I've always wanted to visit the Feather River Canyon area - there's something definitely fascinating about a railroad that seemed to have natural calamities every spring, and yet was valuable enough to keep rebuilding. Of course there's also the added draw of the spectacular scenery and that wye at Keddie that seems to show up at least once a month in any rail magazine worth its price (and even more often in the ones that aren't ;).
I actually stopped on Wednesday night in Yuba City, CA. Aside from the fact that I couldn't seem to find motels/hotels in Oroville (close to the mouth of the Feather River Canyon (hereafter referred to as the FRC, so I don't have to keep typing it), Yuba City also happens to have the distinction of being near Marysville, where the ex-WP line to the FRC and the ex-SP line towards Dunsmuir cross. Despite what would seem to be a near-ideal railfanning location, I didn't have much luck catching trains around Marysville the night before. I was hoping this wasn't indicative of traffic levels through the FRC - I'd been warned that traffic dropped dramatically on weekends, but hadn't heard anything about track work, etc...
My morning started around 0800h in Yuba - still a bit early for me, but considering the half-hour drive north to even get to the FRC, not unreasonable. It was just for someone who'd been on the road for two weeks at this point still a bit early in the morning. For those who stay in Yuba and then head up to the FRC, be sure to take CA Hwy 99 north rather than the more direct route of CA Hwy 70 - this follows UP's Valley Sub (ex-SP line) quite nicely between Yuba and Gridley, and if you're lucky you might get a train in the morning light. As I said, though - you might get lucky, I didn't - nothing but clear track for me.
The FRC line isn't hard to find or follow - north and east out of Oroville, CA Hwy 70 follows the line reasonably closely the whole way. However, the first twenty-three miles aren't quite original - they're the result of a 1962 realignment around the area to be flooded by the Oroville Dam. Fortunately, though, that provided several very interesting shots, including a horseshoe at James where the road passes over the line and then passes over it again only a few hundred feet later - the railroad makes a giant loop off to the north to gain altitude. Probably the most impressive structure, though, is the West Branch Bridge, a combined road/rail bridge across one of the legs of Lake Oroville. The realigned ex-WP main sits on the bottom of a giant through-truss bridge, and the four-lane road deck sits on top. It's something you won't miss on the way up.
Eventually the road rejoins the railway at Pulga, with the famous dual bridges. I thought about stopping for a quick photograph, but I figured I'd get the shot later in the afternoon, once I'd actually found a train. I kept seeing various cars parked along the road, and each time I checked to see if there were any crazy people with cameras standing around it. Each time, though, it just turned out to be guys out in the river fishing away, almost oblivious to the railroad above them.
As it turns out, the first train wasn't that far away - somewhere around Storrie I came up behind an eastbound Z train. Another few minutes and I'd arrived at Camp Rodgers about thirty seconds ahead of him, and there was a westbound grain train in the hole on the south side of the canyon. Within few seconds of grabbing the camera and jumping out of the car, another railfan had arrived (with a license plate like "WP FAN", what else could he be?) and a westbound grain train came through. The only problem was that I'd have to follow him back down the canyon if I wanted a decent shot, as the morning light wasn't hitting the south canyon wall at all.
Despite the fact the Altamont California Timetable lists speeds through the FRC as 25 MPH, it certainly didn't seem like this guy was doing 25. Rather, it seemed more like 35-45 most of the time. I'm still wondering if UP hasn't done so much trackwork through the canyon that they've been able to raise train speeds a bit, and the railfan community just hasn't noticed the updates. My first opportunity for a shot on the right side of the canyon (which, in the mornings, is the north side) was between Storrie and Merlin on Rock Creek Trestle. (Photo #51)
The unfortunate part was that being unfamiliar with the canyon, I didn't already have my spots picked out for photographs. Many times, when I'd see what I thought was a shot, I'd stop, check it out, and decide it wouldn't work. When you've got a relatively fast train nipping at your heels the whole time, it makes the process all that much harder. Suffice to say I missed a few good ones, and shot a few bad ones between Camp Rodgers and Pulga (yes, I followed 6335 west clear back to Pulga). As a side note, though, one of the very few long clear spots along the line is just east of Pulga, down from the dam - if you're looking for shots with much of the train in them, this is probably the place to go (Photo #52). Other than that, I didn't find many places that the ugly, peeling lead SD60M looked good in, and in a place like this, that's saying something.
After that, it was back up the road, hoping I'd catch another freight that had been pulled over to let the Z pass. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be, and as I burst through a small cut, there it was - one of the great railfan Meccas of the world, the Keddie wye. What really surprised me was the sheer number of railfans out on a Thursday - while I realize they're probably on vacation, same as I was, it was still rather surprising. Apparently there were work windows open for a crew between Keddie and Quincy Junction, and therefore any traffic was backed up on one side or the other. The good news out of all this was that I heard the dispatcher explicitly stating he wanted the line back at 1330h, so it was just a matter of waiting. The reason the DS wanted the line back at 1330h was an eastbound Z train that would be hitting Keddie right about then, and sure enough, with only a few minutes to go in the work window, UP 4599 creeped out of the tunnel and across the trestle (Photo #53).
One thing of note about the whole drive through the FRC - there aren't gas stations. As much as I was getting attached to my little white Ford SUV-wannabe, I had one big complaint about it - the size of the gas tank. I'm used to 500 miles on a tank; this thing was lucky to get 240. When you're railfanning in the middle of nowhere (okay, not quite, but close), it's somewhat concerning as you keep seeing the gas needle edge lower as you have no idea where your next tankful is coming from. However, having spoken to some other railfans and found out there was a Taco Bell in Quincy, I had great faith that there would be gas, too. Since the line veers away from CA 70 between Keddie and Massack (on the west side of Quincy), I decided to use those few minutes before the work order lifted to stop for fuel. After that, the plan was to figure out how to shoot trains at Williams Loop, just west of Quincy, and catch up with one of the stackers again (either the one I'd just seen, or the one from earlier in the day that was stopped at Keddie as well).
The loop isn't hard to find - the road runs over the main on the west side, and follows the loop track all the way around, plus there's a large gap in the trees where eastbounds actually run west for a few hundred yards. With the sun getting well into the afternoon sky (and hazy clouds starting to block the direct light), I decided that this little clearing along CA 70 was my spot. Sure enough, moments later UP 3071 showed up with the first stack train I'd seen that morning (photo #54). While I assumed the other stacker would be following along behind (or I'd already missed it due to my gas stop, but I doubted that), I decided to press on and try some other locations. As it turns out, the first of these was only about 3/4 of a mile down the road, where a bend in the Spring Garden siding is visible through a break in the trees (Photo #55). Using the speed restriction on the loop to your advantage, it's fairly easy to shoot both on the loop and here as well.
A bit further down the road, past Cromburg, I had one of those experiences where I looked over, and at 60 miles an hour realized I'd just missed the shot I wanted. Or at least the setting - I still had time to get back to the overlook before the train arrived. It's a great view, but with the clouds now solidly filtering the light from the sun, the lighting of the scene was getting a bit strange. Still, I figured I was only going to get here this once in the forseeable future, so I might as well take the shot. The result became Photo #56, after a little digital correction on the coloration and sharpness.
It was indeed a good thing I stopped rather than pressing on, as I heard a train at Sloat giving a clean roll-by over the radio to 3071. At last, what I'd been waiting for - a westbound to follow home! I'd actually intended to make it out to Portola and visit the Portola Railroad Museum, but with the sun moving further into the western sky and the clouds building to the east, I decided I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to get a train to follow back. I high-tailed it back to Sloat, just in time to see the second stacker (lead by 4599) breaking out of the trees eastbound. Sure enough, there was a westbound Z train sitting in the hole, led by UP 4168 and 4061. As soon as 4599 and train had passed, the lights on 4168 came on and the crew got the signal to proceed (Photo #57).
With a westbound following along, I could finally get the shot at Williams Loop that I really wanted - the traditional over/under shot, with the power on the train coming right at me (though vertically-separated by 25ish feet courtesy of the highway bridge). As noted in the caption, the real challenge here isn't the train or the amount of zoom you'll need for the shot, but rather just staying safely out of traffic. The bridge isn't really built with walkways, so you'll have to just use the wide curbs and be conscious of oncoming traffic. Still, it's not that hazardous, and it does result in some outstanding shots (Photo #58 - which would be much better, aside from clouds screwing up the lighting - why blame the photographer when you can blame the weather instead?)
From here, it was a basic over-the-road railfanning trip the rest of the way back to Oroville, with one exception. Drive a bit, pick a shot, take it, repeat. After my trouble with finding spots earlier in the morning, I'd picked a few on the way up to Keddie that I intended to use. Some of them worked out, some of them didn't. One of my favorites I believe was around Rich Bar, where the line snakes around some very open cliffs. (Photo #59) The only interruption in the trip came at Belden. I'd set up a shot west of Belden through some of the tunnels, and much to my surprise it wasn't 4168 that showed up, but rather an eastbound BNSF mixed (lead by BNSF 5333, ATSF 924, and BN 3112, for your bean counters out there). Due to the delay of going in the hole, the light had faded far past usable by the time 4168 finally did show up. I clicked off a few, but none were really notable - I couldn't figure out (under pressure) how to set up a good shot with these tunnels. I have a feeling the secret may be to try a bit further east in the canyon, where it's a bit more open and the geometry is such you can get a shot almost straight at the east end of one of the bores.
Since I wasn't going to get another opportunity, I decided to head back to Pulga and try for a shot of the train snaking through the bridge there. I wasn't sure how much light I'd have by the time I arrived (especially considering how deep the canyon is at this point), or of what quality the light would be, but I figured it was at least worth a shot. After some waiting and a good deal of messing with the camera and lenses to get the best possible setup without compromising shutter speed and aperture too much, 4168 dutifully showed up and brought the stacker right into the shot - and quite slowly, too, thankfully. 480mm focal length, 1/250th of a second shutter speed, hand-held (no tripod, left it at home) in evening shade with a fast moving train wasn't something I really wanted to think about. I really didn't have any expectation that the shot would work out, but it came out surprisingly well considering the conditions (Photo #60).
Since the railway stays either away from the highway or in tunnels through a good part of the 1962 rerouting, I intended to catch it coming over the West Branch bridge. However, the lighting didn't really cooperate, and I couldn't find anywhere to put the car where I could walk back to the bridge in time. I decided to take my final shot for the day below the upper bridge at James where the line comes out of a cut and ducks under the roadway. Again, even though I was almost out of the mountains at this point, the sun was really starting to set, but I like the effect of the dark cut and the last evening light on the nose. (Photo #61) At that, I called it a very productive day and headed back for Yuba City and dinner.
My advice for anyone considering railfanning the Feather River Canyon - do it. If you like the scenery on the eastern part of the Rio Grande system, you'll love the ex-WP line through the FRC. After all, it was the profits of the Grande that helped pay to build the thing (involuntarily, and at the cost of its own financial solvency, though). If you're trying to chose between Donner and the FRC, take the FRC. Donner, while train movement is slow, and the scenery is definitely something to see once, is far too confusing and inaccessible for my tastes. The FRC, with its single track CTC main line, is very easy to understand as a newbie to the area, and had excellent accessibility to all the good shots right off the highway. Perhaps those who truly know Donner know how to get to areas that yield even better shots, but as someone new to the area, I sure as heck couldn't figure it out in a couple days. Be sure if you do go, though, to take a scanner, your Altamont Press timetable, and plenty of film - or, if you're like me, lots of hard disk space. Oh yes, and the biggest, best telephoto lens you can afford helps quite a bit, too.
I hope you've enjoyed it, or at least the photos if you've elected to skip reading the mindless drivel I write to go with them (Some days I'd like to skip writing it, so I wouldn't blame you for skipping over it, too :). If you're more familiar with the area than me, and find any bugs in accuracy, please let me know. I'm by no means an expert, and am writing this off my maps, notes, and photographs. Also, I've included one more section of photographs that didn't really fit elsewhere - either because a section already had too many, because they aren't really railroad-related, or because they were from days that didn't yield enough for their own section. Thanks!
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|All the images here are Copyright 2001 Nathan D. Holmes
Note this doesn't mean you can't use them - In fact, I encourage people to use and enjoy them.
I'm placing them under the same license as RailARC images.
All shots in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS D30 with a Sigma 28-80mm F3.5-5.6 lens or a Tamron 28-300mm F3.5-6.3