In September, I scanned a lot of my old negatives and slides and found a whole lot of train pictures that I shot in the 1990’s. It was a time when I spent a lot of days watching and photographing trains at the San Luis Obispo railroad station, and going through those old photos got me wanting to head out and chase trains again. The coast line that comes through town where I live has been pretty much unused for years except for two daily Amtrak trains, so I headed off to the Tehachapi Mountains, the nearest place where I would be guaranteed to see some railroad action.
The Tehachapi Mountains are a great place watch heavy train action, and is probably one of the most famous sections of railroad in the world. Trains have been climbing over the mountains between Bakersfield and Mojave for almost 150 years. The railroad over the Tehachapi Pass was built in the 1870s as the way to get across the mountains separating California’s Central Valley with the rest of the southwestern United States and beyond. The problem was, how can a railroad climb 4,000 feet in only 45 miles? Part of the answer was using 56 miles of track snaking along the hillsides to keep the grade manageable. The rest of the answer was an engineering marvel that has kept railfans coming to the area ever since.
I scoured the Internet to find guides. Some were good, others were old and would have me driving on closed roads and hiking onto railroad property. So I gathered what information I could and set on my way on the morning of October 17, 2020. That day turned into a bit of a scouting trip as I discovered which of the recommended locations were better than others. I took a second trip about a week and a half later with a better idea of the places I wanted to stop for more pictures. Both mornings had little railroad traffic and it didn’t pick up until the about 2pm. The 17th was a Saturday, second trip was on Wednesday the 28th, and I was surprised that the Saturday had more trains than Wednesday.
I made this video of the area with selected clips from my dashcam, and the map shows the tracks of my two trips – red for the first day and blue for the second. Gray filmstrip markers on the map are labeled to match the titles on the video so you can see where that clip was from. The straight lines on the tracks are because I left my phone in my pocket and didn’t get a GPS signal between those points.
Use the icon on the map below to show the list of locations in the video.
The West Side
The trains climb on the mostly straight track out of Bakersfield that parallels highway 58 before entering the Tehachapi Mountains. Also paralleling 58 is the Edison Highway, a two lane road that runs along the edge of the tracks which becomes Bena Road as it enters the mountains. Bena road splits off from the tracks as it winds through the hills. There is an intersection a few miles later, with Bena Road continuing straight to connect with Highway 58 and Caliente-Bodfish Road winding its way to the town of Caliente. This road is one of the few places where the trip on the road is windier than the railroad tracks, and the first place the road gets close to the tracks again is at Tunnel 2. From the pullout near the tunnel are great views of eastbound trains as they approach with a nice background of the Tehachapi Mountains. It’s a good place for photos that capture the entire scene of the trains going through the hills of California. There’s an access road that leads down to the tracks, or you can drive up a dirt road to the top of the hill over the tunnel. I didn’t go up on either of my two trips, but I read that you can see a long approach on the east side of the tunnel from the the parking area above it. I wanted closer photos of the trains, so I chose to walk down the access road to get closer to the tracks.
This is where I must emphasize that you exercise extreme caution when you’re around the railroad tracks. Remember: Expect a train at any time, on any track, in any direction. I don’t recommend that you ever trespass on railroad property. This information is provided so that you can go out there and enjoy the trains, not get run over by them. You’ll also find lots of private property other than the railroad’s around this area, and I suspect that most of the owners are not all to thrilled too have scores of train watchers crawling all over their land.
After Tunnel 2 Caliente-Bodfish Road continues down hill to Caliente. The tunnel is at a higher elevation than Caliente, and even though you’re traveling east on the road, you’re following the tracks westbound towards Bakersfield. The road between Caliente and Tunnel 2 parallels the track for much of the way and the tracks will come in and out of view along the way. The railroad is high above the road and there aren’t many turnouts between the tunnel and where the road ends a T intersection at Caliente. Turning left will keep you on Caliente-Bodfish road heading into “town” (a Post Office and some trackside houses.) Turning right puts you on Bealville road towards – you guessed it – Bealville, which isn’t much more than a grade crossing.
I spent a lot of time between Bealville, Caliente, and Tunnel 2. Bealville is a good place to pick up trains as they come from the east. The distance on the road from the bridge at Caliente to the crossing in Bealville is only a little over a mile, but the tracks snake through the hills for about four and a half miles to get to the same place. With the time it takes the trains to travel that distance you have plenty of time to watch at the crossing and then meet the train again when it gets to Caliente, where the railroad makes a 180-degree horseshoe turn. You can stand and watch the trains pass and loop around until you are surrounded on three sides by a mile or more of train. The grade crossing at Caliente is a great spot to get wide angle photos of trains wrapping around the horseshoe curve, good close-up photos from trackside, and some, like this, a combination of both.
Leaving Caliente to the east, Bealville road goes under the railroad tracks and on past Bealville to connect with Highway 58. Ten miles north is the exit for Keene, where Woodford-Tehachapi Road crosses under the freeway and and makes its way to the railroad. It passes along side the double-track of the Woodford siding, where there are a few opportunities to stop along the way for photos and there are often trains waiting to head up the grade. At the east end of this siding is the magnet that attracts railfans from around the world.
The Tehachapi Loop
The Tehachapi Loop is a section of track climbs 77 feet in what is essentially zero miles by traveling through a tunnel, circling a hill, and ending up on top of that tunnel before continuing on its way. From the tunnel below to where they cross over above are 3,780 feet of track. Any train length over that, and most today are, will cross over itself. The longer trains are even more impressive, and the view of a a train working its way through the hills and around the loop is mesmerizing – more like watching a kinetic toy, or even a kind of a dance, than a form of heavy industry.
There are two markers and viewpoint overlooking the loop on Woodford-Tehachapi Road. The older one from 1953 designates the Tehachapi Loop as California Historical Landmark #508, the newer from 1998 was placed when it was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers. A trail begins between the two plaques and leads down the hill to the side of the track, but the best place to watch is from a different trail about 600 feet up the road. There is a picnic table and trash can under a tree about five-hundred feet up the hill, and there are a couple of other trails branching off to other vantage points.
The East Side
Continuing on Woodford-Tehachapi road about a half mile there’s a turnout on on the left, where you can get a view down the tracks towards the loop with a good view of tunnel 10 and a parallel track that goes around the mountain. From there the road moves away from the tracks on its way to the town of Tehachapi. There is a dirt road that goes down closer to the tracks, but I decided not to take it in my Mustang so I can’t speak as to the views, the state of the road, or even if it’s one of those roads that show up on Google Maps that isn’t public.
Another stretch of road between Keene and Tehachapi is Highway 58. It’s a four-lane highway with nowhere to stop going west and perhaps a turnout or two going east. Trains can be seen as they go through the tunnels, and the view is much better going east than west since that side of the freeway is closer to the tracks. I don’t recommend it for train-watching, but it’s a quick way to get from Tehachapi down to the Keene exit to catch a train that you see passing through town go down the loop.
It’s important to not trust Google Maps here. There is a road called Broome Road that connects the Highway 58 with the bottom of the loop, and if you ask Google the fastest way from Tehachapi to the Loop it will route through this road. As you can see if you look at the map on the top of the page, I pulled off of 58 and went over the freeway like the Google lady told me but had had to turn back because the road is private with a gate.
There’s a railroad museum in town, but I wasn’t able to visit due to it being closed for COVID-19. The Tehachapi Live Train Cams (there are currently three) has a live feed on YouTube from the museum. The chat is active and a great place to get information on the area. Beyond Tehachapi, East Tehachapi Blvd. follows the tracks past the cement plant in Monolith and connects with Highway 58 that goes to Mojave and eventually all the way to Barstow.
About 30-40 trains per day go over Tehachapi Pass, depending on who you ask. I think it’s a bit more practical to know how many come by in the daytime so I made this table of all trains through Tehachapi between 6:00am and 9:00pm the week of February 16-22 of 2020. It was adapted from a much more detailed list published by a user on Traindorders.com that includes every single train for that week (including the hours not shown below) with detailed times and train information. This is a random week in the year and the trains don’t follow any schedule, but it should give an idea of what you might see.
Best time of the year to photograph the Loop?
I’m not sure, really. I’ve only gone in October and November. It’s too hot in the summer for me. If it ever rains again, I’m hoping to go in winter when the hills are green. There’s also occasional snow, but it only lasts a day or two on the ground and never seems to happen on a weekend when I can drive up.