In The Rolling Groves: The Sunburst Railbike experience brings riders up close and personal with ag country.

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PEDAL POWER with a bit of electric assist makes it fun and easy to ride the rails through the Heritage Valley citrus groves.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer | Photos by Viktor Budnik

When the Fillmore and Western Railway closed down a few years ago, Ventura County locals…and those outside the area who loved to ride the rails…were sorry to see the demise of beloved traditions like the Murder Mystery Dinner Train, the Pumpkinliner and the offbeat, but very popular, Zombie Hunter Train.

Train enthusiasts had reason to rejoice when Sierra Railroad acquired Fillmore and Western’s trains and equipment in 2021, and signed a 30-year lease for use of the Santa Paula Branch Line tracks. Sierra Railroad, headquartered in Woodland, California, is known for its operation of freight trains through the Sierra Northern Railway as well as excursions offered by the River Fox in Sacramento and the famous Skunk Train, which travels through the scenic redwood forests of Mendocino County.

Sierra Railroad dubbed its Southern California home the Sunburst Line, and brought fun back on track with a new way to explore the Heritage Valley.

ADVENTURE BEGINS at the charming and historic Santa Paula Train Depot, right in the heart of downtown.

RAILBIKES FOR EVERYONE

The Sunburst Railbikes were introduced in the spring of 2023, and have quickly become a must-do activity in the area. A railbike is a four-wheeled vehicle, vaguely 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 Railbikes operator is Mendocino Railway, Sierra Railroad’s tourism and entertainment-focused company. Railbikes have been offered on the line traveled by the Skunk Train for years, and the excursion has definitely caught on in Ventura County. Just take a look at the calendar, and you’ll see weekend excursions booking up weeks in advance.

SUNBURST STAFF includes Robert Alamillo, Yvonne Bell and manager Nicholas Martinez.

One secret to the Sunburst’s success is its family-friendly design. According to Melodie Hilton, director of marketing for Mendocino Railway, 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 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.”

ALL ABOARD

There are currently 14 railbikes, each able to accommodate two people, with large wheels that smoothly and securely roll along the rails as the rider pedals. Bikes travel as a loose pack, in a line — similar to train cars — but they are operated independently, so they tend to spread out.

The ride begins in downtown Santa Paula at the old Santa Paula Train Depot, a charming red-and-white historic building. There’s ample parking, both at an adjacent lot and along the nearby streets.

After check in, the guides/conductors will assign everyone to a bike and then run through the rules and operation. Using the bike is simple: brake on the left, pedals for the feet (the seat is adjustable to get the perfect fit) and an electric assist close at hand. The bikes do operate just fine with pure pedal power, but most will want to use at least a little assist. There are three to five speeds available per bike, which are easy to adjust…and they do make the rides more fun, especially on an incline.

Once the rules and instructions are over, it’s time to strap on those helmets and seatbelts and head out.

Bright yellow sunflowers are among the many offerings for sale at Prancer’s, which also has honey, nuts and dried fruit.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

The ride covers 10 miles, down from 17 when the railbikes debuted in 2023. Thank the winter storms for that — rocks, mud and some damaged rails are still being dealt with, although the company hopes to have the full line open again at some point.

In the meantime, those 10 miles are a pleasant mix of small-town charm, railway history and agricultural beauty. There are three street crossings as the bikes leave the depot, made safe by the presence of crossing rails that the railbike conductors operate themselves. As one rider noted, “It’s fun to stop traffic!”

The tracks pass through a small train yard with cars and other equipment before reaching a bridge over the Santa Clara River. Keep an eye out for squirrels, hawks and other wildlife, and be prepared to take lots of photos — as you’re only traveling 10-15 miles an hour, there will be plenty of opportunity.

Bright yellow sunflowers are among the many offerings for sale at Prancer’s, which also has honey, nuts and dried fruit.

Things get even prettier as you enter the citrus orchards. Incredibly fragrant when blooming, full of bright yellow or orange orbs when the fruit is ripe. You’ll be dreaming of your next mimosa or lemonade while gazing at an azure sky, perhaps augmented with dramatic clouds, the emerald green hillsides and the sharp outline of the nearby Topatopa Mountains. The only sound will be the meditative rhythm of the wheels rolling along the tracks.

If a few winged insects cross your path, don’t be alarmed: It’s just bees, collecting pollen from the surrounding orchard (and possibly a few wildflowers). They’re too focused on the task at hand to trouble a handful of helmeted passersby…but look north to see a collection of white boxes that serve as homes for the hives. Some of the honey available at local stores and farmers markets has its origin here.

Not far from the bee boxes, about 30 minutes into the trip, riders will have a short break amidst a picturesque and remote lemon orchard. There are picnic tables and restrooms here, and plenty of time to wander through the trees while the Sunburst staff get the bikes reoriented for the return trip. They use a small, blue, circular turnstile on the track for this. This is a great opportunity to enjoy a lunch, snack or stroll through the trees. If citrus is in season, you’ll be tempted to harvest right from the tree — but DO NOT. Anything on the ground, however, is fair game.

ABOVE Prancer’s Farm is a highlight of the excursion.

PAUSE AT PRANCER’S

The return trip holds fewer surprises, perhaps, but might be more fun: Everyone knows the lay of the land, has gotten used to the railbikes and has (probably) taken their photos. So the group, in general, tends to feel more confident and move faster.

But the stop at Prancer’s Farm is one final treat. Set on 40 acres in Santa Paula, this is a delightful detour that, once upon a time, was a favorite destination for jack-o-lanterns on the Pumpkinliner or Christmas trees during holiday train rides. Prancer’s is equally enjoyable to visit by railbike.

This little outpost has a lot to recommend it: whimsical metal and carved wood sculptures, pick-your-own strawberry fields, charming barnyard animals and a farm stand filled with seasonal produce, local honey, nuts, dried fruit and more. There’s plenty of shade and bathrooms, too. Luckily, every bike comes equipped with a small basket and bungee cord to hold any purchases. Strawberries are exceptionally good right now — and yes, Prancer’s now accepts both cash and credit card.

ROLLING HOME

After Prancer’s, it’s a leisurely pedal back to the depot and the end of the ride.

That doesn’t have to mean the end of the excursion, however. Riders return to the heart of downtown Santa Paula, where shops, eateries and a fantastic cider house (Anna’s Cider, on the corner of Eighth and Main), a few museums and more than a few murals await. There’s no better way to reflect on the rich railroad and agricultural history you’ve just experienced than over a glass of cold, locally pressed cider.

And perhaps that’s the beauty of a Sunburst Railbike excursion. Rolling back time, just for a little while, and experiencing a piece of Ventura County history that is seldom seen.

“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 explains. “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.”

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

• Railbike excursions are $249 per bike; bikes accommodate two people.
• Two-hour excursions cover 10 miles.
• Excursions are offered Wednesdays through Sundays; times will vary. Advance reservations are highly recommended.
• Helmets are both required and provided, but guests may bring their own — just make sure it has an under-the-chin strap.
• Closed-toe shoes are required; NO sandals or flip-flops.
• Water, sunscreen and comfortable clothes suitable for
physical activity are recommended.
•Single riders must be 16 years old or older. All children under 16 must ride with an adult. SMALL service dogs only, please.
• Outside food is allowed, or you may order a picnic lunch with sandwich, chips and a drink (only available on select trips).
• NO alcohol, NO picking from trees.

The Sunburst Railbikes
200 North 10th Street, Santa Paula
www.sunbursttrain.com