The Bodie and Benton Railway Route

John Brabyn Old narrow gauge railroad ties

Bodie -- one of the richest and best preserved mining camps -- nestles east of the Sierra Nevada at 8,300 feet. The main tourist road is from the west via Highway 270 (13 miles -- the last 3 unpaved), but desert explorers prefer the alternative (completely unpaved and neglected) approaches.

A good rough one from the east is Bodie Canyon -- the old toll road for stages to Carson City and the Hawthorne railhead. (Part way along it a steep 4WD side road -- not the longer graded gravel road used today -- goes up to Aurora and is well worth the ride). An alternative route to Bodie from Bridgeport, California, is the Aurora Canyon Road which leaves from the Bridgeport cemetery to pass 10,237 ft Potato Peak, cross Rough Creek (Bodie's water source) and descend to Bodie on the Geiger Grade beside the old aqueduct. From the south, a signposted turnoff to Bodie from Highway 167 marks the 10 mile Cottonwood Canyon Road, up which wood was hauled from Mono Lake to satisfy the prodigious appetites of the mines and mills for shoring timbers and fuel. Explorers are enticed irresistibly on by a sign warning: "Extremely rough road. Conventional vehicles not advised. Allow one hour travel time". Range Rover time is about 15 minutes -- slightly quicker than the main paved road.

But the grandaddy of Rover Roads to Bodie, shown as a 4WD trail on USGS maps, follows the old Bodie and Benton Railroad, built in 1881. Although the planned extension to Benton on the Carson & Colorado (with connections to the Central Pacific), was not completed, the railroad helped extend the viability of Bodie's mines for three decades by inexpensively delivering wood. The old railway grade can still be found from sandy Adobe Meadows Road north of Highway 167. Beyond a large windmill, picturesque lime kiln ruins stand near Lime Kiln Station where trains were split in two for the steep 10 mile haul to Bodie, 2,000 feet above. Past the ruins a 4WD trail starts right, crossing the railroad grade after 0.8 miles. Tread Lightly here by waiting for an angled left at 1.2 miles, climbing parallel to (rather than on) the old railway to avoid destroying the decayed remnants of old ties. Soon, an unmapped left branch leads up to the well-preserved railway embankment and picturesque narrow gauge ties. These deadend at a deep ravine, in which lie the remains of a 260 foot trestle, 50 feet high, which once spanned it. A pleasant camp spot is located among the Pinyon Pines, which close in on the sides of the trail in this area, putting a few scratches on the passing Rover.

The drive from this point is not for the faint hearted; the tracks I saw in September 1994 indicated that only one other vehicle had made it up to Bodie since the spring rains. My Range Rover left a rear bumper end cap behind somewhere for future explorers to find! Back on the "main" trail, you cross the deep ravine lower down, climbing steeply out over loose rocks. A left fork soon follows and a distinctly rocky ride is had as the old roadbed is crossed and recrossed, until you turn left directly onto it at a tee in the Rover Road. This junction is just above the two switchbacks where the trains had to reverse direction twice to negotiate the steep grade.

Driving along the next section is a real history reliving experience, following the old tracks around precipitous side slopes on the well preserved original earthworks, cuts and rock buttressing. Sweeping views abound if you take your eyes off the trail (not recommended!) In one spot, another ravine must be gingerly crossed on the original earth embankment which has eroded away to a very narrow crown. A deep hole half way across adds to the suspense. I would not like to try this section in wet weather, as slipping off to either side would mean a premature exploration of Heaven! Eventually the summit is reached at about 8,500 feet, then it's an easy run into Bodie on any of several rutted dirt trails. (The clearest downhill route brings you out near the old Toll House east of town where you can ford the creek and join Bodie Canyon Road).

I highly recommend the Bodie & Benton route as the official Back Door to Bodie. Do, however, bring the USGS 1:24,000 map "Kirkwood Spring", unless you devoutly believe in "seat of the pants" navigation and have plenty of spare time!

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