All aboard! Dress the kids in their snowman jammies and head over to one of these holiday trains where it’s Christmas every day. Singing and dancing elves will be sure to put even the grumpiest grown-up in the holiday spirit. Warm your hands and bellies with hot chocolate and cookies and get ready to belt out “Silent Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as the train rolls out of the station.

polar express santa cruz ca

Photo Credit: The Polar Express Santa Cruz

Points North

The Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Train
Each holiday season, the Napa Valley Wine Train transforms into the magical Santa Express. Costumed characters including Frosty the Snowman, the Gingerbread Man, Rudolph and of course Santa meander through the cars entertaining the little ones during this 1 hour journey. Magical wristbands light up periodically along the journey to provide holiday cheer to all those on the train.

Napa valley wine train santa

Photo Credit: Napa Valley Wine Train

Good to Know:

  • Make your reservations NOW. This train sells out very early.
  • 10 Santa Express trains run each season
  • Regular seating at a table, no booster seats available
  • Food and drink are available for purchase on the train, including a kid-friendly menu

Dates: November 19 – December 29 (closed November 24 and December 24-25)
Times: 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Where: The Napa Valley Wine Train Station, 1275 McKinstry Street, Napa
Cost: Starting at $55/person

The Skunk Train Christmas Train
It is well worth the drive up north for a visit to the Skunk Train. There you will experience 40 miles of railroad through some of the most beautiful redwoods, mountains and coastline in Mendocino County. With this gorgeous setting as the backdrop, the Magical Christmas Train is truly special. Each family can enjoy strolling musicians, playful elves and a visit with St. Nick on board. Light refreshments are provided including hot cocoa in a souvenir cup, popcorn and wonderful cookies. The Skunk Train invites your whole family to share in the holiday cheer, including your dogs! That’s right, well-behaved dogs are also welcome on the ride!


Photo Credit: Ray B. via yelp

Good to Know:

  • Dress in layers as the outside cars can get chilly
  • Pack a lunch, as there is no lunch stop on this train. Some light refreshments are included
  • Several local hotels and B&Bs offer discounts and packages for Skunk Train visitors, both in Fort Bragg and Willits.

Dates: December 3 – December 23
Times: See website for full schedule as several departure times are available
Where: The Skunk Train departs from either Ft. Bragg or Willits
Cost: $44 per adult, $34 for children ages 2-12, $10 per dog and infants under 2 are free. Tickets are available with a Christmas storybook for an additional cost.

Points South

Polar Express
Brand new this year, this train is the perfect excursion to kick off your holiday season. The one hour round-trip ride starts and ends at the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Hop aboard the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Railway where singing and dancing chefs serve cookies and hot chocolate while they narrate the children’s classic, The Polar Express. Santa and elves board the train at the North Pole to lead passengers in Christmas carols.

polar express santa cruz

Photo Credit: The Polar Express

Good to Know:

  • Spend some post-ride time at the Boardwalk. Each adult and child age 3 and up will receive a $10 MyBoardwalk Card good for rides and games.
  • Pajamas encouraged!
  • No charge for babies under age 2.

Dates: Select dates Nov. 18 – Dec. 23 (see website for specific dates and times)
Times: 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Polar Express train departs and returns from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 400 Beach Street in Santa Cruz
Cost: $34 – 89

Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train
Santa at the Beach! This unforgettable journey begins by boarding a vintage train decorated with thousands of lights. Once you embark on this 60 minute round trip ride, your family can enjoy refreshments, a holiday sing along, and even a visit from Santa. The fun continues after the train ride too. Admission for the holiday train also includes your choice of one activity at Santa’s Kingdom at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with choices ranging from mini golf, laser tag or arcade games.

Roaring Camp

Photo credit: Roaring Camp Railroad

Good to Know:

  • Leave the strollers in the car as there is limited space on the train
  • Bring snacks as food options are limited
  • There are Porta-potties on the Holiday Lights train
  • There is also a Holiday Tree Walk where you can take a steam train from Roaring Camp’s Felton location to Bear Mountain and view a tree-lined walk of decorated trees.

Dates: November 25-26; December 3-4, 10-11, 17-23
Times: 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. (varies by date)
Where: Santa Cruz Holiday Light trains depart and return in front of Neptune’s Kingdom on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. 400 Beach Street in Santa Cruz
Cost: $31 for adults and $25 for children ages 2-12

The Caltrain Holiday Train
A holiday tradition since 2011, this free family event is a chance to check out special Caltrain cars decked out with over 70,000 glittering lights. The Holiday Train makes stops at 9 Caltrain stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara. Come to one of the stations to take in the beautiful train, listen to holiday entertainment and bring a donation for Toys 4 Tots, as they will be collecting there. It’s the perfect opportunity to enjoy a winter evening with your little ones while also showing them the importance of giving back to kids in need in your community.

Silicon Valley Holiday train

Photo Credit: Caltrain Holiday Train presented by Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Good to Know:

  • This is not a ride and no passengers are allowed on the holiday train. The public is invited to join in the celebration at each of the stations thirty minutes before expected arrival time.

Dates: December 3rd and 4th
Times: See online schedule for arrival and departure times
Where: Caltrain Stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara
Cost: Free!

Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad Fantasy of Lights Train
Erupting volcanoes and dinosaur dens! When you board the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad you’re in for much more than your standard holiday train ride. The sweet little open-air train takes you for a 1.5 mile drive through Vasona Park’s Fantasy of Lights spectacular. Cuddle with your loved ones listening to the festive tunes the train provides and take in all the lighted exhibits which feature everything from traditional holiday decorations to the more unexpected ones like a giant pirate ship.

billy jones wildcat railroad
Photo Credit: Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad by Jim Koski

Good to Know:

  • Dress warmly. The train is small (roller coaster style seats) with no roof or windows.
  • Children under age 3 ride free with a paying adult
  • You can also walk or drive your car through Vasona Park to see the Festival of Lights
  • Avoid University Ave. when arriving. Take Los Gatos Blvd. to Blossom Hill Rd. and turn right into the Oak Meadow parking lot.

Dates: Dec. 8-11 and 15-23
Times: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Where: 233 Blossom Hill Road at Oak Meadow Park in Los Gatos
Cost: $6 per person for one train ride and unlimited carousel rides

Points East

Zoo Lights at the Oakland Zoo
The Oakland Zoo pulls out all the stops for their annual Zoo Lights Festival of Holiday Lights. Evening hours allow kids and adults the chance to experience hundreds of thousands of sparkling LED lights illuminating the zoo, turning a typical zoo visit into something extraordinary. There are countless activities from checking out dozens of decorated animal structures to catching the arrival of Santa’s sleigh from the North Pole. Don’t forget to pick up some “zoo bites” when the kids get cranky and need a snack asap. Grab a hot cocoa or other holiday treat and hop on the Outback Express Adventure Train for a short 20 minute ride–perfect for even the smallest kiddo. A chance to be at the zoo in the dark enjoying all the holiday cheer is too good to miss!

ZooLight 30_29_28Enhancer (640x427)

Photo credit: Oakland Zoo

Good to Know:

  • Children under 2 are free
  • Zoo members receive a $1 discount
  • Parking is free
  • Check the Zoo’s website in December for specific information on Santa’s arrival times

Dates: December 2 through January 1, 2017 (closed December 24 & 25)
Times: 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Where: Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Road, Oakland
Cost: $8 per adult; $7 per child

Niles Canyon Railway Train of Lights
The Niles Canyon Train of Lights is an extremely popular East Bay tradition for many. The twinkling lights on the antique coaches are sure to bring holiday cheer to any Scrooge in your family. Enjoy festive snacks, jolly music and joyful merriment as you take in the 13 mile round trip ride. Be sure to say hi to St. Nick!

Niles Canyon Railway

Photo Credit: Katherine F. via Yelp

Good to Know:

  • Get your tickets early! This event is very popular and sells out quickly. Tickets are available online.
  • The ride lasts a little over an hour
  • Trains run rain or shine
  • Train departs on time so arrive early
  • No strollers on board

Dates: Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday during the holiday season (except December 24th & 25th)
Times: The train departs Niles at 4:30 p.m. and Sonol at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Niles station and Sonol station
Cost: $30 per person, $45 per person in the first class dome (children 2 and under are free if on a lap)

Worth the Drive

Nevada Northern Railway Polar Express
If your holiday plans take you to Nevada, then you’ll want to grab a ticket aboard the Polar Express that leaves from the town of Ely. This 90-minute ride includes hot cocoa and cookies, the reading of The Polar Express by some of Santa’s helpers and a visit from the big man himself!

Northern Nevada Railway

Photo Credit: Northern Nevada Railway

Good to Know:

  • Discounts available for military, AAA members and groups of 12 or more
  • Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis so arrive early
  • Train is pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive

Dates: November 19, 25 and 26; December 2-4, 9-11, 16-19, 21-23, 26-28
Times: See online schedule for departure times
Where: Ely, NV
Cost: $39 adults, $20 kids 4-12

Will you be kicking off your holiday season with a ride on the rails? Let us know in the comments below! 

—Kate Loweth, Melanie Ulate and Amber Guetebier