Whistle's Blowing: All aboard for a roaring good time on the beach train

Greeter John Ellis of Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton, California, also knows quite a bit about the redwood groves around the area. (Ralf Burgert/Contra Costa Times)
Greeter John Ellis of Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton, California, also knows quite a bit about the redwood groves around the area. (Ralf Burgert/Contra Costa Times)

FELTON — I had seen the Roaring Camp Railroads' Beach Train lumber past me dozens of times as I sunned by my favorite swimming hole in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Happy tourists in an open-air car typically waved as they passed on their way to historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I was jealous and curious: Where did they come from?

An online search revealed Roaring Camp, a 180-acre park with two passenger trains. A steam train dating to 1890 chugs uphill on a 36-inch narrow-gauge track to Bear Mountain, and the Beach Train is a diesel electric train that rolls on a standard-gauge track.

I opted for the Beach Train because it travels along the San Lorenzo River and drops off passengers for a day at the boardwalk.

We arrived at Roaring Camp on a Sunday morning, an hour before our 10:30 departure time. Roaring Camp looked like a little city that was just waking up. Greasy train mechanics hopped around the train yard, and dapper train conductors stood by welcoming guests to the camp. A cook fired up the coals for the camp's chuck wagon barbecue — offering hot dogs, chicken platters and ribs — and the train depot window opened with a snap.

It is easy to get lost in the details of Roaring Camp. There are many things to see and do just inside the park: watching the ducks, hiking trails, making candles and panning gold.

But when the conductor called "All aboard!" we and about 50 others quickly filed onto the diesel electric train, which soon rolled into a cool forest populated by 2,000-year-old redwoods. These trees are like few others in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park because they are in an area that never has been logged.

Riding a train is a relaxing, sensory experience. You can smell the oils that lubricate the wheels, hear the whistle as the train makes its way around a turn and feel the wind flow through your hair as you sit inside the wooden, open-air cabin. Going through Santa Cruz to the boardwalk, you can see traffic stop for you while ancient train signals, called "wig wags," clank and clamor for cars to halt.

"These trains are not dead," said Tom Shreve, senior locomotive engineer at Roaring Camp. "They are very much alive. When the engine starts to move and the very ground beneath you shakes, you realize that."

By 11:27 a.m., just an hour later, we were standing in front of a ticket booth at the boardwalk, anticipating a ride on the boardwalk's 85-year-old roller coaster and national historic landmark the Giant Dipper.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a fun place.

You can stuff your face with deep-fried Twinkies or chocolate-covered bacon, make yourself (or the kids) dizzy on any of 35 rides that dot the boardwalk or just spend the day sunning and swimming in the relatively gentle surf of the Santa Cruz shoreline.

Along with the always fun Giant Dipper, I like the 1911 carousel built by European woodcarver Charles I.D. Looff, partly because it's gorgeous but mostly because it had a cameo role in the horror film "The Lost Boys."

Spending $40 on rides for two people, I was able to make myself sick on the Cyclone, hang upside-down on the Rock-O-Plane Ferris wheel and launch myself — and the corn dog I ate — 125 feet into the air on the Double Shot.

Riding the train back to Felton was a smooth end to a wild day on the boardwalk. And, as we passed my favorite swimming hole, the sunbathers waved at the very happy tourists on the train.