Goat Canyon Trestle – San Diego County, California - Atlas Obscura
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San Diego County, California

Goat Canyon Trestle

The world's largest wooden trestle stretches across this desert canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. 

Anza-Borrego Desert is a wealth of amazing things—endangered bighorn sheep that graze on treacherous peaks, giant metal sculptures that watch over Galleta Meadows Estate, and an unusual museum nestled in a pre-world war view tower.

But nothing stands out quite as majestically against the desert background as the massive engineering feat that is the Goat Canyon Trestle—a railway that stretches across a natural gaping maw of the Carrizo Gorge, a star player in a project not-so-affectionally refered to as ‘The Impossible Railroad’.

This Californian desert is fairly unforgiving—oppressive heat, unreliable sandy surfaces, poisonous biting creatures hidden in crevices and under rocks, and a terrain that is challenging at best. Despite its unwelcoming ways, the port city of San Diego was itching for a quicker route to bustling El Centro, the largest city in Imperial County. In the ambitious and slightly foolhardy enthusiasm that early 20th century developers came to be known for, the Impossible Railroad was completed and open for business by 1919. 

While proven possible, it wasn’t easy. The 140-mile stretch of rail had to be manipulated into submission through the construction of 17 tunnels and 14 major trestles, the mightiest of them curving across Goat Canyon in Carrizo Gorge. This particularly ornery bit of land took 12 years to conquer, despite only adding up to a distance of 11 miles. 

The 200-ft. tall, wooden masterpiece is revered by railroad enthusiasts as a beloved triumph of man against nature, but sadly in the end, nature got her revenge in the form of a rare Californian tropical hurricane named Kathleen. Relentless rains and vicious winds tore through the gorge, collapsing tunnels and tearing through trestles. When Kathleen was finished, Southern Pacific Railroad (who owned the line) requested permission from the Department of Transportation to simply cut their losses and abandon the line.

 Now the trestle sits unused—at least by the iron giants it was built to carry. Hikers, train enthusiasts and mountain bikers have fallen in love with the 750-ft. long wooden marvel and it has become a popular spot for exploring desert dwellers. The hike to the trestle and back is 12 miles, but the terrain is easy to travel and there is a ton of abandoned railway goodies to stumble across on the way. 

The railroad is abandoned, but is still considered private property, so a safe distance of 100 ft. will keep you from being cited for trespassing. Like any desert location, visitors must keep the severe climate in mind, carry water, and plan carefully to avoid becoming a part of the landscape themselves. 

Know Before You Go

Those with off-road vehicles can travel south several miles from S-2 where Carrizo Creek crosses the highway. At road's end, you can continue hiking south a few miles parallel to the railroad to the east, and then a rocky half-mile climb to view the trestle from below.