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Monterey Branch Handcar Tours Plus More 9/25/2021

by Chris Guenzler

Elizabeth and I slept very well in Salinas at the Quality Inn. After our morning preparations we met Bill and Robin at the car and drove to the Black Bear Diner for breakfast. After that, we filled the car with petrol and made our way to Marina and parked in the parking lot with plenty of time to spare. We all checked in with Donnalee Clark and signed releases before purchasing T-shirts and a coffee mug. The four of us then waited for the handcars to return from the first trip of the day.

Monterey Branch Handcars

This summer we are offering guided handcar tours across the Monterey Branch Line through Fort Ord Dunes State Park. These are handcars, meaning you provide the physical effort using your legs and arms to propel the rail vehicle. When you book one of our handcars, you are booking a car with four seats. Each handcar can carry up to four participants, but we require at least one adult on each handcar. Each participant must be at least 50 inches tall and under 300 pounds. Closed toed shoes are mandatory for all participants. Cycling gloves are helpful, but not required. The design of the handcar precludes carry infants in a sling because the pump arm comes back at the chest.

Tours begin at the corner of Palm Drive and Marina Avenue in the City of Marina. We are about 15 minutes north of famous Cannery Row. After you receive a personalized safety briefing, our tour group consisting of 12 handcars will depart south towards Fort Ord Dunes State Park. You will be led by trained guides to the front and rear, with speeds varying between 7 and 10 mph for the duration of the excursion. The experience runs about 1.5 hours, and covers six miles of the Monterey Branch Line along Monterey Bay. Each handcar is priced at $150 and carries up to four people.

We build our handcars at our specialized shop in Santa Clarita, California. We are a family-owned and operated business that manufactures and exhibits historic replica handcars. As the only worldwide manufacture of railroad handcars, our mission is to keep the technology alive through manufacture, distribution and education. Our collection of handcars includes both modern replicas and original rebuilt machines. We maintain more than 2,000 square feet of industrial manufacturing space dedicated to the manufacture of handcars that we export around the world.

Mason Clark's handcar interest began when he was 12 years old and built his first railroad handcar. By the time he was 16 he had a thriving business building and selling handcars to customers around the world. In 2019 Mason graduated with honors from the prestigious Cal Poly Pomona's Mechanical Engineering Program. While at Cal Poly he designed an all-new touring handcar that we are currently manufacturing for our tour enterprise. It was the handcar that stimulated Mason into choosing a career path in mechanical engineering. The handcar enterprise is a side business for Mason. During the day he is employed as a mechanical engineer working in the aerospace field.

Todd Clark is well known in the railroad enthusiast world as the creator and owner of the popular website known as The web site is the largest and most encompassing railroad hobby site of its kind. Between 2001 and 2014, Todd owned and operated Coast Rail, a popular rail travel business that carried thousands of passengers aboard privately owned passenger cars, behind regularly scheduled Amtrak trains.

Our Trip

As more people arrived, we waited one of the handcars we thought we would be taking. Once almost everyone had arrived, Mason Clark went over the basic operation of the handcar, including braking and the need to have a designed brakeman on each car, as well as stressing the safety and strenuousness of what we were about to undertake. Then they asked who was athletic and we realized that we would need to be on a different car, the penultimate one. One family bowed out and a call was made to a standby family who had a bit of a distance to travel. So Todd Clark launched the first car and made sure it was out of sight before he launched the second.

This was our handcar before the trip.

Patiently waiting to be launched.

Bill and Robin (demonstrating the stop sign to be used when slowing down to stop) were beside us in this four-person handcar.

The signs along the highway.

Waiting to be launched now that the empty car had been filled as the last family arrived.

We were off, pushing and pulling hard to get us up the grade and then got into a rhythm. This allowed us to document the trip if I took pictures and stopped pushing and pulling and then Elizabeth had her turn while I pushed and pulled. Teamwork is the key to success in all situations.

This route was mostly straight track and dated from 1879. This track was the Southern Pacific Monterey main line on which the Del Norte train ran until April 30, 1971, the eve of Amtrak's creation on May 1, 1971.

Approaching the Imjin Parkway exit on California Highway 1.

Taking one of the few curves on the line.

Passing Imjin Highway.

Interesting sand dunes off to the west.

Another curve on this route.

Passing the Lightfighter Drive exit sign in one-and-a-half miles.

We came to the first switch of the trip.

About to go under 8th Street bridge.

The sign says it all.

We went by some interesting vegetation on this trip.

Another curve on this wonderful rail experience.

A former siding from a military base.

The switch for that former siding.

We entered the Historic Gigling Balloon Loop built in 1944.

We went through the gates to the old military base.

The loop went through some cuts and by the sand dunes.

The Clark family cleared 3.5 miles of track that had been taken over by nature with twenty years of vegetational growth. If you think about it, it is really amazing that we are operating trains on these tracks today. A big thank you to the entire Clark family for all the hard work they went through to open this portion of the Monterey Branch.

Passing some interesting vegetation as the group ahead of us went by.

Nearing the rest stop.

All the other handcars were already there except our two.

Closing in on the rest stop.

A view with the Pacific Ocean behind the sand dunes.

We, now being the last car, arrived at the rest stop and disembarked for pictures.

The colorful vegetation and the Pacific Ocean.

Our handcar and the four of us taken by Mason Clark using my camera.

Robin just cannot stop giving the stop sign, also taken by Mason.

Views from the rest stop.

A picture of the bicycle trail that followed our entire route from Marina.

The group ready to leave.

The first group has left.

More groups are leaving.

We are now leaving.

The ride down the remainder of the balloon track.

The car ahead has reached the switch, completing the balloon track and then we followed along.

The groups bunched up again as we came off the balloon track.

Mason following us in a speeder back to Marina.

Interesting buildings on the former military base.

The group going back under the 8th Street bridge.

Handcars as far as the eye can see.

Passing an old loading location with a derail sign in the picture.

The derail by some interesting vegetation.

The group taking another one of the curves.

Sand dunes to the west.

Curving to the left.

Looking both ways at this colorful landscape.

Coming down the hill under the Coast Highway.

Mason was right behind us.

Steel flanges had to be put across a crossing where the tracks had been removed.

Almost back to Marina.

Coming into Marina. We arrived back in Marina and Todd Clark asked us what we thought. Elizabeth replied "Fantastic, but a lot of work" and I said "I enjoyed the trip." Todd asked me if I was riding Amtrak in the pandemic and I said yes I was and that I was married on a Metrolink train during the height of the pandemic to my wonderful bride Elizabeth. Elizabeth then went and bought another mug before we returned to car.

This whole experience was a lot of work and exercise but well worth it. While we both enjoyed and had fun on the railbikes yesterday on the Fox River Train, today's handcar trip was much more strenuous and required us to work as a team more than yesterday. We had a blast doing it as this was a new experience for both of us and we would do it again if the opportunity arises. This is the last weekend of operations for the 2021 season and it is unknown if there will be future trips on this railroad.

I drove Elizabeth, Robin and Bill to Moss Landing for the 2:00 PM Elkhorn Slough Safari Tour. Last night at dinner, Elizabeth suggested we all do this as we had the afternoon free and it was fifteen minutes up the road. Elizabeth secretly had wanted to do this for years after seeing my stories from the two previous times that my mother and I had done it. We parked the car in a lot that required a permit then found the office and checked in, signing a release for the third time in two days. I left Elizabeth and visited the harbour office and paid $10 to park which did not make me happy. We all used the bathroom since there are none on the boat.

Elkhorn Slough Safari Tour Photo Safari

Perfect for photographers of all levels, our special photography tours provide ample opportunities for all aboard to get spectacular shots of sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions and shorebirds, as well as the stunning scenery of the Elkhorn Slough.

Our Trip

Before we even boarded the boat, we had a major event occur.

A sea otter was playing in the water right by where we were waiting and Bill joked that that was the safari tour, thank you for coming. Captain Joe, the owner and operator, welcomed everyone and introduced Brianna, the naturalist for today's trip. We then boarded the boat and were assigned seats by the captain. Life jackets were under the seats but the children had to wear them. Brianna gave a brief talk about safety and distributed binoculars to those who wanted them. Then it was time for leave the dock and start our safari.

We headed out of the harbour. Throughout the trip, Brianna and the captain gave us plenty of information of all the various wildlife we would be seeing on our journey.

California sea lions were up on a dock and making a lot of noise with their cries.

A California sea lion floating on his back in the water.

Moss Landing power plant.

Those California sea lions can find unique places to inhabit.

A mixture of cormorants and pelicans, the first time Elizabeth had seen either sea bird.

Sea otters in the water and also up on the eel grass.

Hydrobikes are something that Elizabeth and I had never seen before and are a new form of recreational entertainment.

A flock of pelicans along the shore.

A baby otter trying to climb the buoy.

He was not having much luck.

California harbour seals along the shore. These are very quiet creatures compared to the California sea lions we saw earlier.

More sea otters and kayakers. While the boat got very close to all the animals, the captain made a point of not disturbing them during the voyage.

An sea otter floating on his back.

This sea otter has his head out of the water.

The Union Pacific Salinas local came through with me being the only person on the boat to take a picture of it. I am now at 66% of catching a train when taking this boat trip.

Sea otters are a lot of fun to watch. The captain returned us to the dock and after we thanked him and Brianna for an excellent tour, I drove us back to Gilroy where we checked in to the Best Western Plus and received a room on the third floor. I started working on the pictures then we had dinner with Robin at the Black Bear Diner. After dinner, I finished the pictures and converted them before I checked the Internet and working on the story. We finished the story and relaxed for the rest of the evening.