All Aboard! Magical Holiday Train Rides

There is just something about the holidays that goes hand-in-hand with trains: steam rising on a cool night, the gentle chugging down the tracks, the nostalgia of an era gone by. There is no shortage of train adventures awaiting in the Bay Area (and beyond) that go all out for the holiday season. Read on to discover where you can find Santa making the rounds on cars decked in holly and shimmering lights!

photo: Melissa Bouse

Points North

The Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Train
It’s no secret the Napa Valley took a hard hit this autumn with the fires, but you’ll be happy to know the train will go on! Support the tourism in Napa and thrill the kids as the Napa Valley Wine Train magically transforms into the Santa Express. And this year, the journey comes with a mission. Riders are told they need to reunite Jolly the Bear with his friends at the North Pole. Once he’s there (aka the halfway, turnaround point) riders are treated to games, music and sing-alongs. Hot cocoa and fresh baked cookies are also served on the way back.

photo: 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: Nov. 18–Dec. 29 (closed Nov. 24 and Dec. 24-25)
Times: 5 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.
Where: The Napa Valley Wine Train Station, 1275 McKinstry Street, Napa
Cost: Starting at $55/person ($39 with local discount)
Online: winetrain.com

The Skunk Train Christmas Train
A ride on the Skunk Train is a treat no matter the time of year but it’s especially worth the drive for the Christmas Train. Forty miles of track wind through some of the most beautiful redwoods, mountains and coastline in Mendocino County. Families will 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 cookies. This train is also dog friendly, so truly the WHOLE family is invited.

photo: Ray B. via yelp

Good to Know:

  • Dress in layers as the outside cars can get chilly
  • Pack food if you schedule your ride during meal time, as there are only light refreshments available.
  • Several local hotels and B&Bs offer discounts and packages for Skunk Train visitors, both in Fort Bragg and Willits.

Dates: Dec. 2-23
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/adult; $34/children ages 2-12,.$10/dog; infants under 2 are free. Tickets are available with a Christmas storybook for an additional cost.
Online: skunktrain.com

Points South

Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train
It’s a true Californian Christmas when Santa is at the Beach! St. Nick will join your family aboard this vintage train decorated with thousands of lights. Once you embark on this 60 minute round trip, your family can enjoy refreshments, a holiday sing along, and, of course, a visit from Santa. And the fun doesn’t stop when the train pulls back into the station. For just $6 you can purchase a pass to take advantage of the attractions and arcade at Neptune’s Kingdom.

This year they are also offering a one-night-only Chanukah Train on December 14th! The ride starts with a Menorah lighting. Then the train embarks on a one-hour excursion, complete with Chanukah stories, dreidel play and Kosher refreshments.

photo: 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: Nov. 24-Dec. 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: $33/adults; $27/children ages 2-12. Parking in lot across the street is $10.
Online: roaringcamp.com

The Caltrain Holiday Train
This train brings the holiday fun to you! A 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 stops at nine 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. This is a great option for those looking to experience the magic of a Holiday train, without committing to an hour+ ride. Not to mention, the price is right.

photo: 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 30 minutes before expected arrival time.

Dates: Dec. 2 & 3
Times: See online schedule for arrival and departure times
Where: Caltrain Stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara
Cost: Free!
Online: holiday-train.org

Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad Fantasy of Lights Train
The Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad offers all of the holiday fun on a smaller scale. The sweet little open-air train winds through part of Vasona Park’s Fantasy of Lights spectacular. The 1.5-mile loop is just enough to get that festive fix and get to bed on time. If you’re up for a little more action after the ride, there are plenty more light displays in the park to check out, which aren’t visible from the train.

photo: 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. 7-10 & 14-17
Times: 6-9 p.m.
Where: 233 Blossom Hill Road at Oak Meadow Park in Los Gatos
Cost: $6/person for one train ride and unlimited carousel rides
Online: bjwrr.org

Points East

Zoo Lights at the Oakland Zoo
The Oakland Zoo transforms into a shining spectacle for the annual Zoo Lights Festival of Holiday Lights and its popular Outback Express Adventure Train is a prominent part of the fun. Thousands of sparkling LED lights adorn the train and special exhibits all around the zoo. Kids and adults will enjoy checking out dozens of decorated animal structures to catching the arrival of Santa’s sleigh from the North Pole. This year, the brand new gondolas will also be lit up, and will give visitors a bird’s eye-view of all of the lights in Oakland.

  photo: 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
  • Animals will not be visible, as they’ll be in their night houses

Dates: December 1 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: $10 per adult; $9 per child
Online: oaklandzoo.org

Niles Canyon Railway Train of Lights
The Niles Canyon Train of Lights is an extremely popular East Bay tradition. Twinkling lights adorn the outside of the antique rail cars, while the inside of each car is decorated in a different holiday themes. Santa and Mrs. Claus make the rounds as the train winds through the canyon wilderness. Sit in an open-air car to get the best view of the decorations outside (or just go out for a peak as the train rounds one of the bends). A concession stand offers treats like cookies and cocoa but families are also allowed to bring their own refreshments.

photo: Melissa Bouse

Good to Know:

  • Get your tickets early! This event is very popular and sells out quickly. They sell some day-of at the station, however, so get there early if you haven’t booked.
  • 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: Wed., Fri. and Sat. during the holiday season (except Dec. 24 & 25)
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/person, $50/person in the first class dome (children 3 and under are free if on a lap)
Online: ncry.org

Worth the Drive

Western Railway Museum
Santa is scheduled to arrive at the Museum the first weekend in December. There, he’ll be joining guests on one of their lovingly-restored rail cars for a ride that lasts about 50 minutes. Cookies and hot chocolate are included! The trains run during the day, so this is a great option for kids (and adults) who can’t stay up late.

photo: Melissa Bouse

Good to know:

  • The train is usually comprised of one or two cars which run on electricity. So no giant locomotives here.
  • There is a huge barn of rail cars in various stages of repair, which is super fun to check out before and after.
  • The railway museum is all volunteer run. Older kids will especially enjoy hearing the history of the trains and cars.

Dates: Sat. & Sun. in Dec. starting Dec. 2
Times:  11 a.m.
Where: 5848 State Highway 12, Suisun City, CA
Cost: $15/person
Online: wrm.org

California State Railroad Museum Polar Express
It’s like the pages of “The Polar Express” come alive on this one-hour journey. Many of the book’s characters join riders, including the Conductor, the Dancing Waiters and the ghostly Hobo. It’s no wonder these tickets seem to sell out as soon as they’re available. Santa also greets guests and gives each the first gift of Christmas—that magical silver bell.

photo: California State Railroad Museum

Good to Know:

  • These tickets sell out quickly and museum members get first crack (remember that for next year)! But it’s worth checking the website frequently: tickets are available occasionally as the Museum processes returns.
  • Commemorative photos with Santa are also available for purchase.
  • Hot chocolate will be served.
  • No strollers on board. They will have a stroller parking area near the boarding platform.

Dates: Nov. 24-26; and Wed.-Sun., Nov. 29-Dec.21
Times: 3:30, 5, 6:30, & 8 p.m.
Where: Central Pacific Passenger Station, Front and J Streets, Sacramento, CA
Cost: Starting at $45/person. Children under 2 are free if sitting on lap.
Online: californiarailroad.museum

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!

photo: 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: Nov. 18, 24 & 25; Dec. 1-3, 8-10, 15-18, 20-22 & 26-28
Times: See online schedule for departure times
Where: Ely, NV
Cost: $45/adults, $25/kids ages 4-12
Online: nnry.com/pages/Polar-Express.php

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

—Melissa Bouse, Kate Loweth, Melanie Ulate & Amber Guetebier


Featured image: Napa Valley Wine Train


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