Riding a skunk to glory…

“All aboard for Rodgers, Summit, Crowley, Clare Mill, Burbeck, Shake City, Irmulco and Northspur.”

On a cold and rainy January morning, in Willits California, I boarded the Northspur Flyer, otherwise known as Skunk Train. Diesel locomotive #64 pulled out of the depot with 11 passengers, one engineer, one conductor and one hostess on board. The engine, a passenger car, an open-air observation car and the bar car set off gently rocking with several blasts of the train whistle.

In the days before roads and trucks could do the job, the 131-year old Skunk Train made it possible to move massive redwoods from the remote mountainous forest to lumber mills on the coast and inland. Today the train is classified as historic. Excursions vary from the 1-hour Pudding Creek Express, roundtrip from coastal Fort Bragg, to the magnificent 4.5-hour Northspur Flyer, roundtrip from inland Willits. The trains nickname, Skunk, came from the smelly fuel once used. While it didn’t actually smell like a skunk, it was said that like a skunk, you could smell it before you could see or hear it.

Into the redwoods aboard Skunk Train. Photographer: Mary Charlebois

The 40-mile round trip Northspur Flyer climbs the eastern slope of the California Coastal Range. Meandering through redwood forest you cross Noyo River several times and pass through the Coastals using Tunnel 2 near Summit. Switchbacks leading down into Noyo River Canyon crisscross 8.5-miles to cover a straight-line distance of less than one mile.

Northspur camp kitchen serving lunch and hot drinks. Photographer: Mary Charlebois

At Northspur, passengers leave the train to explore and commune with redwoods. A camp kitchen serves up tasty fare made from guarded family recipes. Sandwiches, chili and soups are complimented with salads, hot beverages and loads of condiments. I was infatuated with the pulled pork sandwich topped with as many homemade pickles as my bun would hold.

One brave soul in the rain. Photographer: Mary Charlebois

Had it not been rainy and cold that day, I’m sure we would have been reluctant to re-board and return the way we came on Redwood Route.

Along the rails to Northspur, whistle stops with names like Rodgers, Summit, Crowley, Clare Mill, Burbeck, Shake City and Irmulco are marked with small white and black signs. Once busy communities and an integral part of the logging and lumber industry, most have been reclaimed by the forest and disappeared.

There are a few hardy individuals and families still living in these remote woods along the tracks. The train is a lifeline to them when roads to their remote property become impassable during harsh weather, landslides and floods – frequent occurrences in winter. Passengers may still flag down a train at a whistle stop or be dropped near their home. Mail, packages and groceries are delivered when roads are inaccessible. Some homesteads have been passed down for generations. Others have new families working and living off the land.


Vintage interior of Skunk Train. Photographer: Mary Charlebois

Scenery along Redwood Route has rightly been described as magnificent, pristine, stunning, grand and glorious. Conifer forest, rivers, creeks, trestles, wildlife and history’s artifacts line the tracks. Photo ops are endless. The train itself is a beautifully maintained museum, staffed by knowledgeable and welcoming folks, eager to tell the Skunk Train story.

I love train travel, something we have far too little of in the US. The Skunk Train is a ride to glory. You’ll occupy history and nature while taking in the view.

Thanks for stopping by, MaryGo

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Dawn says:

    Aren’t train rides awesome!?! I love em

    1. Yes, I could tour the world on trains. Hum, that’s not a bad idea. –MaryGo

  2. John Bechtel says:

    Thanks for the train ride, Mary Go. I’d be tempted to drop off somewhere with my backpack and meet you at a bar in about a week. I like trains, and woods, and solitude when I want it. Love your photos.

  3. We definitely have plenty of woods and solitude. There are a few bars in the area also. The photos were a challenge. Wind, rain and some sleet made me want to stay inside, but I made it out the observation car a few times. I think that was the real photo – me in a raincoat, with an umbrella (turning inside out) holding a camera. –MaryGo

  4. Mary,

    Thank you for highlighting such an interesting train ride !! Plus an historic train….. Thank you for taking us along with you and for another well written fascinating post. Loved the photos that complement the descriptions –

    1. You’re welcome Phyl. I loved the trip, even if it was VERY wet. Trying to shoot in the wind and rain from the open car was a challenge. Thanks goodness for hot chocolate on board. –MaryGo

  5. Lady Eloise says:

    Wonderful article! Makes me wanna take a ride with all those proto ops. Excellent photography. Great job!

  6. hank you so much. I actually thought of asking you to join me, I had an extra ticket. It was late the night before when I found out my photographer friend couldn’t make it, with the storm, I figured it would be an challenging trip for you just to get to Willits. Guess I should have asked anyway. Next time I will. –MaryGo

  7. My husband and I are planning to ride the “Rocky Mountaineer” this summer. It travels through the Rocky Mountains in Western Canada and it’s a dream we’ve had for years.

  8. I’m so jealous Cathy. Have a great trip and tell us all about it. –MaryGo

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