Archive for the ‘Yosemite’ Category

Riding the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad
1-559-683-7273 *
56001 Highway 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623

Angie and I took a weekend trip to Yosemite National Forest. We have been wanting to go there for many years and ride the Sugar Pine Railroad. The last time we were in Yosemite, we passed by but didn’t stop. Neither of us knew anything about this railroad, so we were excited to learn. We decided to take the morning trip at 9:30am. We arrived early so that we could watch them hook up the engine. If you check out the San Diego Garden Railway club’s Instagram and FaceBook pages, you can see some additional photos and videos.

Rider note: Usually, the first train out for the day pulls the train forward so you will want to check with them before you book (if you have a preference). 

The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad operates two Shay locomotives. The Shay locomotive is the most popular of all the geared locomotives. It was designed by Ephraim Shay who was a school teacher turned logger. He really knew nothing about building an engine, but he needed a better design that would work for logging. He basically built a truck that sat on a geared wheel platform. What makes the Shay so powerful is that all the wheels are geared together and turn as one providing a tremendous amount of power. Most of the Shay engines were built and used for companies in the US; however, some were shipped to approximately thirty other countries. Currently, there are only eight left in operation around the world with two of them at the Sugar Pine RR. The Shay locomotive is designed to ride on narrow gauge rails which allows tighter curves in the track. When you get into the mountains or higher elevations there is less room to create sweeping curves, so it is ideal for tighter curves.

Shay locomotive No. 15 came from the West Side Lumber Company railway. This engine was in the shop when we arrived, so we didn’t get to see it in operation. Number 15 was really number 9 when in operation at West Side. The front plate was donated and made by Glen Bell (the founder of Taco Bell), who was a huge train enthusiast. 

Shay locomotive No. 10 was built in 1928, also a former West Side Lumber Company locomotive. No. 10 is the largest narrow gauge Shay locomotive and one of the last ever constructed. According to the Sugar Pine Railroad, they have yet to find the upper limit of this engine. It has done everything asked of it without any complaints.

The YMSPRR pulls two log cars and four covered cars. The log cars are tree logs that are cut out one-quarter, so that you can sit in them. The covered cars were nice to sit in and provided shade from the sun. The log cars are clearly the most popular, but I like to be under the cover.Past experience with steam and coal engines have taught me that you may get peppered with water or coal debris if you are in the open. 

Rail Cars

The train travels about four miles through the sugar mountain heading downhill. During the trip, the engine will burn about forty gallons of oil and boils about 400 gallons of water into steam. At the halfway point (in the middle of a reversing loop) we stopped to take on water.

taking on water

We got off the train at the halfway point. Everyone had a 15-20 minute layover. Walking around, we got some cool views of the train, and you could see the firebox. It was quite impressive during the day and at night it was even more spectacular. We walked around the area. There was a nice stream here as well as a sitting area for their camp sing-a-long in the evening.

As a garden railroad enthusiast, you are always told that engines never climb more than 3 degrees. This railroad has climbs that are 9 degrees or more. This is doable because of the Shay design. The engine also carries sand at the back of the engine that can be dropped onto the track to improve the traction. 

During active logging operations they cut down over 1.5 billion board feet of wood. If laid end to end, it could go around the earth about 11.5 times. Over 30,000 acres were cut down, but they just pulled up stakes and didn’t replant any trees. The current state of the forest after 90 years is the result of natural seeding of the forest. It was impressive to see how the trees came back. 

A huge thanks to Scott McGhee who gave us a personal tour of the shop along with more in-depth history to the railroad. Scott is the general manager and all around knowledgeable guy. He provided us with an hour long tour. The shop tour included seeing engine number 10, which they had just put in the shop a few days earlier to do maintenance. After two days, the steam lines were still slightly warm to the touch. They really hold the heat. The shop is filled with spare parts. Many are for the engine, but lots for the railroad.

Jenny Car
So many parts

We went back to our hotel for lunch and to relax. Our next adventure was to go back for the “Moonlight Special” Train & BBQ Dinner. We arrived early to spend time in the museum. There were a lot of antiques. The most interesting piece was a small iron smith forge.

old fashion iron forge

We sat down for dinner at picnic tables (properly socially distanced) and listened to the Sugar Pine Band. They entertained us with songs while we ate. I met up with a high school friend I have not seen in over 25 years and her son. During dinner and the train ride we caught up on what we have been doing since we last met.

The Sugar Pine Band

The “Moonlight Special” ride was pretty neat. The sun was going down and the mountain had different coloring and lighting than the morning run. When we reached the halfway point, we disembarked and made our way over to the fire pit and found a bench. For the next hour we were entertained, under the moonlight, by the band. They sang campfire songs and everyone joined in. It was like being back at camp as a kid. There was a full moon, so it was nice and bright and we had amazing views of the moon through the trees.

After the festivities, we boarded the train again for our return trip. The views and feeling was very different from the morning train. The white smoke that we had in the morning was black. Not really black, but it looked black because it blocked out all the light. We could see the fire under the engine which lit up the forest ground. It was an incredible sight.

This is one of my favorite narrow gauge railways. Riding a steam engine through the mountains and trees is the best way to travel. They also offer 30 minute rides on the Jenny Railcars. They use them first thing in the morning and last car out to pick up anyone that missed the train ride back. 

If you are looking for a train related activity near Yosemite, I highly recommend it.