Walking the Rails
       Roaring Camp to Paradise Park
       Neil Wiley

Many rail trails run throughout the United States, but few have as much interesting history as those old pathways along the South Pacific Coast Railroad. And this is our own railroad, running from Santa Cruz to Los Gatos.

Completed in 1880, this spectacular but hazardous railroad was an amazing achievement, built through mountain passes and deep canyons prone to massive slides, over several river crossings, and through eight tunnels, including construction of the infamous 6,208-foot-long Summit Tunnel that was responsible for at least 32 deaths in methane explosions. Maintaining the line was extremely difficult with landslides, falling trees, runaway engines, and rail-cars tipping off the track.

Yet by 1886, this railroad was extremely profitable, carrying produce from Glenwood, Laurel, and Wright’s, lime from H.T. Holmes Company, and black powder from the California Powder Works, and last but far from least, hundreds of carloads of timber each month.

At Wright’s during harvest, as many as fifty wagons of fruit a day would line up to fill the boxcars. The same tracks also carried passengers to many tourist spots along the way, including Sunset Park and Big Trees.

Of course, most of it has disappeared, at least north of Felton. The roadbeds are covered with forest, the rails are gone, and the tunnels are closed and hidden on private property, but south of Felton, thanks to Roaring Camp, the way is clear for walking and biking. And in the winter, when the train to Santa Cruz doesn’t run, it’s somewhat safe.

You can drive down to Felton, park your car in Henry Cowell Park, once a private park called Big Trees, walk along the Redwood Loop Trail to the Fremont Tree, and then pass through the gate and up to the railroad bed.

After a short walk down the tracks watch for a chest-high white bush. It is too pale and too small to be a redwood. It is the rare albino redwood.

The tracks continue south, and then curve right to cross the San Lorenzo River Bridge. It may make you nervous to look down at the water through the open spaces between the railroad ties, but it is relatively safe, if a train isn’t coming.

We pass Felton junction, now a road without rails that was once a spur line up to Hihn’s Gold Gulch Mill and lime kilns in Felton. The downhill grade, occasional curves, and views of the San Lorenzo River make for pleasant walking beside the tracks. At Rincon, a sign shows a wide path down to the San Lorenzo River and Big Rock Hole, a good swimming hole. (You can also hike Rock Hole Trail through Henry Cowell Park.)

At Inspiration Point you can look down at the vaulted bridge construction and survey the scene of many slides and accidents. The bridge replaced a 338-foot tunnel when the tracks were changed from narrow to standard gauge. If you aren’t afraid of heights, this is a good place for lunch.

Leaving the rail line near the intersection with Highway 9, a private trail wanders down to Paradise Park. You can also follow Highway 9 to the Paradise Park exit road.
Paradise Park is rich in history. Now a Masonic club where members can own improvements (their houses), the land title remains with the Freemasons. It is the former site of the California Powder Works and San Lorenzo Paper Mill.

Established in 1860, the California Powder Works had water from the San Lorenzo River, plenty of wood for charcoal, and an ocean harbor for delivery of chemicals and shipment of explosives. It became the largest supplier of explosives west of the Mississippi River.

Unfortunately, explosives do explode when they shouldn’t. The great explosion of 1898 killed 13 people and injured 25. Although many of the buildings have been demolished or converted to residential housing, some artifacts remain, including the three original concrete walls of a wheel mill. Paradise Park historian Barry Brown offers fascinating lectures, old pictures, and a printed self-guided tour.

Perhaps the most interesting historical landmark is the California Powder Works covered bridge. When built in 1872, it was wide enough to allow simultaneous passage of a narrow-gauge railroad car and a wagon. Although privately owned and proudly maintained by the Paradise Park Masonic Club, it is open to automobile traffic.

This hike does require some logistical planning. In the summer, you could continue your hike down to the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, and then return by train. In the winter, you’ll need to set up a shuttle with a car at each end, or ask a really good friend to pick you up. It’s a great walk through history.