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Tucked away in the sparsely populated Tuolumne County, this portion of the Stanislaus National Forest's Westside Rails is a hidden treasure, combining spectacular scenery and a route that represents an amazing feat of railway construction.
The timber industry in the county was in full gear at the turn of the 20th century. An impressive sawmill was built at that time, and the West Side Lumber Company constructed its own narrow gauge railroad, called the Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valley Railway, to bring timber to the mill. In total, more than 70 miles of mainline track were constructed in the area. The initial stretch of the mainline grade, constructed without the benefit of bulldozers and loaders, was blasted into an extremely steep and rocky canyon. As you walk along this 5-mile portion of rail-trail, you can't fail to be impressed by what the workers accomplished.
Located next to a small parking lot and a residential street, the unsigned Tuolumne City trailhead is unassuming. As you start out you will be surrounded on both sides by trees, but after less than 0.5 mile the trail opens up to spectacular views. On your right you will see a gaping canyon, with layers of rolling, tree-covered hills beyond. After another 0.5 mile you will come to a picnic bench and, shortly after, the only water fountain on the trail. (It's a good idea to bring water and protection from the sun.)
At the 1-mile mark you will see the old rails and ties on the trail. They run from this point on through the end of the trail, adding to its beauty and character. The dramatic scenery continues as the path traverses the steep canyon. Patches of wildflowers that grow between the tracks appear in the springtime, making this rail-trail all the more beautiful.
At certain points, the path becomes slightly narrow and rocky; if you are biking you probably will want to dismount unless you are comfortable riding on bumpier surfaces. At about 5 miles in you won't be able to continue walking parallel with the ties and you will come upon a thick patch of trees that seem to be impassible. From here you can return the way you came or veer right and descend the steep switchbacks for about 0.5 mile to a main road (Buchanan). Turn left here at the road and continue for 0.25 mile to reach the River Ranch campground. It is possible to leave a car here before setting out then shuttle to the trailhead.
If you're on bicycle and want to return to the Tuolumne City trailhead parking lot via Buchanan, you can turn right and cycle for about 4.25 miles. This route is a steep climb and the road is narrow at some points, so use caution.
To reach the Tuolumne City trailhead, find the small parking lot at the intersection of Buchanan and Miramonte roads. The trailhead is next to this parking lot.
To find the Buchanan Road trailhead, look for a gap in the canyon and follow this path up the switchbacks to connect with the rail-trail. The trailhead is unmarked and easy to miss.
View the TrailLink map for all options and detailed directions.
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