With its 17 tunnels and 14 major trestles, this historical railroad through the Carrizo Gorge in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park includes one of the largest woodpile trestle bridges in the world.
WARNING: The hike included in this post was completed back in October of 2017. Since then, the Baja California Railroad Company has been working on restoring and reopening the line (more updates about that can be found towards the end of this post). Hiking this route is not recommended and increases your chances of being ticketed by the railroad police. Desert hiking includes many risks, there are plenty of resources available online that cover all the dangers, alternate routes and legalities of hiking to the Goat Canyon Trestle. Do your own research before heading out. Tips on how to hike in the desert safely can be found here.
This 16-mile round trip hike was organized by my friend’s over at SoCalX, an extreme adventure group based out of San Diego. We spent 7 1/2 hours on this particular adventure and were quite exhausted by the time we were done.
John D. Spreckels was granted a charter for his San Diego and Arizona Railway (SD&A) on December 14, 1906. Construction began the following year.
Engineers called the route “impossible” as it crossed the harsh Colorado Desert and through the rugged Jacumba Mountains.
These old abandoned Chicago Metra passenger rail cars were owned by the Carrizo Gorge Railway (CZRY), which operated the line between 1997–2012.
In 2015, the bi-level rail cars were derailed east of Jacumba at a place called Dubbers Spur.
The derailed cars were found to have been stripped of their brakes, shocks, and other items.
The derailment was believed to be intentional. The cars were on the spur which is downhill from the main. Someone pulled the cut uphill and got the first set of wheels through the switch before it rolled back through and derailed.
Before the construction of the railroad, the only rail connection to San Diego was from the north, via Los Angeles.
Spreckels new railway would provide a connection to the Southern Pacific Railway, instead of going north on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Starting early in the morning is a great way to limit your exposure during this hike.
The train tunnels are generally the only sections along this route where you can find some shade and believe me, you’ll definitely be looking for it, especially as the day wears on.
These three cars supposedly came from STCUM (Société de transport de la Communauté Urbaine de Montréal)…
…but that’s all the information I’ve been able to find out about them.
Ghost train to Nowhere
According to All Around Nevada (awesome site btw), “The original estimate for construction of the 146.4 miles of track was $6 million. But by the time the line was completed in 1919, costs had soared to some $18 million ($186 million in 2016 dollars). The most agonizingly difficult challenge for the construction engineers was the 11-mile segment through Carrizo Gorge, which included 17 tunnels, totaling 13,385 feet in length.”
Thanks for sharing.
“The line contained a full three miles of tunnels, 21 in all. There were also 2.5 miles of bridges and trestles. Due to the desert heat, soaring to more than 110ºF, along with the smoke entering the open windows of the cars while transiting the tunnels, the tortuously slow pace through the curved and trestle-filled Carrizo Gorge prompted many to refer to the SD&A as “Slow, Dirty, and Aggravating.”– Source
An old telephone booth placed along the tracks in the 1940’s, helped railroad workers and engineers communicate between the long distances of the railway.
Ruins of rock walls and foundations above and below the steep desert canyon are all that’s left of the camps once used by workers during the construction of the railroad.
The stamp on this section of track read, “COLORADO. SEC. 90. A.R.A. V11. 1914.” 1914 was five years before construction of the line was completed.
The railroad experienced a series of difficulties, including collapsed tunnels and rock slides, which led to the periodic closure of the route.
On March 27 1932, an earthquake produced a rock slide in the gorge, causing a sudden collapse of parts of Tunnels 7 and 15.
“The company decided not to attempt to repair the tunnels because their walls and roofs had been blasted out of heavily fractured rock. Instead the railroad built a curvy bypass route to take the place of Tunnel 7. For Tunnel 15, which took the line across Goat Canyon, the railroad eliminated the greater part of it, shrinking the tunnel from 937 feet to 178 feet. This was accomplished by the construction of a 633-foot-long wooden trestle to span Goat Canyon, the floor of which was a dizzying 185 feet below the rails.” – Source
Sections of the trestle were assembled at the bottom of the canyon, then lifted into position.
It was reported that some of the workers only stayed on the job three days before quitting because of the height and vertigo.
Redwood timber was utilized because Carrizo Gorge’s considerable temperature fluctuations could have led to metal fatigue in a steel bridge.
To resist Goat Canyon’s notorious high winds, the trestle was built with a 14° curve. Construction was completed by 1933, leading to a realignment of the railroad route.
According to All Around Nevada, “To mitigate the threat of fires, the Goat Canyon trestle was constructed with an elaborate system of water pipes and valves, all connected to a large water tank located on the hill above the trestle.”
Built using 157,000 linear feet of lumber, the Goat Canyon Trestle is one of the world’s largest woodpile trestle bridges.
Like most people, I first became aware of the existence of the Goat Canyon Trestle through episode #1006 of Huell Howser’s “California’s Gold” series that ran on PBS stations throughout California. Huell has always been an inspiration to me, so seeing his name up on the rail car was kind of cool. If you’ve never watched “Trestle- California’s Gold (1006)“ I highly recommend setting aside 27 minutes of your time to check it out. Shot in 1999, the episode intermixes old archival footage of the railway with interviews with some of the men who used to work on the line. It truly is another fine example of California’s Gold. RIP Huell.
After World War II, the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway was impacted by increased automobile travel. In 1951, scheduled passenger service over the trestle ended, however, intermittent freight traffic continued to roll as long as there were no closures due to damage along the line.
In 1976, Hurricane Kathleen damaged the trestle, as well as the rest of the line and repairs weren’t completed until 1981. Use of the railroad ended once again two years later due to even more issues and didn’t resume until 2003.
“The last time cargo was transported along the desert line was in 2008 when the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) leased the line to private company Carrizo Gorge Railway only to have the route embargoed pending tunnel and bridge rehabilitation. In 2012, shareholders Charles McHaffie and Dwight Jory seized control of the lease under the name Pacific Imperial Railroad. The company routinely missed deadlines imposed by MTS and racked up lawsuits by investors alleging the company defrauded them. Pacific Imperial Railroad was thrust into bankruptcy in 2017 with unsecured debt of more than $7 million.” – Source
According to a San Diego Union-Tribune article from January 2018, “In 2016, San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System approved Baja Rail’s plan to revive the line. Since then, the company has been assessing what it would take to restore and maintain the route, including its 17 tunnels and 57 bridges, many of which need structural repairs. Baja Rail wouldn’t be the first company to attempt to revive the aging desert line, but it could be the most well-funded. At the helm is one of Baja California’s most powerful and politically connected businessmen, the wealthy boxing promoter Fernando Beltran. Beltran and his team have vowed to invest tens of millions of dollars to conquer the treacherous terrain and more efficiently connect manufacturing plants in Tijuana to U.S. markets. Such a feat could provide an economic boost to the region, as well as dramatically reduce the number of trucks that travel every day in San Diego County on Interstate 5. His team isn’t stacked with railroad experts, though. It’s composed mostly of former owners and operators of Tijuana factories known as maquiladoras. Technically, the maquiladoras can move goods via rail through San Diego up to the Port of Long Beach and into Los Angeles County. But it would be significantly more expensive than shipping by truck, which they do now. In large part, that’s because the overhead electrical wires used by trolley cars prevent the double-stacking of rail containers.”
“Industry boosters north of the border are excited about the idea of a cost-effective alternative to moving freight in semi-trucks from the factories, which assemble goods such as Toyota pick-ups and electronics. Freight trucks queue up daily for hours at the Otay Mesa and Tecate international border crossings. The delays cost the binational economy roughly $6 billion and about 51,000 jobs a year, according San Diego Association of Governments data. If two-hour processing times at the border for big rigs could be reduced, San Diego County could see annual economic activity increase by as much as $455 million and 2,400 jobs. Officials with the company have said they’re now ready to spend upwards of another $60 million to repair the desert line and resume freight operations. If everything goes as planned, they said they’ll also spend an additional $20 million on a multimodal facility to transfer cargo from trucks to rail cars.” – Source
“Overhauling the desert line, is far from a done deal. But company officials believe that rehabilitation of the rail line could be completed in three to five years. Because the route is relatively curved, trains would be limited to a maximum of 60 cars running five to six times a day when it becomes operational.” – Source
Though delayed, Baja Rail’s restoration of the line has slowly been making progress over the past year. Whether or not they can actually make it all the way past the finish line though is anyone’s guess.
Recent commentsonline are difficult to decipher. Some hikers report closed gates at tunnel entrances, new “no trespassing” signs and threats of being ticketed, while others report no access issues whatsoever or any sightings of railroad police along the much loved route.
So should you attempt to do this hike? That’s not for me to decide. Do your own research and decide if risking getting a ticket is worth it to you. I’m just happy I finally got to see it for myself.
Protecting and preserving historic, sacred, and sensitive sites should be practiced by all. Locations, directions, and names to some of the places found on this site are not listed, please don’t ask for them. Tread lightly, leave no trace and always respect the wonder that surrounds you.