would set up shop in a place with two points of entry, such as a tunnel. Of course, if the tunnel had been somehow blocked, then that would have been a different story; but if that had been the case we wouldn’t have been able to get through the bore either way- resident bear or no resident bear.
So we decided there was nothing for it but to just go for it, since the only other option was to turn around and walk back to friggin’ Alderpoint, from which we’d have then had to hitch a ride on a toothless-yokel-driven ATV back to quasi-civilization along highway 101, at Garberville, Aging Hippie Capital of America.
A tiny pinpoint of light pierced the otherwise-infinite darkness at the far end of the tunnel; so this gave us hope that through-passage was indeed attainable. If light can get through, then why shouldn’t we be able to, right? Despite the blinding brightness and heat of the day, we strapped on our headlamps and stepped into the all-consuming darkness of the tunnel.
Soon we reached the first landslide. Here a section of mountain had at some point collapsed, spilling over the railway, utterly obscuring the tracks, and greatly complicating through-passage on foot. Crumpled like newspaper at the foot of the washout lay the rusting shell of an old boxcar and, inextricably wrapped together with it, a flatcar, folded in half like a tent- both of these testifying to the force of the rock avalanche which had at some point obliterated the tracks above. Compelled to find a route around this washout, an eroded cliff sloped hostilely towards the roaring river 60 feet below, we picked our way gingerly along the broken dirt and rocks until, on the far side of the obstacle, a pair of parallel steel rails emerged from the rubble and led the way southward, around a bend and out of sight.
By the time we had walked for another hour or so, the sun was waning in the west; and a light breeze had begun to issue from down canyon, hinting at the cooler night-time temperatures to come. Just ahead, perhaps a third of a mile, lay the few structures comprising what is left of the village of Kekawaka, now just a part of somebody’s private land holdings. In front of and beneath these stood the Kekawaka Creek bridge, another one just like the Steelhead Creek bridge we had crossed the day before. Immediately at hand, just past a pair of old abandoned train cars- a boxcar and another flat car- lay the third tunnel, another shorty of only about 50 yards or so.
At the other end of the tunnel the lay of the land, and the railroad tracks which lay on top of it, began to undulate in great waves of green grass and rusted metal, not at all unlike one of those cheap-ass moveable rollercoasters you see at shitty county fairs in places like West Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas. Or in your nightmares.
A powerful earthquake must have struck here at some point in the last few decades; for the land before me was rent in such a way that could not be satisfactorily explained by any other force of nature known to me.
Below us lay a mid-sized sandy beach, adjacent to some rapids, with good western exposure. We made our way down there to set up camp for the night.
Kekawaka Beach Party
The beach that we had claimed as our own private patch of ground for the evening was still bathed in sunlight when I cast my pack down on the sand; so I decided to take nature’s cue, and stumbled forthwith and deliberately into the rushing water to shed every last bit of the sweat, grime, and itchiness that were my rewards for a full day spent beating my way through dry, hostile country, under a pitiless sun.
I couldn’t have felt more refreshed if I’d been stretched out on an Elven bed layered with blankets stuffed with the soft down of newly-hatched ducklings, beneath the ceaselessly plunging curtain waterfalls of Rivendell, high in the Misty Mountains. But in fact I was merely laying in soft sand, with my back leaning comfortably against a smooth slanted rock, on the shoreline of a vigorously pounding Wild and Scenic River, at an unfathomable remove from even the nearest shores of Middle-Earth.
I opened my eyes to see a whiskey flask being waved in my face. I doubt Chalk could have come up with any better way to bring me back to reality at that particular time and in that particular place; and I took the flask. As my throat screamed for mercy, in that way that a good swig of harsh, hard alcohol will do, I lit a hard-earned cigarette, and continued to kick back.
Soon Chalk began to prepare our dinner of Mac and Cheese beefed up with a satchel of tuna, while Jake and I spent some time gathering fuel for a campfire. The beach was peppered generously with driftwood that the river had carried here from the rugged forests of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness, high up in the mountains of the Mendocino National Forest, off to the northeast. Tonight we would camp in proper fashion, in a proper site, properly prepared, and properly fed.
Digging For Fire
I dug a fire pit in the sand with my hands, filled it with twigs, added a mac and cheese box as tinder, and put a match to it, birthing at once our first campfire of the journey. I stood up to go fetch some more wood pieces for the fire. While violently hurling large pieces of driftwood against the cliff-face, in an attempt to break them down to more manageable, campfire-friendly dimensions, my attention was seized suddenly by the sound of a humming motor- a most unexpected audio cue. Following the sound, I turned my gaze to the grass-covered hill above, and saw, to my great surprise (and mild alarm), a pair of jeeps making their way along a ranch road which contoured along the mountainside, 400 feet above. The road had not been discernible from my vantage point on the river’s edge; so naturally I was caught off guard by this seeming intrusion into the little fantasy world we had declared for ourselves.
We all watched as the two vehicles hummed along on the dirt track above, wondering if their occupants had espied us, and whether or not it would matter if they had. This was the first evidence of active humanity that we had encountered since venturing forth into the great unknown of the remote Eel River Canyon; and as such, the situation seemed noteworthy to us at the time. The dusk now lay hard upon the river-canyon; and it so seemed likely that the orange glow of our burgeoning bonfire might have caught the attention of the roving ranchers above; but if they saw it, they either didn’t care, or they decided to bide their time, and strike swift and hard in the dead of night, catching us at unawares, mid-slumber. DUN DUN DUNN.
It wasn’t actually anywhere near that high-stakes of a situation; but in the moment, nothing seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
The river flowed by in stony silence, utterly indifferent.
Rural Thug Shoots and Kills Hiker, Wounds His Companion
I wish I could say that the above is nothing more than implausible, unrealistically far-fetched sensationalism; but it isn’t. Not this time, anyway.
It’s easy to think of the nation’s trail systems as places where individuals are safely removed from the realities of human society. Seemingly impermeable, if only for a time, to the complications of the so-called “civilized world”, the hiker can almost always rely on having, on his or her own terms, temporarily traded these concerns for the more immediate rewards, and measured perils, of the back-country. But the tragic events of last week in far northern California serve as a stark reminder that in today’s world, danger can come from any quarter, at any time.
By all means, enjoy the relaxation inherent in your hikes; and don’t let this sad news stop you from continuing to seek for the catharsis that nature can inspire and provide. Just don’t forget the things that sad, angry people are capable of, whether you’re out on an open trail, walking through a crowded mall, or stretched out on your couch at home.
If for no other reason than to honor the memory of people like Pat Gregory.
We couldn’t have been walking more than fifteen minutes when we reached the railroad bridge over the Eel. This was one of only two bridges over the actual river itself that we would cross on this trip, the others all spanning mere side tributary creeks, like yesterday’s Steelhead Creek bridge.
Seen from the vantage point of one advancing along the railroad tracks, the steel framework of the span created a kind of tunnel effect, which seemed to draw me forward onto and across the span. The paint job on the girders, an almost imperceptibly-light shade of sea-lavender blue, was surprisingly intact, considering the ancientry of the structure: built by the American Bridge Company of New York in 1903, as indicated by the etchings on a metal plaque affixed to one of the steel girders. Visible directly underfoot, through a perforated metal grating running the length of the bridge, the confident green waters of the Eel River flowed by with power, grace, and dignity. Passing over the bridge, we now had the river on our right side, and would for the next many miles.
Thanks For Nothing
I hate when this happens. You stop for the night to camp at a technically adequate, yet undeniably sub-par, spot, because after a long day of hauling loaded packs, you and your crew are just too wrecked to go on any further; and plus the daylight is failing. So you make do with a so-so camping spot, and at least get a good night’s sleep. Then the next day you walk for just a few stupid minutes and come at once upon a ridiculously epic camp spot, that could have easily been yours last night with minimal additional energy expenditure.
Immediately past the bridge, forty or so feet below the rail bed and to our right, lay a vast sandy beach- large enough to accommodate a full wiffle-ball game (the requisite props for which we did in fact possess in our packs), and boasting favorable sun exposure, soft sand, and plenty of good rocks for skipping. And all this attended by a wide swath of river, a stretch wherein the rushing waters, through-cut by long shallow sandbars, were slowed and shallowed to the point of being safe for wading, yet still deep enough for total submersion and light current-riding. And up against the foot of the cliff: more burnable driftwood than you could burn in a week. Yes, it was everything you could possibly want in a campsite, in such a setting.
What a shame. Nevertheless, Zen-master that I am, I chose to let it go and continue on, though not before enjoying a brief cooling-off stop.
Beyond the beach, the route quickly reverted back to the grassy, overgrown anti-thoroughfare that we had known it to be for most of yesterday’s walk. Here, however, the canyon itself was much wider; and so we were able to enjoy proportionally more impressive long-range views of the river.
No County For Law Men
A few weak-ass, makeshift “barriers” presented themselves, spanning the track bed and pretending to block our way. Clearly erected by locals wishing to discourage visitation (but apparently lacking the means, the wit, or both, to see the task achieved effectively), these obstacles were laughably ineffectual, and thus were overcome after minimal mental effort on our part. Score one for the city-slickers.
Late in the day we passed out of Humboldtand into Trinity County. I reflected in passing on how, technically, we had just passed out of the quasi-faux-anti-jurisdiction of one redneck sheriff and into the domain of another. But who was I kidding? This country exists well outside the law, and always has. There weren’t gon’ be no run-in with no sheriff.
Trinity County is an exceedingly remote zone of two million acres, with a human population as scarce as its marijuana growth is abundant. An entirely mountainous region without a single freeway or incorporated community, and only one traffic light, Trinity is where you go when you just can’t take humanity any longer. Indeed, out here we were beyond all help, should any local yokels catch sight of us, confront us, and then get touchy after we best them in a battle of wits.
Every year since 1912, on the third Sunday of May, rain or shine, the party people of San Francisco and its vanilla suburbs pack the streets in full rager regalia (or their birthday suits), and make the world’s most ridiculous procession, from San Francisco Bay, clear across the city, through Golden Gate Park, and onward out to the edge of the continent, the bright blue Pacific, at Ocean Beach.
The first day’s route was a perfect sampler of what lay ahead. For the most part the going was non-problematic: basic, simple walking along railroad tracks, Stand By Me-style; but at a few spots the tracks were so buried in overgrowth that the rail bed was fully obscured. At the worst spots, gaining through-passage required full-on hurling oneself into a cluster of bushes, in the hope that the momentum of loaded pack and body would be enough to send one crashing all the way through the brush and issuing out the far side of the overgrowth. Spring-loaded branches were snapped back in faces with the utmost indifference to personal well-being- uncomfortable, yes, but nevertheless as must be expected on a journey such as this one.
After about an hour of walking, we reached the first train tunnel. Only about 75 yards long, this one was not very intimidating. Before passing through it, however, we decided to take our first break. Turning away from the rail bed, we crashed our way down an embankment of dry, brittle grasses and set up shop on a curving sandy beach at a spot where the river took a wide bend. I dropped my pack and plunged headlong into the cool blue-green waters of the Eel River. Yes, cold, indeed; but damn refreshing. Some conveniently placed rocks along the river’s edge allowed for some mild cliff-jumping.
We weren’t sure whether or not we had passed through any poison oak on our bush-whack down the hillside from the tracks; but long, hard-suffered experience has taught me not to roll the dice when it comes to those insidious oils. I break out the Tecnu (poison oak-neutralizer), slather my body with it, and toss the bottle over to Chalk. The bottle comes up short, however, landing in water only a few inches deep, and promptly breaks apart, issuing its contents into the river. All in a moment, our sole preventative defense against poison oak is utterly diluted and washed away down the river.
The first bridge we came to was the one spanning Steelhead Creek, a gurgling tributary flowing in from the right, passing underneath the railway, and there contributing its waters to the greater flow of the Eel. I was pleased to find the bridge to be completely intact, structurally speaking. Coming into this trip, I had been concerned about the possibility that some or all of the bridges might be falling apart and/or in some way hazardous; but so far, this was proving a non-issue. A secure metal grating provided a solid surface to walk on; and the bridge was passed with no hardship whatsoever.
The Alderpoint Shuffle
Rounding a bend in the tracks, we could see on the hill just above the tracks a small collection of dilapidated buildings: houses, slapped together with old boards and screws, barely able to stand on their own, very few boasting walls at 90-degree angles, whether to each other or to the ground. Welcome to the village of Alderpoint– about as close an approximation to deep Appalachian poverty as you’re likely to find anywhere outside of West Virginia. We walked on past, keeping the volume down so as not to attract any undue attention. I’d be damned if anybody was gonna make me crawl around on all fours and squeal like a pig, thank you very much.
Malicious junkyard dogs strained desperately against old rusty chains. A couple of inbred-looking kids on BMX bikes stood watching us from a yard alongside the tracks, like characters from the movie Gummo. The wheel-less chassis of old abandoned cars, grown clear through with 4-foot high grasses, peppered a clearing alongside the rail bed, long forgotten. The buzzing report of dirt-bikes- or was it a lawnmower?, or a chainsaw?- echoed through the derelict yards of this long-obsolete industry town, built more than a hundred years ago to support the construction of the railroad running beneath our feet. A century without commerce. A century of decay. We moved along.
The river bent sharply back on itself where a spit of land jutted out onto a rocky sand bar. The railway cut off the sharp point of land by ducking into another short tunnel and emerging on the other side. Reaching the far side of “town”, we passed under the Alderpoint Road bridge: the last public road that we would pass until the very end of the trip, when we would resurface to quasi-civilization at Dos Rios (one hoped).
The day was getting old; and our muscles were crying with those first-day aches. We decided to seek for camp. Impatient and lacking imagination, we settled lamely on a narrow rocky beach, still within sight of the Alderpoint bridge. The spot was already in shade when we claimed it; and the pickings for firewood were meager at best. Just as well, I thought, seeing as how we were within sight of the bridge. All we needed was a couple of bored ultra-redneck young men pulling up onto the bridge on their quad-runners, spotting our fire, and there and then electing, in a meth-induced stupor of poor judgement and fearless stupidity, to pass their Saturday night harassing the city-slickers camped along the river flat. We made a tiny fire, ate a quicky dinner of mac and cheese, and turned in early. Tomorrow we would leave all semblance of civilization behind for the duration.
Immediately my naturally curious mind set to pondering upon the possibilities of just what might be out there to be found along this missing 100-mile stretch of unseen railway. The prospect seemed all at once juicy, enticing, laden thick with the potential for adventure, and at the very least demanding further inquiry.
It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that the only way to really satisfactorily solve this mystery would be to get out there and trek it through on my own two feet, seeing as how the better part of this hidden stretch of abandoned railroad traversed a canyon which paralleled an officially-designated “wild and scenic river”, read: no frontage or bisecting roads- just the river and the land, exactly as nature etched it out (except for the, uh, railroad).
Considering the exceedingly remote nature of the region, coupled with the fact that the stretch of land in question was virtually in its entirety held by private entities, any attempt at retrieving information about the area promised to be a task which would almost surely offer little if any return on whatever effort was invested to this end. And so it proved. Soon enough it became clear that to properly sate my quest for knowledge and discovery, I would have to take to the land and stomp my way through it- no lesser method was going to carry the day, as it were.
Ghost Train Departing
And so it was that I and a group of my fellow idiot friends set out northward from San Francisco on the fourth of May, 2012, in a two-car caravan. Dropping one of the cars off in Dos Rios, where our through-hike would end (hopefully), we piled into my friend Shane’s truck and made our way northward to the remote community of Fort Seward, where our journey would begin.
We camped for the night on the wide dry rock-bed of the Eel River, of which the current flow occupied only a narrow portion. We gathered what little bit of twigs and sticks as was available on the rocky riverbed, which very likely had been covered to near its full width by flowing river water during spring’s peak flow, just a month or two earlier. We sat around our tiny campfire and drank a few beers, turning in early beneath a nearly full moon.
In the morning we broke camp under a quickly warming sun, shouldered our loaded packs, and said our goodbyes to Shane and Ian, who drove off in the truck, leaving me, Jake, and Chalk to either complete our trek on foot back to Jake’s car in Dos Rios, some 55 miles south via the derelict rail-bed, or find some other way back to civilization.
The germ of the idea came from a peripheral impression that had lodged itself in my consciousness at some point during one of my many previous adventures through the North Coast. After forty or fifty trips along the glorious 260-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 101 between San Francisco and Eureka, seat of Humboldt County and the Redwood Empire, my ever-wandering attentions had begun to notice details that few minds would likely ever pick up on.
What I noticed was the remains of an old derelict railroad line, roughly paralleling the 101 freeway in and around the vicinity of Eureka, beginning approximately 40 miles south of the city, and ending a few miles north of it. Somewhere in my mental reserves I drew a subconscious connection between this line and another abandoned rail line that I had noticed, one also vaguely paralleling the 101, this one stretching northward like a probing tendril out of the urban sprawl of the San Francisco Bay Area, and seemingly terminating somewhere north of the town of Willits, in Mendocino County. I knew instinctively that these two discarded railway remnants were, in all probability, separate segments of a greater, continuous whole, a now-forgotten right-of-way for trains of old.
In between these two stretches of disused railroad lay 100 or so miles of rugged mountainous terrain, a stretch of land at points so jagged as to render the construction of through-highways almost completely prohibitively problematic. In the end, in order to cut through some of the trickier spots of this stretch, a two to three lane freeway had, by necessity, at points been reduced to a narrow, winding road, one lane in each direction, slaloming wildly in between behemoth redwoods a thousand years old, simply to gain a passageway through to the other side.
It was plain to see that the old railway did not, and moreover never had, traversed the right-of-way over which the 101 freeway now ran. So the question quickly became: if not here, along the highway corridor, then where (and how) did this old steel railway make its way through this region of steep mountainsides and deep river-canyons?
Digging out my California atlas and setting upon it with a fine-pointed flashlight and a magnifying glass, I was able to discern that in fact this old railroad diverged eastward and away from the 101 freeway somewhere north of Willits, tracing a route through the remote canyon of the Eel River, a road-less stretch of designated “wild and scenic river“, eventually re-emerging along the 101 corridor a bit north of the village of Weott, and continuing thus along its trajectory towards Eureka (if you require a “Eureka!” joke here, you’re gonna have to make it yourself). Voila! The link had been made!