A group of visitors to Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad recently spent an evening around a campfire howling and singing along to such classics as “Home on the Range” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” after enjoying a steak and chicken barbecue dinner.
The campfire singing was still a new phenomenon for visitor Rob Fletcher, who moved from New Zealand to Clovis a few years ago, but he said he’s getting used to the American tradition.
There are several one-hour and half-hour train rides offered daily in addition to the three-hour moonlight specials, which happen Wednesday and Saturday nights during the peak season.
Moonlight specials include dinner and a stop in the forest where visitors disembark the train mid-ride to hear live music around a campfire beside a stream canopied by pine trees.
The railroad sits on land once used by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company. That company used locomotives to transport logs to a now-gone nearby mill. Lumber was then floated down to the central San Joaquin Valley via log flumes.
“I think it’s a great glimpse into our history,” Sheryl Fletcher said of today’s Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.
“But not in a boring way, like going to a museum,” her husband added, “where you look at something and there’s a name.”
Of the railroad, he said, “You connect with it.”
“It’s a way to experience our history,” Sheryl continued, “rather than just read about it.”
The train rides offer a lot for the senses. The locomotives shoot plumes of steam up and out from a boiler heated by fire. There’s also the train whistle, bell, and all the sights and sounds of the forest whooshing by during the open-air ride atop large carved log benches.
Riding back to the train station in the dark during a moonlight special offers an extra sense of discovery and wonder.
The railroad also offers gold panning and a rail museum, cafe and gift shop.
Locomotives returned to this Sierra Nevada wilderness in the late 1960s thanks to the Stauffer family, who immigrated from Switzerland and had the vision to revive the railroad for tourists.
The past few years have been hard on the railroad, but it’s determined to keep going. Max Stauffer, who ran the family business for decades, died of cancer in 2017. Later that year, a large wildfire – named the Railroad Fire because it started near the railroad – burned the property.
“It’s almost like Max put his arms down around it and said, ‘Don’t burn anything of mine!’ … That this didn’t burn, it’s just a miracle,” said Stauffer’s wife, Michelle. “It really is a miracle.”
Just last summer, the large Ferguson Fire burned nearby and caused a temporary closure of Yosemite National Park. Many planning to visit the railroad canceled reservations due to poor air quality from smoke.
The Railroad Fire left many trees along the railway barren and black, but much of the forest is still alive and regenerating. The aftermath of wildfire hasn’t diminished the excitement of the train ride, accompanied by a live narration of local history.
Michelle Stauffer – now co-president of the railroad’s board with Stauffer’s daughter, Heidi – stresses an enduring commitment to customer service. She points out the importance of little things, like meticulously raked pine needles, clean bathrooms, and the talent and enthusiasm of the railroad’s band.
While riding one of the trains last week, she recalled what her late husband once said was his favorite part of running the business: “Max said, ‘What I like most is to go out and see the smiling faces of the kids on the train.’ ”
The trains are still filled with smiling children – and adults.
How to ride the train
Location: Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, 56001 Highway 41, Fish Camp. The railroad is located near the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, between Oakhurst and Fish Camp, home of the large Tenaya Lodge.
Train rides: Moonlight Special Train Ride & BBQ: $63 for adults, $36 for children ages 7 to 12, $29 for children ages 3 to 6. The Logger one-hour steam train ride: $27 for adults, $15 for children ages 3 to 12. Jenny Railcars 30-minute train ride: $19 for adults, $9.50 for children ages 3 to 12. The railroad is open April through October.