Ever since I can remember I have had a special place in my heart for the very big trees. We have many here where we reside, but the really large trees are located in northern California. What we are talking about is standing under a 30-story canopy of 3,000-year-old California Coast Redwoods.
We are talking about visiting the only place in the world with a truly unique and unparalleled experience so close to Arizona.
To get there, you can drive yourself to San Jose or fly from Phoenix and rent a car at the San Jose Airport. Then, to visit the Big Trees get on Interstate 880 south. This soon becomes California 17 and you are on your way. It’s just a 45-minute drive from the airport exit to the Big Trees. The highway quickly enters the Santa Cruz Mountains and crosses the San Andreas Fault. The scenery is beautiful, but this is only the beginning of what you are about to see.
Once you are over the mountains look for the Mt. Hermon Exit (Exit 3). From here, drive northwest 3.5 miles to Felton. Mt. Hermon Road ends at Graham Hill Road. Turn left at Graham Road and drive a half-mile to Roaring Camp (on the right). Turn in; pay the man $8 for all day parking and put the car away for awhile.
Now the magic begins.
Many of you who read my column know that I am a “train nut”. There are not only big trees here, but trains too. You will likely hear the steam whistle the minute you step out of the car. There’s not just one train here, there are two and you can take time to ride them both. Now you may think you are not a train enthusiast, but these trains are fun and they offer a very particular way to visit the big trees.
Rail travel here gives you a better and easier way to see the trees than by walking the area’s trails, which are steep and difficult.
You parked at Roaring Camp, which is a magic place. It was opened in the early 1960s with the goal of preserving a piece of the 1880s – and that it has done. There is a wonderful little town with a general store and plenty of food so you can plan to eat lunch here or place it in bags to take on the train.
Next, you need to pick your trains and buy thickets. You do that across the street at the 1880s rail depot. We rode the Mountain Steam Train first and then the Santa Cruz Beach train.
I suggest you go to roaring camp.com to check things out before you go. A little planning sometimes helps. Each of these train rides is wonderful.
The Mountain Steam Train is a sheer pleasure. The engine once hauled logging trains on the narrow gauge track and offers all the sounds and smells of the forest. The railroad owns Shay, Heisler and Climax engines. These engines are now more than 100 years old and are still going strong. They haul trains several times a day up the steepest rail grade in Western America (that’s 8 percent) without missing a beat or puff.
The ride begins plain enough; you steam around the peaceful meadow that surrounds the town and the depot. Just when you begin to think this is all very nice, but a bit silly; the train makes a left turn past the original mill and slips under the redwoods. Wow! Get the camera ready.
The ride up the hill is great fun. At one point you go through a real switchback, where the train actually reverses direction, this is an old lumber rail trick to aid in getting up a steep hill at 5 MPH. At the top there is a wide circle and the train stops for a leisurely 30 minutes to commune with the mountaintop.
Here, we sat at one of the tables and enjoyed the lunch we brought with us. Some passengers took off on the several hiking trails. Following lunch, we re-boarded the train and off we went back down the mountain. You pass through the same territory but the scene seems different because you are seeing it from the “going down” perspective. The engine is still working to keep the train going down rails at a steady pace, not being a runaway. At the bottom is the depot.
Now it was time to board the Beach Train. This is a diesel-powered train running on standard gauge track on a more level route that runs from Roaring Camp right down to the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
On this train you have the choice of sitting in open or enclosed cars. If the weather is good, take the open cars for the best view down the cliff to the San Lorenzo River. After a pleasant ride, the train emerges into “down town” Santa Cruz and stops right next to the famous boardwalk and beach.
You have a choice of getting off and taking a later train back or getting back on board after an hour. You could spend this hour at the beach if you want to enjoy the sand and fresh sea sir.
The ride back to roaring camp and our car was also very pleasant. We lucked out with the weather.
Arriving back at the station, we discovered that the best was still to come!
Right next door is Henry Cowell State Park. This is a gem!
It is right out of the forest scenes of the old Star Wars Trilogy. These trees were here when Christ walked the earth. Many of the larger trees are more than 3,000 years old. The real shock was that the root systems of several trees are more than 9,000 years old. There is an information center and little guide sheets that take you to several of the more spectacular trees in the park and tells about their significance. About the size of a condo apartment is the Freemont tree, large enough to live in if needed. The space inside this hollow tree is huge.
During the summer there are often evening activities. At night you can be treated to a live jazz concert drifting through the trees. We stayed the night in a nearby rustic Hilton.
The next morning you may wish to breeze into the San Francisco Bay area which is only 40 miles away or slip into nearby Monterey or Carmel by taking California Highway 1 south.
If you have time, spend it in the Monterey and Carmel area to enjoy the many sights available. If you decide to head south, get on Highway 101 and head south for a visit to Hearst Castle, not far from San Louis Obispo. Take at least two tours here. You’ll be amazed at the castle and the life of William Randolph Hearst, who once owned several newspapers around the country.
He was un-officially “married” to a famous film actress and they threw wild parties for the film establishment in Hollywood. Special trains were often put together in Los Angeles to haul party guests up the Southern Pacific tracks for 200 miles to the castle for long weekends by the sea.
Touring the castle is well worth your visit. You will be amazed at the size of the swimming pools, the guest rooms and area.
The Hearst family gave the 29 acres with castle and zoo to the State of California when William Randolph died. The castle is preserved by funds from tour tickets purchased by tourists.
Have fun seeing the good old USA.