All Aboard! 8 Spec-track-ular Holiday Train Rides

The weather outside is frightful, a visit to the big guy in red is on your calendar and the stocking are hung by the chimney with care. The holiday activity next on your bucket list? A holiday train ride. Hop aboard one of the many train rides in the Bay Area that offer decked out vintage train cards, Santa sightings, glittering lights, cocoa and cookies galore.

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Points North

The Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Train
Don’t be fooled by the wine part, this train ride is totally kid-centric (and of course there is wine for the grown-ups) and totally awesome. Costumed characters roam the train, including Santa, Rudolph, and a Snowman, so there are plenty of chances for photo-ops. The ride is 1.5 hours long and winds through the beautiful vineyards of Napa to the Town of Yountville and back again. Festive clothing is highly encouraged, and be prepared for spontaneous Christmas carols and other holiday jolliness.santa_train_2009_09 (640x490)

 Good to Know:

  • Make your reservations NOW. This train sells out early.  Reservations can be made online or by calling +1.800.427.4124.
  • No strollers on the train.
  • Arrive early to get photos with Santa.
  • Trains have clean bathrooms (!)
  • Regular seating at a table, no booster seats available.
  • Food and drink available for purchase on the train, including a kid-friendly menu.

Dates: Dec. 2 -5, 9-12 & 16- 19
Times:  Dec. 2-5 and Dec. 9 -12, 3 – 5:30 p.m.
Dec. 16-19, 9 a.m. -11:30 a.m. & 3 – 5:30 p.m.
Where: The Napa Valley Wine Train Station, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa, Ca
$20/person (children and adults) $35/person for seats in the Vista Dome

The Skunk Train Christmas Train
Up the road a piece in Mendocino County the famous Skunk Train offers rides round-trip departing from either Willits (just off of Highway 101, North of Ukiah) or Fort Bragg (on the Mendocino coast.) With holiday lights, music, sinfully good cookies, hot cocoa and a chance to hang with Santa, this 90 minute trip will leave your little ones delightfully breathless.Skunk Train-Jack H. via Yelp (2)

 Good to Know:

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

Dates: Dec. 5 – 23
Times: 3:15 from Ft. Bragg, 3:30 from Willits every day; additional trains at 12:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 20– 23
Where: Ft Bragg and Willits
Cost:  $35/adults 12 and up;  $25/kids 2-12; $10/dog for well behaved dogs! Children 2 and under are free.

Points South

Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train
Putting the Santa back in Santa Cruz, your ticket aboard the holiday train also includes admission to Santa’s Kingdom at the Boardwalk and an attraction ticket exchangeable for one of the following activities: one game of Miniature Golf, one Laser Tag experience, or 12 Arcade tokens. The ride itself is 3 hours of Christmas carols, hot apple cider, Santa, Mrs. Claus, and more!

Bonus! Kids can also write a letter to Santa and leave it with the good elves at Roaring Camp to deliver. Check out the letter you can download here. And on certain days there is a Holiday Tree Walk.Santa Cruz holiday train

Good to Know: 

  • Leave the strollers and baby (car) carriers in the car, as there is limited space on the train.
  • Bring snacks, food options are limited.
  • There are port-a-potties available on board the second train car.
  • Several local hotels offer discounted rates for Roaring Camp attendees.

Dates: Dec. 7, 8, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, & 23.
Times: 5 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 8 p.m.
Where: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (400 Beach St.)
Cost: $28/adults; $22/children; Children 2 and under are free (on laps)

Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad Fantasy of Lights Train
Toddlers will love the thrill of a kid-size decorated train that runs through the “Fantasy of Lights” extravaganza in Vasona Park. Easy on the wallet but just as festive, this ride is also conveniently short (ideal for little ones) and gets you a unique opportunity to ride a steam train in the open under starry skies. Vasona Park Lights Thao N via Yelp (535x400)

Good to Know:

  • Dress warmly. This train is very small (think roller coaster style seats) with no roof or windows.
  • Suggested route to avoid traffic: Los Gatos Blvd. to Blossom Hill Rd. “Over the highway and through the light, The Holiday Train will be on the right.”
  • Advanced tickets can be purchased from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Sat. & Sun.

Dates: Th. – Sun. from Dec. 1 – 29, but closed Dec. 24 & 25, and open Dec. 18.
Times: Every 30 minutes, Th. –Sun. from 6 – 9 p.m.
Where: Oak Meadow Park in Los Gatos
Cost: $5/ticket. Children 2 and under are free. Includes a carousel ride.

The Caltrain Holiday Train
Nine Caltrain stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara will be graced by a train decorated with 60,000 glittering lights. Each station will be lively with carolers, costumed characters, and treats. This event raises donations for local children via Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army.

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: Dec. 7 & 8
Times: Sat, 4 p.m. – 8:30 & Sun., 4 p.m. – 9 p.m. Trains arrive approximately every hour. See schedule for arrival and departure times.
Where: Caltrain Stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara
Cost: Free

Points East

Zoo Lights at the Oakland Zoo
This 20 minute train ride is just part of dozens of other kid-tacular activities including a holiday-themed storybook maze, a decked out Reptile Room, meet-the-keeper events, face painting, Ghirardelli chocolate samples, music, a light show, snacks, and Santa. Not to mention the magic of being in the zoo after dark!ZooLight 30_29_28Enhancer (640x427)Dates: Through Jan. 5, Closed Dec. 24 & 25
Times: 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Where: Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Rd., Oakland
Cost: $8/adults; $7 children; Children 2 and under are free. Zoo Members receive a $1 discount.

Santa Rides the Train at the Western Railway Museum
Head to Suisun City to meet Santa at the Western Railway Museum before taking a 50-minute, 10-mile round-trip ride on one of the museum’s authentic, historical electric rail cars.Western Railway Museum Car Robin M. via Yelp (600x397)

Good to Know: 

  • There will be hot cocoa, hot cider, and story readings for kids provided by the Solano County Library.
  • Photos are encouraged!

Dates: Saturdays Dec. 7, 14, & 21. Additional days, sans  Santa Dec. 27, 28, 29, & 30
Times: 10:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., trains depart at 11 a.m., 12 p.m. 2 p.m., & 3:30 p.m.
Where: Western Railway Museum in Suisun City, 5848 State Highway 12
Cost: $10/adults; $9/over 65; $7/kids 2-14

Train of Lights on the Historic Niles Canyon Railway
NOTE: As of 12/5/2013 This train is currently sold out on all dates except for the 27, 28 & 29 of December.
An East Bay tradition for many families, this 75-minute ride, departs at either Niles Station at 4:30 p.m. or Sunol at 7:30 p.m. Pack yourself up some gingerbread and cider (outside food is allowed on board) and enjoy the gentle clickety-clack in the beautiful holiday light.  Check out this article about exploring Niles for tips on where to eat before or after the train ride. To book your spot on one of the remaining dates, go to:

Will you be boarding a holiday train this season? Let us know!

–Amber Guetebier & Laurie Latham

Photo credit: Santa Train courtesy Napa Valley Wine Train, Skunk Train,  Jack H. via Yelp, Vasona Park lights, Thao N. via Yelp, Zoo lights courtesy Oakland Zoo, Western Railway Museum, Robin M. via Yelp

Click here for more holiday season events and activities in San Francisco!