June 22, 2024

Photo Essay: A Triple Train Tour Through Santa Margarita Ranch, via Pacific Coast Railroad

Last Christmas, I finally got the chance to ride in one of the original Disneyland Railroad cars that are now running on a private railway, the Pacific Coast Railroad, in Santa Margarita, California. 

But because it was a nighttime holiday lights ride, I felt like I hadn't gotten the full experience. 

So I immediately committed myself to coming back and riding the rails on Santa Margarita Ranch during the day. 

Only problem? There's once a year the public can do that: Memorial Day weekend, during the Best of the West Antique Equipment Show. (Otherwise some lucky few get to ride the trains during private events like weddings and such.) 
So, this year I finally hauled my cookies up to the Central Coast to ride the trains—all the trains they offered that weekend, which was three. 

First up was the newly-restored steam engine No. 2, which pulled the Santa Fe & Disneyland R.R. car No. 105, the "Painted Desert." 
I hadn't ridden in that car last December, having instead been seated inside the unrestored car No. 108 "Navajo Chief"... this time, I finally got to see the $100,000+ restoration that owner Rob Rossi had commissioned from the Hillcrest Shops (part of the Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad at Hillcrest Tree Farm in Reedly, California). 

All the etched windows, wood inlays, golden wood grains and refurbished seats were a sight to behold. 

These passenger coaches were designed by none other than imagineer Bob Gurr (also of Autopia, Monorail, and Haunted Mansion "doom buggy" fame) in the style of authentic rail cars from the 1890s, but at a 5/8 scale.

Unfortunately, they're not known for having the best views of the scenery as it goes by, so I didn't get great photos of the ranch itself (especially not being allowed to stick my arm out the window). 
It was, however, cool to see the crew at work during our water stop...

...where they refilled our water tank that had been depleted by all that steam our locomotive had been letting off... 
...after passing the historic barn (which I'll cover in a future post, since it has an intriguing history all of its own).
Fortunately, I had not driven four hours and booked a night at a motel just to ride one train—so I would have plenty of opportunity to see Santa Margarita Ranch from other perspectives, too. 
In fact, as soon as I completed my Locomotive No. 2 ride, I ran to the ticket booth and bought a ticket for a cab ride on Locomotive No. 3. 
That's the steam engine that had pulled the Disneyland coaches at Christmastime, when I'd ridden in the unrestored Navajo Chief.

But this time, I wasn't going to ride in the back with the regular passengers.

I was going to climb up onto the locomotive itself...

...and ride with the engineers!

From up there, I had a much better view of the surroundings—and on both sides of the train.

That included the airstrip of Santa Margarita Ranch airport...

...horseshoe curves...

...and more of its rolling stock...

...including its collection of New Orleans trolleys...

...from from The Hometown & Orleans Street Railway.
Of course, not satisfied with one or just two rides, I was determined to ride every train offered during the annual festival (which is perhaps more accurately referred to as the "Tractor Show")—including the 1940s-era diesel engine I'd experienced late last year.

Instead of one of the open-air seats, this time I chose to board one of the box cars once used for hauling freight...
...emblazoned with "D&RGW 3126," referring to its history with the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad before winding up in the middle of a field in Camino, California
 Not having a designated seat—and even being able to stand inside the car—set me up for much better views (and photos), like of the old stagecoach road once served by Wells Fargo.
There's a rusty old corral that our conductor claimed was original to the ranch—which would mean it dates as far back as the 1770s.

The last vestiges of spring were still keeping the ranch green and petaled...

...and the Arabian horses came out for some sun and a little gallop. 

A tree arch serves as the gateway to the North Bridge and (Little) Tassajara Creek, which are just two of the points of interest along the rail line.

It also passes the Estrada Gardens event space (named after rancher JoaquĆ­n Tomas Estrada, who was granted the ranch in 1841), Vineyard Hill (where, yes, wine grapes are grown), Hobo Flats, and Murphy Junction (named after the Murphy family, which owned the ranch after Estrada, and perhaps specifically rancher Patrick Murphy, who helped bring Southern Pacific Railroad to Rancho Santa Margarita). 

Somehow, the landscape looks different every time—depending on the changing sunlight, the shifting wind, and the chugga-chugga of the locomotive spewing steam versus the clatter and screech of the engine running off diesel. Right side or left side, front or back, cab or coach. 

How lucky must you be to have a bona fide train running through your backyard, just like Walt did? Except in the case of Santa Margarita Ranch, your yard is 14,000 acres and filled with grazing cattle, wedding parties, and tractors.

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