Spring 2023 California Road Trip – Trains!

Visit Date: May 2, 2023

I had been jonesing for a trip to Cajon Pass in Southern California in order to watch trains going from the desert, over the San Bernardino Mountains into greater Los Angeles. Getting large trains over the pass takes a lot of effort: manageable grades and a LOT of locomotives. It’s the kind of place foamers (what the railroad people call trains fans because we tend to foam at the mouth at the sight of a train) really start drooling. We stopped briefly back in 2007 and again in 2015. But on those trips it was always a stop on a trip to somewhere else. This day I had the whole day to explore. Yes, Carla is a saint to sit around all day.

Before we left I spent a few days going between (photo service) Flickr to find nice vantage points and Google Maps to figure out how to get there. There are a few really interesting viewpoints but those are either remote or require more than a little hiking. I’m 71 so I found three spots that were manageable. If you are also a foamer, you can check the metadata in the photos to see the exact location.

The first stop was just a bit uphill from a stop we made back in April 2015. That stop yielded one of my favorite train photos I’ve ever taken.

April 26, 2015: BNSF container train heading downhill on Cajon Pass.

Our first stop was on a curve we got to by taking “The 15” to Cajon Blvd (AKA Route 66) to Swarthout Canyon Road. There is a wide spot for parking on the dirt road. Carla stayed in the car and read while I walked up a slight embankment where I loved what I saw. The BNSF and Union Pacific railroads run side by side through a lot of Cajon Pass and none more so than here. With the two largest railroads in the west it wasn’t long before I heard a string of locomotives straining on the throttles moving up hill.

Union Pacific muscling up Cajon Pass on Sullivan’s Curve
Five locomotives to get a train over Cajon Pass.

People often ask what I like about trains (usually with a tone of voice that is really asking “Why are you crazy?”). This view is part of the answer. Back in the 1960s we would visit my grandparents in Winslow, Arizona. Winslow was a major stopping point for the Santa Fe premier passenger trains: The Super Chief and the El Capitan. My grandpa would take me down to the depot when the trains arrived and we would walk next to the enormous locomotives as they were being refueled and the dining cars were replenished. That sheer power, size, and sound of locomotives created my happiest of happy places. I tried model railroading for a few years; it was fun but it just can’t replicate the presence of the real thing.

As the UP train above pulled slowly – but loudly – by I could feel the power of the locomotives reverberating in my chest. Plus, I got a nice little horn tap from the Engineer. It slowed to a stop about a mile away but the rear of the train was still in front of me. Within minutes I heard another train struggling up the hill. This was a BNSF freight led by four locomotives including a Northfolk Southern engine in second position. Passing trains!

BNSF 6906 and teammates passing by the stopped UP on Cajon Pass

Notice the lead locomotive number (6906) we’ll see it later.

So much motive power! Cajon Pass

After a bit we moved to another spot – on Summit Valley Road off California 138. In addition to trains we had a nice view of the snow still sitting on the San Bernardino Mountains reminding us of Calirofnia’s past wet, cold, winter.

BNSF heading past Summit Valley RD on Cajon Pass
BNSF alongside Summit Valley RD. Cajon Pass

It was getting close to noon so we headed into Victorville for lunch at Emma Jeans Hollandburger Cafe – a must stop roadside cafe on Route 66. We stopped for lunch on our full Route 66 trip in 2015. We’ve tried a couple of other times but found it closed. It was open today and much busier today than 8 years ago. We had to wait 10 to 15 minutes for a seat.

Emma Jean’s Hollandburger Cafe. Victorville, CA

If I see tri-tip on the menu I’m going to order it.

Tri Tip sandwich at Emma Jeans Hollandburger in Victorville, CA

The restroom sported an antique soap dispenser. Don’t worry, there was a functional modern soap dispenser for real use. I remember when these were the latest soap dispensing technology; it provided a bit of powdering hand cleaner. If you want a real Route 66 experience, you’ll find it at Emma Jean’s.

You know you are old when you recognize this soap dispenser style

After lunch we headed over to the Victorville depot to see if there was any action. First thing we saw was the BNSF train headed by unit 6906 pulling into town. Moving downhill it was much, much quieter than when it was straining over the pass.

Pulling into Victorville from Cajon Pass

Trains are the most efficient but not the fastest way to get from one point to another. The first picture of 6906 was taken at 10:32 AM; it made it down to Victorville fat 1:37PM. That’s a little over 3 hours. In that time we had spent more time at the stop where I grabbed the picture, stopped at two other spots and waited for a while, and had lunch at Emma Jean’s.

Looking north we saw two BNSF freights waiting there turn to attack the pass. The container train in the foreground has the priority and was slowly accelerating.

A pair of BNSF freights waiting their turns in Victorville to climb Cajon Pass

We thought about heading out to Joshua Tree National Monument but it was getting late in the afternoon and heading there would be more driving than we wanted to take on. So we stopped briefly at the spots we hit earlier. No train activity but Carla got a photograph of the photographer.

The photographer being photographed at Cajon Pass

Oh boy! What a great day. The next day we headed back to the central California coast for a couple of nights in Cambria. More on that in the next post.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.