Tickets range from $27 to $53 per adult on the train rides, including the holiday editions; railbike tours are $79 per bike.
Favorite escapes include the romantic hamlet of Mendocino, roughly a 3-hour drive up the coast from San Francisco. Steep roofs, tall water towers, and leaded windows appear plucked from a classic New England town. Wander among the meticulously restored historic buildings to browse eclectic galleries and charming shops. Or visit the harbor town of Trinidad, nestled on picture-perfect headlands overlooking a teacup harbor; or stroll through history-rich Eureka, a former logging town filled with grand Victorians and gilded mansions. Every town along the North Coast celebrates its annual seagoing visitors—from December through May, about 20,000 gray whales travel along the coast on their annual migration.
Originally built in 1885 to transport redwood logs from the rugged backcountry to the coast, the Skunk Train now ferries sightseers to and fro between the waterfront town of Fort Bragg inland to the cowboy town of Willits on California’s North Coast. Two journeys are available year-round: the one-hour Pudding Creek Express, which departs from Fort Bragg and covers a 7-mile round trip, and the Wolf Tree Turn, a two-hour trip which departs from Willits and climbs to the highest point in the line (elevation: 1,740 feet) en route to the redwood-dense Noyo River Canyon.
Romance finds a home in this idyllic coastal land, where ocean fog rolls in from the ocean to blanket hushed redwood forests. Along more than 100 miles of coast, artists set up their easels to paint scenes of pounding surf, picturesque headlands, and whitewashed cottages wrapped in rose-filled gardens. And in towns and hamlets, a new generation of farmers and winemakers focus on preserving the land as well as producing amazing food and wine. In this burgeoning culinary scene, every hyper-local specialty is worth a try: slapping-fresh seafood, artisan cheese, grass-fed beef, locally foraged mushrooms, bold ciders, and hoppy beer.
For a completely different but no less unforgettable experience, take a ride on a two-passenger railbike. Powered by two pedaling passengers who sit side-by-side in the open air, you’ll zoom along the rails in tranquil silence on a roughly one-hour round-trip along the Pudding Creek Estuary.
Of course, this region is also the gateway to breathtaking Redwood National and State Parks, where the tallest trees in the world grow in primeval wilderness. Towering more than 300 feet high, the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) take your breath away, whether it’s your first time seeing them or your one hundredth. Drive the 31-mile stretch along Avenue of the Giants or the 10-mile Newton B. Drury Redwood Scenic Parkway to marvel at the massive trees right from your car. The stunning redwoods in Lady Bird Johnson Grove can be seen on a relatively easy 1.5-mile hike. Or go explore the otherworldly delights of the 0.7-mile Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which takes hikers through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to a steep-walled canyon covered in ferns.
Holiday-themed trips include the Easter Express, with an egg hunt hosted by the Easter Bunny at Glen Blair Junction; the fall Pumpkin Express, and the Magical Christmas Train, complete with Santa and other North Pole characters, storytelling, cookies, musicians, and plenty of holiday cheer.
Riding “The Skunk” is a long-standing family tradition for many Californians, with new generations getting wide-eyed and excited when the conductor bellows “All aboard!” Little ones leave nose prints on the windows as Ole’ No. 45 charges through the 1,122-foot tunnel #2, crosses over 30 trestles, and sends clouds of steam skyward. The steam and diesel-powered trains chug through the lush redwood forests of the California Coast Range, zigzagging along the Noyo River—keep your eyes peeled for deer, egrets, and other waterfowl, and the occasional river otter.
See the forest, enjoy the trees, but don’t forget the “coast” component of the Redwood Coast. Hike the California Coastal Trail at Humboldt Lagoons, head to Moonstone Beach to watch pelicans swoop above the mossy cliffs, or check out Agate Beach to search for its precious namesake rock. If you’re visiting in November, December, March, or April, you have a good chance of witnessing the gray whale migration. Bring a pair of binoculars to High Bluff Beach, or get up close and personal with an ocean tour from Pacific Outfitters.
Board a 130-year-old train or strap into a two-passenger pedal-powered railcar to a tour through a dense redwood forest.