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Credit: Garcia Aventure Photo: Flickr/El Cajon Yacht Club
Credit: Garcia Aventure Photo: Flickr/El Cajon Yacht Club

Vintage Train Ride from San Diego to Baja California
Guest Contributor: Chris Carmichael
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Ride back in time and experience one of San Diego county's and Northern Baja California's wonders on the cross-border train from Campo to Tecate, Mexico.

Train enthusiasts will appreciate the open-air rides organized by the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo. In addition to the regularly scheduled cross-border trips, the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum offers up a very special train trip just one time per year. Once a year in the spring, the historic train makes a trip all the way to the Garcia siding in Tijuana. This is your chance to see local history roll by at a pleasant pace. The total trip is about 70-rail miles to and from Campo. The experience offers open vistas, secluded valleys and spectacular views.

Curious? Let these photos by Flicker/El Cajon Yacht Club entice you further.

Built by the San Diego and Arizona Railway Company in 1906, the rail line was a dream project for noted San Diego sugar magnate, John D. Spreckels, and his brother Adolph. The brothers' persistence during bouts with Mother Nature and a global war (World War I) paid off when the rail line was opened ten years later in October, 1916.

From 1916 to the late 1950s, passengers used the cross-border train to connect to such far-flung destinations as Chicago. The train route was unique in that it was and is is the only known service in the world that had to use a second country because of the difficult terrain.

After the advent of the automobile, passenger train service, in general, lost ridership. It wasn't until the opening of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum that the old rail line was used once again. The rail line began to take passengers to Tecate and beyond in vintage cars. And oh, what a ride it is.

If you are very curious about riding the rails, especially the Cadillac of vintage trains, strongly consider renting the fully restored Santa Fe observation car, #1509, that may be available as an upgrade on the trip. If offered, we recommend taking advantage of the opportunity, as the accommodations are worth the additional cost. Another benefit of the observation car is that it has a back porch that offers unobstructed views as the countryside rolls by.

Train conductors can provide answers to a range of questions from the passengers regarding train operations to information about the surrounding area. The resident experts of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum and the trains themselves are what makes this day trip from San Diego especially unique.

After the train leaves Campo and heads west, the beauty of San Diego's east county unfolds. The click-clack of the rail becomes the beat of the day. As the train crosses the trestle and creek, the first tunnel is entered in the U.S. and as you exit, welcome to Mexico! An engineering marvel -- one of many on the track, all the tunnels were built by hand. Those were the days.

Video of Train Ride

The land of Northern Baja opens up far and wide as the train heads a bit south before turning west again towards Tecate. As the train heads west, remember you're part of a trip that only happens once a year -- the journey to the Garcia siding in Tijuana. The Garcia siding is near the Coca-Cola plant in Tijuana. A siding is where the tracks split and trains can pass and each is given a name. One of them in Tijuana is called Garcia. Along the way, you'll see vintage vineyards, farms, Mexico Highway 2, and industrial buildings before making your first stop in Tecate.

The first segment takes about one hour after leaving Campo. Our first stop was brief as several tour guides from the Mexico tourism board joined the trip as they do each year. For the next 33-miles, you'll get a view of areas of Baja that the typical tourist does not see.

One of the many highlights of the trip is the double horseshoe curves near the village of Redondo. When building the rail line, the terrain made it impossible for the train to proceed straight -- so a double set of curves was put in place. Much of the construction happened through solid granite. Nearly 100-years after the construction, the area remains secluded and beautiful.

Prior to the arrival in Garcia, the Rodriguez Dam is in full view. This landmark provides most of the drinking water to the Tijuana area. As the train crosses the river, the western journey nears the end. After a quick repositioning of the engine, it's all up hill back to Campo. On the way back, the train stops at several places so that train buffs can photograph the ride and the countryside.

One of the three stops during the trip back on the Garcia trip was at the world-famous Redondo Loop. If the train is long enough, you can view the engine and the caboose at the same time -- just 175 feet apart! The horseshoe curves remain a modern engineering mark on how man overcame the terrain of the area to move commerce and passengers through the rugged mountains of Baja.

Bring plenty of film or a large digital photo card as there will be many opportunities to photograph the countryside, small towns, and the stark contrast of visiting Mexico. In fact, my friend and I snapped well over 1,000 digital photos on the trip standing on the porch of the observation car.

Things you should know:

  • IMPORTANT TIP: Passengers must pass through U.S. Customs upon returning to the U.S. A valid U.S. Passport or U.S. Passport card is required. Do not forget to bring either document. It may take 30-minutes to clear customs on arrival to Campo.
  • Lunch is provided on this trip. The food is prepared while the train is in route. Snacks and beverages are reasonably priced. You may also bring your own water, snacks, or meals, if preferred. There are facilities on the train.
  • The conductors answer your questions with humor and ease. You'll have fun with all of them. Ask the Baja California tourism officials about other hideaways and tourist spots in Baja. Like San Diego, there is more to Baja, California than its beach scene. The tourism officials might have discount coupons for you to use should you choose to return to Mexico in the future.
  • There are no opportunities to shop on this trip; it is primarily a train excursion into Mexico. You'll see a country side that most tourists do not see. You will be able to get off the train to take photos. Again, make sure you have plenty of film or a large digital card prior to leaving the train depot.
  • The total trip is about 8-hours from start to finish.
  • Regular fair: $75 Children: $35.
The Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum offers many unique opportunities throughout the year to board the vintage trains (including the North Pole Limited Christmas Train) and ride the rails. If you're a train buff, you'll love the chance to reserve your seat. But, if the romance of the rails hasn't grabbed you before, you'll be in love with trains after taking one of these trips. All aboard!

NOTE: The date for the 2010 Garcia Adventure has been published on the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum website and we've been unable to get a date thus far. As soon as we get the date, we'll post that information. You may also try to contact the PSRM directly.

Pacific Southwest Railway Museum - Campo Depot - State Highway 94 & Forrest Gate Road, Campo, California 619.478.9937 (weekends) or 619. 465-7776 (weekdays) The museum/depot is about 80-minutes from downtown San Diego.

Chris Carmichael can be found doing what he loves at: