Living Desert‘s Garden “Bighorn Railroad” Captures Railroader’s Attention

when we think of a zoo, we usually associate it with a collection of wild and exotic animals in a safe and protected environment. We also expect to learn something about those   creatures and to enjoy their beauty and grace as they go through their daily routines such as feeding time. 

But the Living Desert has added to the Desert Zoo experience with the addition of an expansive and imaginative Garden Railroad!

As Zoo visitors make their way among the many Living Desert Zoo exhibits, their attention is immediately drawn to the “Bighorn Railroad”, with more than 3,000 feet of model railroad track winding through a beautiful garden setting, resplendent with hundreds of miniature scale buildings and vehicles set in a variety of modeled landscapes. Children are particularly drawn to the garden railroad experience and bustle from one vantage point to another to catch a glimpse of one of four model trains making their scheduled runs to multiple destinations.  In many ways, the Garden Railroad layout presents National  Monuments, such as Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, coal mines, mountain timber cutting operations, and depiction of large scale rail yards serving  Southern California communities.

A Garden Scale freight train rolls past Mount Rushmore.

While the Garden Railroad represents a fabulous community investment, it is an all-volunteer force of railroad modelers who come to work, enjoying their passion through the eyes of Zoo visitors, young and old. 

A G-scale Volunteer conducts the daily train talk for visitors young and old alike

“With the desert winds blowing, we have to clean the sand off the tracks almost daily,” advised a train-talk volunteer to a group of visitors gathered for a train talk at 12:30 PM under a nearby shade tree. ‘All of the hundreds of scale model vehicles in the garden have been donated by our volunteers, who have also built the miniature buildings you see as you watch the trains go by.” The volunteer railroader went on to say that the Garden railroad was first unveiled in 1998, when three loops along with a few buildings and a couple of bridges were placed on the ground and the trains ran for the Living Desert’s annual Wildlights program.  The trains became so popular that many requests were made to make the trains a more permanent exhibit.

In 2000, the adventure began.  In order to create the necessary landscape, forty two dump truck loads of dirt were brought in and the Logging and Mine rail lines were created.  Next came the Indio rail yards and to the east of the yard, a large flat area was used to turn the trains around.  In order to get the trains from the lower part of the layout to the upper part of the layout, the idea of a large trestle came about.  The trestle was made in five weeks, taking another four weeks to install. 

Made of redwood, the trestle is believed to be the longest G Scale trestle in the world.



Behind the scenes, there is a train control tower, called “The Little Tower”. In this building, all train activities are controlled by wire on an individual basis.  Each model train has its own switch and in the Little Tower, making stops at depots freight and passenger stations along the way. Even in model railroading, someone has to control the engines on a long shift (13:00 AM to 6:00 PM), all staffed by volunteers.

What can you do with 542 bags of concrete?  Why, you build a replica of the Grand Canyon!  Working with chicken cooping and concrete, the Living Desert volunteers on the Bighorn Railroad build a garden-sized model of the Grand Canyon. The project reflects in miniature what was carved out of Arizona landscape millions of years ago.  Additionally, the volunteers also detailed Indian cliff dwellings of Arizona and New Mexico, complete with the red clay hills, rivers and lakes. 

Other additions to the Garden railroad also include several waterfalls cascading over rocks, with fishermen catching fish from miniature canoes and rowboats. 

Now that construction of the Bighorn Railroad is complete, the goal of the volunteer tra1n crew is to maintain the layout on a daily basis, add more landscape details, a sound system, and more that will add to the enjoyment of the Garden railroad, helping the Living Desert visitors to better understand the importance of the railroad, both culturally and historically.   Note:  for more information about the Living Desert Zoo, located in Rancho Mirage, California, see their website at    Article by Chip Deyerle  and copy write (c) 2014.