One of Ventura County’s most distinctive aspects is its rail system. The tracks that run through the Heritage Valley (Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru) have long been a source of pride for the area, and the numerous train excursions — including the Murder Mystery Dinners, the Pumpkinliner and the offbeat, creepy yet very popular Zombie Hunter Train — offered by the Fillmore and Western Railway in years past were a draw for tourists and locals alike.
When Sierra Railroad acquired the Fillmore and Western equipment in late 2021, the plan was always to bring back some of these popular experiences. And the first one of these to roll out is the Sunburst Railbike.
Fun for Everyone
A railbike is a four-wheeled vehicle, somewhat similar to a recumbent bike, designed to roll along railroad tracks. Sunburst’s model accommodates two people sitting side by side, and is operated by pedal power with electric assist.
The Sunburst Railbike experience debuted the first weekend in March, and despite the cooler temperatures and rain, has already made a splash. Not surprising, considering its pedigree: The operator is Mendocino Railway, Sierra Railroad’s tourism and entertainment-focused company. Mendocino Railway is also responsible for the famous Skunk Train that travels through the redwoods of Mendocino County and the River Fox out of Sacramento. Both of Sunburst’s northern siblings have been delighting passengers with a wide variety of train excursions for years, and all that experience will be to the Heritage Valley’s advantage.
“The railbikes have been a big hit and we’ve had a strong response to their launch,” says Melodie Hilton, director of marketing for Mendocino Railway.
One secret to the Sunburst's success is its family-friendly design. Hilton explains that the Sunburst Railbike is “very unique . . . This particular style of bike is something we’ve developed ourselves.”
Thus, the excursions are suitable for ages 6 and up, and Hilton adds that “we can do infants in a kangaroo pack or a car seat.” In addition, the patent-pending design lends itself to people of nearly any ability.
“It’s called a ‘bike’ but . . . no balance is needed,” she explains. “It has four wheels. Even non-bike people can use this. And even for people with mobility issues, it’s still very easy.”
While Hilton can’t claim that wheelchair users could necessarily use the railbike, she encourages anyone with limited mobility to give Sunburst a ring.
“If you have a special circumstance, call to discuss,” she says. “They actually might be able to figure out a solution.”
Do note, however, that pets are not allowed on railbike excursions.
Sunburst Railbike excursions are currently offered Thursday through Sunday, with two trips a day, at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Each trips lasts about three hours. Sets of 10 bikes will go out for each trip, with a guide and conductor for each group. It’s the perfect mix of social gathering and privacy — while you’ll have opportunities to interact with other riders, if you wish, the railbikes tend to spread out during the trip.
“You’re not that close,” confirms Hilton. “You can’t overhear the conversations going on in other bikes.”
How hard will riders have to pedal?
“As hard as you want!” she says. “You’ll want to use the electric assist . . . but if you’re into a total workout, you can use very little electric assist.”
Trips cover 17 miles in total, departing from the Santa Paula Train Depot and traveling through the countryside and citrus and avocado orchards. The terrain is mainly flat, although Hilton notes that there is “some rolling terrain.”
The first stop will be at Prancer’s Farm, which local train enthusiasts may recall from previous Pumpkinliner and Christmas Tree Train rides. Set on 40 acres in Santa Paula, this is a delightful detour where everyone can enjoy a variety of barnyard animals and pick up farm-fresh produce (be sure to bring cash). A small basket on the railbike will hold your purchases for the duration of the trip.
After more pedaling and taking in the sights, the group stops in a picturesque location to enjoy a picnic lunch. At this time riders will have to bring their own provisions (no alcohol allowed), although Mendocino Railway hopes to offer a catered lunch in the future.
After lunch, it’s a leisurely pedal (with as much electric assist as desired) back to Santa Paula, where the city’s charming downtown awaits with its shops, eateries, etc. Whether they’re sticking around for a bit of browsing and dining, or heading straight home, Sunburst riders will have enjoyed a special, unique and relaxing yet active experience that capitalizes on Ventura County’s rich railroad and agricultural history.
“One of the many unique things about this guided tour is that it is on a private right-of-way that the public cannot experience on their own,” Hilton says. “The stop at Prancer’s is so much fun, being part of this dynamic local farming community in this gorgeous valley. It is a respite in the larger Los Angeles urban landscape, and a harken back to the quieter times of the area’s rich ag heritage.”
On the Horizon
Due to the growing popularity of the Sunburst Railbikes — which Hilton only expects to increase as the weather improves — Mendocino Railway is planning to put additional trips on the schedule.
“We will be adding sunset bike tours that happen in the evening hours on our long summer days,” Hilton explains.
According to Railbike Manager Nicholas Martinez, the railbike experience is just the first of many excursions the company hopes to operate out of the Santa Paula Train Depot.
“We want to see this historic line fully utilized with family train events, romance, movie cameos and freight opportunities,” he says. “As we develop the business, the railbikes are a great preface to putting the tracks to use moving people in fun and interesting ways.”