Each year, just as spring temperatures threaten to become cozy, Medford parent and School District 6 teacher Mike Hagy says he becomes just as anxious to ride the trains at the Medford Railroad Park as his 9-year-old son, Joseph.
For some seven years, he's taken both his own son and dozens of students from Central Point Elementary to the park. For his students, it's the culmination of a teaching unit on transportation.
"It's fun and educational. It's just such an awesome resource and what really amazes me is it's becoming more popular now, but even with 30-some kids in my room, most of them have never been there," Hagy said. "It's sort of like an unheralded attraction in Medford."
A fairly well kept secret, the Medford Railroad Park, at the end of Berrydale Avenue, opened this month to its usual batch of fans; 21,000 hit the park last year.
Entering its 26th year of free train rides, the park is open the second and fourth Sundays, April through October.
Afternoons at the park are chock full of train rides, squealing children, Sno-cones and railroad history. While rides are free, the thousands of children who visit seem to enjoy plunking quarters into various donation buckets almost as much as the actual rides.
On an eighth-scale rail system that includes diesel and steam engines built by club members, train rides are offered along more than 4,000 feet of track. Formerly a flat terrain, a "Mountain Division" track added last summer added four minutes of twisting tunnels and bridges to the journey.
Tucked along Highway 99 between Medford and Central Point, the 6.5-acre park was built in 1981 by members of the Southern Oregon Live Steamers Club.
Today, the pint-sized train yard is home to five clubs: the Southern Oregon Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society; the Southern Oregon Live Steamers; the Morse Telegraph Club; the Rogue Valley Model Railroad Club; and the Southwest Oregon Large Scale Train Club.
With six to seven trains at a time, Johnson said the park with its expanded track was a big hit last summer and got off to a great start this Easter.
"The Mountain Division has been extremely popular. It's a lot of fun because you're riding along going over a bridge and trains are going underneath you and everyone's waving, having a good time," he said.
"Back when we opened in 1981, you took two turns around the flat loop and that was it!"
In addition to train rides, park attractions include restored rail cars to explore, a caboose, hopper car, Medco's "Four Spot" Willamette Locomotive and a working telegraph system for sending and receiving telegrams from one side of the park to the other.
An HO-scale train setup in the nearby yellow clubhouse offers a glimpse at trains on a different scale; as does an outdoor version, the Garden Railway, set to nearly double in size in the near future.
As for kid fuel, the park opened this year with an expanded concession stand, offering hot dogs, Sno-cones and other items.
Whether first time visitors or parents bringing second generations of the family to ride the trains, everyone from toddlers to grandparents should find something that appeals to them, Johnson said.
"It's just a good time for the whole family," Johnson said.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at email@example.com.