The Carizzo Gorge Railroad was once known as "The Impossible Railroad". It was built in 1919, cost a whopping $18 million to construct and took 12 years to finish! It was called the Impossible Railroad largely due to the fact that it required 17 tunnels and multiple trestles in order to run. Spanning from Yuma, AZ to San Diego, this railroad was the result of a vision of San Diego pioneer John D. Spreckles. Spreckles worked with the overpowering forces of nature, oftentimes in 120 degree heat in the summer, to create this beautiful work of art. To this day, the Goat Canyon Trestle is still the largest wooden railroad in the world! The beams are made out of sturdy redwood and over 180 feet high.
After an earthquake in 1932, portions of one of the tunnel collapsed forcing a renovation. In 1976, a powerful hurricane swept through this region also collapsing some of the tunnels and creating a ton of damage.
Recently new repairs have been made and there are talks of the railroad opening up again. For this reason, it is not unheard of to receive a ticket for exploring this very much no-trespassing area. Proceed at your own risk!
This area has a few ghost stories looming around it too. There are tales of glowing orbs, ghost trains and even an alleged abominable sandman. Have you been out here and witnessed anything freaky? If so please share!
Photos and experience by Ian Townsend:
This hike ended up being more than 12 miles round trip!
We saw: 8 Trestles, 12 Tunnels, 10 to walk through, 2 for storage, 2 Train yards, 1 Geocache, 1 Gravesite
I really can’t say enough about this hike. If you have the endurance, necessary gear, experience and the drive to complete this trip, it is well worth it. I gotta say the best hike in San Diego.
Took about 6 hours total, but we took our time getting there for pics and exploration opportunities.
The Goat Canyon Railroad trestle is a prime destination for hikers in San Diego County. The usual route is to start from Mortero Palms and hike to Goat Canyon. This way, you approach the trestle form the north side, having to climb down a dry waterfall, do some rock scrambling, then climb back out the same way, about 6-7 miles round trip. Sounds like an awesome hike, but I opted to find another, less traveled path and did a little recon via Google Earth…along with researching the Carrizo Gorge Railroad company and it’s history of what is now known as “The Impossible Railroad.”
I won’t divulge the exact location of our start to the public due to the dangerous and not to mention illegal route we took to reach the trestle, but I am sure that one can figure it out with all the pictures and info I will provide.
I do need to stress that this was an extremely treacherous hike and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who is: scared of heights, claustrophobic or a novice hiker. Also, this trip should not be undertaken during the summer due to the extreme temperatures in the desert.
Here is a view looking back towards our start with Round Mountain (Jacumba) in the background. This was the first trestle we crossed. Funny how the trestles don’t look intimidating until you have to cross them walking along the weather worn railroad ties, creaking and splintering beneath your feet. They only got taller:
Saw these 4 tiny graves without names. Could they be pets? There seemed to be recent activity around the graves/memorials. Not much info to go on besides that.
I guesstimated this trek to be about 5 miles each way along the tracks. It actually ended up being 6 each way, so it was a 12 mile day. I figured this out by the mile markers. We started at 96 and the trestle was just past 102.
It was about 40 degrees and super windy, which added to the cold and degree of discomfort. To be honest, if we hadn’t brought face masks and gloves, we probably wouldn’t have attempted the hike.
One of my friends ended up being unable to go, so it was just my friend Cleon and I. Cleon is a long time friend of the family, someone who shares the same adventurous spirit as I and a super experienced outdoors-man, so I was stoked to have him along with me.
Cleon ahead of me, super bundled up! We just passed the 4 graves on our left hand side and can see the first abandoned train yard ahead of us.:
Notice the mile marker on the right side. This was 96. Goat Canyon Trestle was just past 102:
View inside the train cars. They were still in amazing condition and looked fairly new, not quite outdated.
The tracks the trains sat on ended here at these rocks. There were a few decrepit structures around that seemed to be old guard shacks.
One of the old shacks and the view inside. This was facing the river bottom.
Cleon and I looking for a way across the loose sand without falling into the barbed wire that lined the riverbed:
Lesson learned early on: These trestles are a lot taller when you are on top of them:
View looking back towards the train yard. Wanted to stick around and explore the area more, but we had a destination to get to:
Leaving the train yard, we pressed on….as the journey was just beginning.
Approaching the first of 11 tunnels. This was tunnel #5, Goat Canyon Trestle was just past tunnel #15.
We push on as Carrizo Gorge starts to take shape
A drainage pipe that no doubt helps shape the river bottom at the bottom of the gorge. This place has got to be a flash flood nightmare during a storm.
Approaching the third trestle. It is still way farther away than it looks. You can see how the gorge starts to deepen as we continue. We were also weary of rockslides all day from the wind.
As you can see, the trestle is pretty treacherous. Numerous holes on the rotted wood, high winds and not to mention the height. My type of trip.
The majority of the trestles had the metal mezzanine type of flooring which was a little safer than the rotted wood. Still, the metal was pretty shabby in some places. This trestle wasn’t as shaky as the previous one we had just crossed, but was way longer:
5th Trestle was in terrible condition. Metal flooring had holes and was loose in a lot of places.
Crossing the 5th trestle. Note the holes on the right side and the poor condition of the floor. Proceed at your own risk.
Looking back at the 5th trestle as we approached the 6th and most dangerous. Note the foot path on the left if you want to go around:
Unfortunately, the wind was super crazy when we crossed the 6th trestle, which I didn’t take a picture of. It was the most dangerous because it was just a crappy bridge with no railing or secure flooring. The wind was blowing too hard to cross it so we just took the foot path around it as we came upon mile marker 98:
Approaching tunnel #6. Every tunnel had the side path option to circumvent, which you can see to the left. In truth, taking these bypasses is way more dangerous than staying along the tracks. The winds are killer and the trails are very narrow and steep. Go through the creepy tunnels instead:
As I mentioned before, the trains with graffiti are awesome, but really?..
Exiting tunnel #6, we came to trestle #7 and also the heart of Carrizo Gorge:
The 7th Trestle, approaching from tunnel #6. This one was probably in the best condition of all 6 trestles we encountered:
3 train cars at this yard. As you can see, the gorge below has progressively gotten way deeper since our start. As you approach, there is a massive flood basin to the right before the trains. This would be an ideal spot for overnight camping:
A shot of Cleon staring in shock at the sight we saw at the bottom of the gorge…..
A train car at the bottom of the gorge below Tunnels #7 & #8. This is visible from Google Earth. When/how did this happen? Logically speaking there is probably no easy way to recover this car….
Tunnels # 7 & 8:
Tunnel 8 was the most modern and seemed to have been worked on within the past few years. As we approached the entrance to tunnel #8, I looked to my right at all the debris and supplies left at this yard and I saw a storage tunnel (Tunnel #7) behind us, quietly out of sight.
Tunnels # 7
Notice the rock wall barrier at the back of the tunnel?
Tunnel # 8
The darkness really affects your depth perception, making the other side appear closer than it actually was:
You can see how the engineers used the natural drainage of this place. The picture to the left does not capture the awesomeness of these natural falls, which were pretty much outside of every tunnel we encountered:
The drop into the gorge below was always a constant reminder of how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. This hike humbled me while inspiring me at the same time.
This small concrete structure upon exiting tunnel #11. Each tunnel was unique:
Awesome rock wall constructed around the tunnel #12 exit:
Not a long tunnel, but tunnel #14 is a monster:
I knew this was a long one from checking it out on Google Earth, but the dark definitely played games with our depth perception in the longer tunnels. The end is way farther than it looks:
Seeing the trestles in the distance gave me butterflies and I knew that we were close.
The Goat Canyon Trestle exiting tunnel #15. We finally made it!
The sheer size of the trestle was intimidating, but it was still in pretty good condition for being almost 100 years old.
Cleon walking ahead of me on the trestle. The wind picked up like crazy at this point when we got about halfway across and I have to admit that we turned back and admired the trestle from the tunnel #15 side. No way we taking any chances in this weather.
Interesting discoloration on the rocks of tunnel #8 on the return trip: