Fort Bragg to Willits

There are four microclimates on the railroad from Ft. Bragg, on the coast, to Willits, inland. The first mile or so inland from the coast is directly impacted by the presence of the ocean. This means many days with foggy mornings, salt air, and persistent onshore breezes. Next is a very special microclimate—the coastal redwood zone. This extends only about 10-15 miles inland, and a total of about sixty miles along the coast, surrounding Ft. Bragg. Not only does this zone provide a home for the coastal redwood trees (sequioa sempervirens), but is also, from what we see, a temperate rainforest, with copious quantities of ferns on the ground in between the trees, and fallen tress acting as nurse logs for new tress and other vegetation growth, in very similar fashion to the rain forest on the ocean side of Olympic National Park, several hundred miles to the north.

From the Yard Limits at Fort Bragg (MP 0.0), where the speed limits are 15 mph for passenger trains and 10 mph for freight trains, the line heads north, single track, Track Warrant Control, speed limit 25/20, turning east-northeast, crossing the streets of Fort Bragg at grade, past Pudding Creek (MP 2.0), where it turns east, along the south side of the eponymous waterway, and then east-northeast, following the creek, to the spur and 143 ft. siding at Glen Blair Junction (MP 3.5), where it turns south-southeast, away from the creek, past 1,122 ft. Tunnel No. 1 (MP 3.5), and then very curvily east-southeast, following and criss-crossing another creek, to the 311 ft. siding at South Fork (MP 6.6), north past the 295 ft. siding and spur at Rock Pit (MP 7.3),  and east again past the 1,312 ft. siding and spur at Ranch (MP 9.0), south-southeast and then very curvily east-northeast past Redwood Lodge (MP 10.0), very curvily east past the 682 ft. siding and spur at Grove (MP 12.7), and very curvily east-southeast past the 179 ft. siding and spur at Camp Three (MP 14.9) and Camp Four.

Beyond that 10-15 miles inland, the line is surrounded by forests comprising lodgepole pines and what look like aspens, which takes up the space the rest of the way to the summit of the coastal range, some 25 miles inland (another 10-15 miles), albeit more like 35 miles along the railroad. The fourth microclimate is on the east side of the coast range, in the rain shadow and experiencing a much wider temperature range, where the trees are sparser and surrounded by brush or grassland. This is not quite high enough, at this latitude, to be piñon and juniper country, but not quite warm enough to be savanna of the kind experienced at the otherwise similar upper end of the Salinas Valley, 350 miles to the south.

The line turns east-northeast past Camp Noyo (MP 15.4) and Alpine (MP 18.1), then south, east-northeast to Noyo Lodge, south to Camp Mendocino (MP 19.6), end of the 25-20 speeds, and then east-northeast to the water stop at Northspur (MP 21.3), where the speed limit is 15/10. In addition to the operating water tank, Northspur has a siding ("yard") along the main line and a wye that used to connect to a line now abandoned (the “north spur”), that is used for turning the steam engine when, in normal operation, it only runs this far from Ft. Bragg. Northspur is the destination point for most normal passenger operations on the railroad. Daily (morning and afternoon) excursions from both ends of the line terminate here, and return to their origins after a short stay. Because it is set up as a destination point, Northspur has a rich set of passenger facilities, including the (as we were promised on the train) ‘non-moving’ toilets, a well-equipped snack bar, and several souvenir stands.

The line now heads due east, with much less curvature for quite awhile, past the 425 ft. siding at Irmulco (MP 23.9), where the speed limit is 25-20 again, Shake City (MP 26.8), a few miles further into the lodgepole pine forest, where there is a 1,274 ft. siding, and the speed limit drops to 15-10, and the 612 ft. siding at Burbeck (MP 27.8), where the line turns south and much curvature begins again. East of Burbeck, the 3% climb to the summit of the coastal range begins in earnest. The climb to the summit requires a number of hairpin turns across the face of the mountain, requiring 10 railroad miles to go just three miles geographically, past Soda Springs, an S-curve, the 346 ft. siding at Clare Mill (MP 30.4), a counter-clockwise horseshoe, then a clockwise horseshoe, the 350 ft. siding and spur at Crowley (MP 32.6) on a counter-clockwise horseshoe, and another clockwise horseshoe at Crater (MP 34.1) before turning east again.

After climbing the mountain face, including 790 ft. Tunnel No. 2 (MP 35.2), the line reaches the 1,019 ft. siding and spur at Summit (MP 35.4), and starts the gentle descent east  to Willits (500 feet in seven miles, compared to around 1500 feet in ten miles on the west slope), past Rodgers,  a KOA campground alongside the highway from Ft. Bragg that has now joined the line on the south side, the 513 ft. siding and spur at Sage (MP 38.6), and the spur at Jensen (MP 39.3) before turning north to join the west side of the Northwestern Pacific and then enter Willits, in Yard Limits, past the NWP depot to the CWRR depot (MP 40.0), both on the west side of the line adjacent to both the CWRR (on the west side) and NWP (on the east side) yards, and the wye (on the west side).