Last modified Saturday, May 1, 2004 9:09 PM PDT

World's largest wooden trestle is in
                                             Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

In a wild and rugged corner of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where nature speaks in exclamation points, the biggest attraction for nearly a century has been something built by man.

It's a harsh environment of shifting sands, searing heat, nearly impassable mountain ranges covered with car-sized boulders and cut by a yawning chasm known as Carrizo Gorge.

At the turn of the 20th century, business pioneers envisioned a rail line connecting the tiny port city of San Diego with El Centro to the east. Considering the terrain, the project was deemed to be folly and became known as "The Impossible Railroad."

The 11-mile Carrizo Gorge portion of the line alone took 12 years to build and included construction of 17 tunnels and 14 major wooden trestles, including the spectacular Goat Canyon Trestle, the line's main attraction. Completion of construction in the gorge linked San Diego and El Centro with a 140-mile international route that entered Mexico at Tijuana and returned to the United States near Campo. Today the railroad right of way through Carrizo Gorge is a narrow corridor surrounded by state park property.

This railroad was not just a construction project. The dream of San Diego pioneer John D. Spreckles became a sculpture of steel, stone and wood, formed as a blend between the overpowering presence of nature and the utilitarian works of man.

An aerial photo shows the graceful curve of the Goat Canyon Trestle. Train buffs consider this a railroad treasure.
Courtesy Carrizo Gorge Railway Photos
When completed in 1919, the line was hailed as a triumph of man over nature. But man did not win this battle. Nature simply allowed passage through here until it decided to withdraw the lease.

In 1976 a powerful hurricane came from the south and slammed Carrizo Gorge with winds and torrential rainfall. In the storm's wake, the rail line through Carrizo Gorge was left with collapsed tunnels and heavily damaged trestles. Nature had canceled the railroad's lease!

The damage was so severe that an application was filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation for abandonment of the line by owners, Southern Pacific Railroad. Man also wanted to cancel the lease.

With no trains rolling on the thin steel line that seems to hang on a ledge a thousand feet above the gorge, hikers, mountain bikers and railroad buffs began to discover the beauty of this blend of man and nature.

The unused rail line was like a challenging but ready-made trail that took wilderness travelers past long-abandoned railroad camps, through tunnels more than a half-mile long, and eventually reached the world's largest wooden trestle that crosses Goat Canyon in a graceful arch.

Built of huge redwood timbers, the trestle is spectacular by any perspective, and almost sacred to railroad buffs. Towering more than 200 feet in height, and spanning more than 750 feet in width, the Goat Canyon Trestle was a triumph of engineering in 1919 and remains so today.

Despite a round-trip distance of nearly 12 miles, the flat rail bed is a mild trek for hikers and a dream ride for mountain bikers. A generation of visitors has marveled at the remains of The Impossible Railroad.

But the line was never legally abandoned, and a few years ago a small group of investors formed the Carrizo Gorge Railway with hopes of once again opening the route between San Diego and El Centro.

Work has progressed slowly on repairs of collapsed tunnels and damaged trestles, and the line is now passable, according to railroad spokesman Rich Borstadt.

Railroad police have been hired, and once again man has renewed the lease on Carrizo Gorge. Visitors who travel along the tracks are being warned that they are trespassing and when rail service resumes will be subject to citation in addition to great personal risk.

"There is no place to run in the tunnels, and if someone is in there when a train comes along, there is a serious safety issue," Borstadt said.

Does this mean an end to the recreational visits to one of Anza-Borrego�s most spectacular areas?

"Definitely not," says Borstadt.

"The railroad is very aware of the public interest in Carrizo Gorge," he said. "Our interest is in keeping people safe."

Current plans envision rail service returning to Carrizo Gorge in the next few months. Borstadt said the railroad is planning an autumn rededication that might coincide with the Nov. 15, 1919, ceremony by Spreckles when he drove a golden spike to mark the completion of Carrizo Gorge construction.

"After that we hope to offer specific times when the public or groups will be allowed to enter the gorge," Borstadt said.

He said there is also discussion of providing rail tours into the spectacular gorge that would allow naturalists and historians an opportunity to tell the story of both the natural history as well as the human history of this fascinating place.

In the meantime, hikers can still gain breathtaking views of the Goat Canyon Trestle, but they will have to follow overland routes to do so.

"A good rule of thumb for hikers is to remain at least 100 feet away from the tracks to avoid being cited for trespassing," Borstadt said. "They are allowed to cross the tracks, but not travel along them."

Summer heat will soon make visits to Goat Canyon unpopular and dangerous, but when fall returns, hikers can plan on hiking into the area either from the bottom of Carrizo Gorge or using an overland route from Mortero Palm Canyon, northwest of Dos Cabezas Spring in the southern portions of Anza-Borrego. There are good camp locations in the area, which can be accessed via dirt roads running south from County Route S-2 at the Imperial County Line. This is also an area rich in Indian history, with rock shelters containing artworks on the walls left behind by unknown artists centuries ago.

Those with off-road vehicles can travel south several miles from S-2 where Carrizo Creek crosses the highway. At road's end, you can continue hiking south a few miles parallel to the railroad to the east, and then a rocky half-mile climb to view the trestle from below.

Despite the rebirth of rail service through Carrizo Gorge, the natural beauty and historical highlights will continue to attract visitors. Once again man and nature share the lease on this wild and rugged place.