Story and Photos by Zach Petschek
Tucked in a small pocket of the Carrizo Gorge a feat of mankind hibernates amidst the train tracks. Daylight dissipates into night through the long train tunnels. Even though light can be seen at either end of the tunnel, very little light reaches the middle of the cavern. The tunnels blasted through solid rock up to half a mile thick. In some cases daily goals were set in inches.
East of El Cajon, east of Alpine, East of The Golden Acorn Casino … keep going … keep going. All the way to the edge of the county, you reach a sign that says “Jacumba Next Exit.” Pull off and drive down a dirt road for a half mile. Find a place to park and grab your water. It’s a seven-mile hike along the train tracks. It is an amazing hike riddled with history and struggle. The world’s tallest and longest curved wooden trestle rests tucked in a corner as if hiding from the world. This is the Carrizo Gorge Railway.
The Carrizo Gorge Railway system was the first connection from El Centro to San Diego. It was dubbed the impossible railway and would be the final connection of the East Coast to the West Coast, transforming San Diego into the most populous, flourishing city on the West Coast. But Mother Nature fought back.
In 1977, Hurricane Kathleen ripped through Carrizo Gorge. It left tracks hanging in mid-air and collapsed tunnels. The railroad system was subsequently abandoned for 30 years. But not all tragedies ended in total loss. Retro-tragedy to that, a tunnel collapsed, causing the tunnel entrance to slide 30 feet down the mountainside. In a quick effort to temporarily circumvent the disaster, a trestle was built around the damaged tunnel. Unknowingly they gave birth to the tallest, longest curved wooden trestle in the world. It boasts a length of 633 feet and 185 feet tall at its peak. The trestle was such a success that it was decided to leave it permanent.
More tunnels have collapsed in its 100-year history. One rail worker was buried alive during its construction when a tunnel collapsed on him. There are 17 tunnels in total, three of which are so long that you cannot see the ground in front of you although you can see the exit.
Debris from excavations of yesteryear and damaged train cars decorate the perimeter down steep ravines. Three train cars decay on a forgotten limb of the railroad. A boulder had smashed into one car, leaving a festering wound. It was destroyed. One can only imagine the demeanor of the passengers right before the crash.
Carrizo Gorge Railways eventually formed and purchased the railway. It spent years repairing the damaged trestles and collapsed tunnels in hopes of using them for transporting freight.
The railway is now used once again, connecting Plaster City in Imperial Valley to the San Diego Bay. The tracks run through Mexico about 10 miles east of Tecate and back through the heart of Tijuana. They bring freight from the South Pacific railways in El Centro to the San Diego harbor through Mexico. It is an amazing day hike with lots of things to see in the arid desert landscape we call San Diego.
Today the tracks are in use and are once again private property. However the surrounding area to the tracks is a national park where hiking and camping is permitted. You can still safely and legally get within 100 feet of the track at any point. The hike to the Goat Canyon Trestle begins inMortero Palms Wash and stretches about five miles round trip. Many other hikes are still possible through the gorge. It is well worth the trip to see a piece of San Diego history and the dreams of an entrepreneur that stood up against all odds. The desert heat is unbearable during summer months but usually tolerable between November and April. Bring water and pack light before your adventure to see things that most SanDiegans will never see.
Zach Petschek is a San Diego-born professional photographer who maintains a studio in Vista. For more information, visit zachpetschek.com or call (760) 705-8349.