Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 17, 2018

One of the Seven Wonders (Railroad Category): Tehachapi Loop

Most people around the world who recognize the name of Tehachapi, California, probably associate it with the truck-driving song, “Willin’,” written by Lowell George, originally recorded by Little Feat, and then a hundred other singers and bands.

I been from Tucson to Tucumcari …
Tehachapi to Tonopah.

Mountain biking enthusiasts know about Tehachapi’s growing popularity as a great place for their sport. Wind energy proponents identify the Tehachapi Pass as the location of a large-scale wind turbine farm.

Wind turbines M Vincent 2219 680

Here in southern California, we associate the town with the products from its apple, pear and other fruit orchards.

Apples M Vincent 2280 680

Tehachapi (teh-HATCH-eh-pee), population 13,000, at 4,000 feet elevation, is nestled among hills at the south of the Sierra Nevada range, between the San Joaquin Valley to the west and the Mojave Desert to the east (see map, below).

The elevation, rainfall and climate favor orchard agriculture.

But If You’re a Railroad Fan …

… “Tehachapi” signifies only one thing: The Tehachapi Loop. A significant work of engineering, it’s considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the Railroad World.”*

Before I show you a picture, some background will help it make sense.

San Francisco to Los Angeles, 1874

The Santa Fe Railroad line from San Francisco to Los Angeles was nearly complete in 1874. From San Francisco, it already crossed the broad San Joaquin Valley southeast as far as Bakersfield (map, blue line). The line north from Los Angeles had reached Mojave (map, red line) many years earlier, and was the shipping point for mining and agriculture north of there.

Tehachapi map Google

The missing link was 60 or so miles of southeasterly passage through the Tehachapi Pass at the foot of the Sierras, 28 miles of it requiring a steep grade. Highway 58 now traverses the same general path.

It was a stern challenge. The valley climbs steeply and is narrow. Trains of the era required a gradient of no more than approximately 2%, and the Santa Fe engineers plotted a route that wound back and forth across the valley in order to provide as much linear run as possible, and to minimize excavation and tunneling.

One place stymied them. About 14 miles northwest of Tehachapi (map, red square), they were out of room in order to lift their trains onto a useable bench along the southern side of the valley, from which they could build the route to the pass.

Chief engineer William Hood solved the problem by designing a helix or spiral loop 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) in circumference. The track heading southeast would bend to the left in a circle, cross back over itself and continue curving back to the southeast. Here’s an aerial view. Top of the photo is approximately north.


From the left is the lower level climbing up from Bakersfield. By the time the track reaches the crossover, it’s 77 feet above the lower level. A train 4,000 or more feet long will cross over itself.


Most of the work was with picks, shovels and blasting power, done by thousands of laborers, including 3,000 Chinese workers. They excavated cuts, bored tunnels and hauled thousands of tons of fill. After that, crews installed the steel rail. The project was driven at a terrific pace, and Santa Fe completed the line in two years.

The Loop

Tehachapi Loop is relatively easy to see, but difficult to render in a photograph. Here is a panorama. The curving dark gray lines are the track.

Tehachapi Loop Brad Nixon 680

The picture is from the most easily accessible site, looking almost due north. The tunnel beneath the crossover point is obscured by the terrain near the center of the photo. Follow the markings on the version, below.

Tehachapi Loop marked Brad Nixon 680

Southeast bound trains come from the left, through the tunnel. The yellow line indicates where the track’s out of view. The track (red line) emerges from the cut and bends north. It crosses behind a hill — blue line — then comes into sight again and continues around the circle toward Tehachapi on the right.

I did not wait for a train to pass through, which would make the scene easier to appreciate.

As it turns out, I wouldn’t have had long to wait. After leaving the site, I encountered this train headed up toward the Loop, which it would reach in another 10 minutes or so.

Freight train Brad Nixon 4338 680

Freight train Brad Nixon 2393 680

Visiting Tehachapi Loop

The simplest access is the Route 58 exit for the miniscule village of Keene. The Keene exit is marked, and there’s a California State Historical Society sign for Tehachapi Loop. The exits from both east or west meet Woodford-Tehachapi Road. Turn right (east). Drive three miles. The viewpoint has space to pull off, and two monuments guarantee you’ve found the spot.

Tehachapi Loop Brad Nixon 2392

Be careful on that road. It’s narrow, winding, and the scenery is lovely and distracting.

There are some additional opportunities for viewing and photographing the Loop if you have time, provided at this site:

Will I See a Train?

That line is now one of the busiest rail routes in the west. On some days, it carries more than 40 trains a day. If you’re determined to watch (and video tape!) a train traversing the Loop, go prepared to wait, but you probably won’t need to wait much more than an hour. Rail traffic is often highest on weekends.

If you want more, it will take you only seconds of online searching to find hundreds of photographs and videos of trains in the Loop.

*Although the American Society of Civil Engineers designated Tehachapi Loop as one of the “seven railroad wonders of the world,” it’s unclear what the others are, or if such a list actually exists. What’s your nomination? Leave a comment. We’ll create our own seven railroad wonders.

Note: Originally, I described this as a “BNSF line.” An attentive reader informs me it is a Union Pacific line, although BNSF trains and other use it, as the photos demonstrate.

© Brad Nixon 2018, 2021. Two photographs © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. “Willin'” © Lowell George or his agents or designees. Map © Google with my emendations.


  1. When my wife and I were traveling on British Colombia, Canada, 30 years ago, one of the tours we took was on the Canadian railway. I don’t remember the exact route or name of the railway line, but the scenery was unforgettable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a landmark route, world famous, and I’d love to have the chance to see it. AND some impressive engineering, too.


  2. Interesting train loop. I heard about a railroad that used a similar technique in Switzerland.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, that’s interesting. I know the one I saw isn’t unique. And the grades in the Alps are a likely place. I’ll search for it. Thanks, Shawn.


  3. Also where the Joads’ first glimpsed the promised land, or am I overplaying the Exodus of the Okies?


    • Probably not. Promises are easy. Delivering is difficult. But you’ve put your finger on some portion of the answer to the fact that there was any money anywhere in 1930, and some of it was in California’s Central Valley, because someone had to grow food somewhere. California’s ranches and farms did a considerable portion of it, on the back of thousands of Joads.
      You know, I only recently learned that the reason that the image of ragged men selling apples on street corners in the Depression was driven by the fact that Washington had a bumper crop of apples in at least one Depression year. The country was awash in apples, and they became a ubiquitous low-cost food, shipped everywhere they could go. Again, up there, grown by the orchards, but picked by itinerant labor.
      Hope all’s well. Thanks for weighing in with a Mosaic observation.


  4. Amazing feat of engineering!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Everything about this post was new to me: Little Feat; “Willin'”; Tehachapi and its loop (thanks for the pronunciation guide); the seven wonders of the railroad world. I enjoyed all the details — including the apples.

    As for railroad wonders, I’m not sure I know of one that would qualify, but I do have several railroad favorites. One involves the BNSF. I’ve stayed twice in a renovated BNSF bunkhouse in Matfield Green, Kansas, about a hundred feet from the BNSF tracks. It’s one of their primary intermodal lines, and there were trains at least twice an hour. I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An engineering miracle. I think the best way to show it would be using a drone. What do you think, Brad?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Almost certainly. I’ll be surprised if it hasn’t been done. There may well be such footage out on YouTube or some other resource. If I were to do it, I’d consider flying my drone along the track, following the course of a train, but that might be technically against what the railroad would permit, and could put the drone pilot in some trouble.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The line is not owned by BNSF. It is owned by Union Pacific Railroad with BNSF trains running on the line via trackage rights

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I’ve made the correction.


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: