Protecting the Eel River Canyon

The Eel River Canyon, or the “Grand Canyon of the Eel River” as some call it, is a stunning region. For over 50 miles the mainstem of the Wild and Scenic Eel River carves its way through the Franciscan formation, revealing masses of Serpentine, and surrounded by steep cliffs, oak woodlands, and large parcels of diverse and connected wildlife habitat.

The remnants of derailments from over 20 years ago are still present in the river and along the banks of the mainstem.

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad runs through the canyon parallel to the river. Its a feature whose impacts on the landscape are impossible to miss. Tributaries, important sources of cold water and access to off-channel spawning and rearing habitat, were filled in to create railroad crossings. Over 40 tunnels were carved along the entire right of way. And remnants of countless derailments and accidents are left sprawled across the landscape and in the river itself.

The railroad was completed in 1914, but the inaugural run was delayed by a landslide – something that would prove to be a common experience on the line. While in operation, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad was the most expensive line to maintain and by 1996 it was permanently closed.

Now, lead by the visionary efforts of Senator Mike McGuire, stakeholders from San Francisco to Eureka are working together to create the Great Redwood Trail. When finished, this rails-to-trails project will span 320 miles and connect small communities to fantastic (and ecologically appropriate) outdoor recreation opportunities.

But – this exciting multi-use, world-class trail is under threat. As part of the process of preserving the right of way for use as a trail, a process called railbanking, two companies tied to the coal industry are preparing offers to take over the line. Their proposals to revive the defunct line are absurd, but unfortunately federal railroad law provides a path outside of state and federal environmental review.

Learn more or get involved in the fight against coal trains at