Trains pass over a water feature where guests often toss coins.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS MILLER
After years of service with a spotless record for punctuality and nary a mishandled bag or piece of cargo, the Bighorn Railroad at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is about to be revamped.
“It’s a complete and utter re-imagining of what is beloved, and it will still be beloved,” says Allison Krupp, The Living Desert’s vice president of marketing and communications.
The retrofit begins in January. Railroad supervisor Justin Martinez will team up with a part-time assistant, Justin Perkins, and 65 volunteers, including 10 Zoo Teens, to upgrade what is believed to be the largest outdoor G-scale railroad in existence. (G-scale refers to garden scale. All figures and structures are in 1:22 scale.)
Building the railroad in the late 1990s.PHOTO COURTESY THE LIVING DESERT ZOO AND GARDENS
Today, the model railroad sprawls across approximately three-quarters of an acre with 3,200 feet of track and presents a variety of scenes that have been hand-built by staff and volunteers since the G-scale train first appeared at The Living Desert in 1998.
The train winds through models of everything from a throwback mining camp to the church at Old Mission Santa Barbara. That randomness will be addressed by an approximately $200,000 update over the next one to two years. The railroad will soon pass by representations of each of the nine desert cities with Idyllwild, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Twentynine Palms Marine Base included for good measure.
The scene will become more contemporary and relevant with landscaping that emphasizes native plants to a greater degree. Visitors can expect displays that highlight The Living Desert’s conservation efforts on behalf of the Peninsular pronghorn, an endangered subspecies of antelope, and the rare vaquita, the smallest member of the porpoise family. Individuals and businesses can “adopt” a model building for a fee. All in all, there are plenty of reasons to get on board.