There is just something about kids and trains! It’s amazing to see their eyes light up at the mere sound of a distant whistle. Thankfully, there is no shortage of places in the Bay Area to get up close and personal with trains of all sizes. From rides, to replicas, to history lessons, read on to find out how to make all of your train lover’s dreams come true!
photo: Joe Ross via Flickr
Cable Car Museum
This stop will give you a rarely-seen look at the city’s famed Cable Cars. Downstairs, you can actually check out the cables that make the system work. Upstairs, explore the mechanics of the cars themselves. It’s a great time to visit since the city is currently updating the gearboxes that keep the cable cars running; you can see exactly what goes into this important work. And the best part is, all of this is free!
1201 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA
photo: SF Zoo
Little Puffer Miniature Steam Train
Located inside the San Francisco Zoo, this ride is the perfect way to take a break from all that walking. And you can still check out a variety of animals from the cars. At more than a century old, the Little Puffer has a long and fascinating history behind it. For example: there are only three others like it in the whole world. A ride will cost you an extra $6 on top of your zoo admission. Children under three are free with a paying adult.
Sloat Blvd at the Great Highway
San Francisco, CA
SF Railway Museum
This compact and free museum is located right on the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building, and really, there is only one proper way to get there: hop aboard any of the historic F Market streetcars (they pick up all along Market Street or along the Embarcadero). The antique street cars, which have been collected from various cities around the world and restored, will drop you literally at the museum doors when you exit at the Steuart St. stop. Inside, visitors can get a real feel for what it was like to drive a streetcar, by taking controls of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar. You’ll also find historic artifacts, illustrative and informative displays, and rarely seen archival photography. This is a great place to stock up on a variety of railroad-themed gifts and souvenirs. Good to know: the museum is closed on Mondays.
77 Steuart St.
San Francisco, CA
photo: Kate Loweth
Tiny train-lovers will definitely want to stop at the always-free Randall Museum and head to the basement. There they will find the model railroad that you can run with the push of a button! After 52 years of creating, maintaining and building one of the largest model railroad layouts in California, the Golden Gate Model Railroad graciously turned over ownership of the train layout to the Randall Museum Friends. Kids can also climb in the Randall Pacific Caboose. Good to know: the museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
199 Museum Way
San Francisco, CA
Redwood Valley Steam Train
Perched high in the hills above Berkeley, this mini-train winds through the redwoods of Tilden Park. You’ll travel over a couple bridges and through a tunnel on the 15-minute round trips. Tickets are just $3 for anyone over the age of to (discounts available for purchasing five at a time), Hours vary with the season, but during the summer the train is running daily!
At the intersection of Grizzly Peak Blvd and Lomas Cantadas Rd.
photo: Golden Gate Live Steamers
Golden Gate Live Steamers
Plan your visit to the Redwood Valley Steam Train for a Sunday and you’ll likely have the option of a bonus ride. That’s when the Golden Gate Live Steamers let the public take a spin on one of their small-scale model trains. They usually run between noon and 3 p.m. (weather-permitting). Rides are free, but the non-profit gladly accepts donations.
Located just below the boarding area for the Steam Train
Golden State Model Railroad Museum
Sunday is the best day of the week to take in this amazing collection of model trains and railways. That’s when these miniature trains run from noon-5 p.m. The train enthusiasts who designed the set-ups have recreated the terrain of Northern and Central California in incredible detail. Admission is between $3-5, but whole families can get in for the bargain price of $10.
900-A Dornan Dr.
Point Richmond, CA
Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society
If good things come to those who wait, then your train-lover is in for a treat when the Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society opens its doors. Usually, their incredible models are only open to the public one weekend a month. But what a weekend it is! Mountains, tunnels, drawbridges—they’ve recreated dozens of scenarios for train travel. And once each hour, the lights dim and you’re treated to an evening scene, complete with a thunderstorm. This is one of the largest exclusively HO-scale model railroads in the whole country. Admission is $3, but kids under six are free, as are scouts who come in uniform!
2751 Buena Vista Avenue
Walnut Creek, CA
photo: Oakland Zoo
Outback Express Adventure Train
Like the Little Puffer, this train is located at the zoo—the Oakland Zoo, in fact. But, you can access it without buying zoo admission. You will still get a little glimpse of the wildlife: the train travels through the Australian exhibit (hence the name) and emus occasionally try to make a break for it when the gates open to let the train through. The ride is affordable at $3/person over the age of two, however, you will still have to pay to park at the zoo.
9777 Golf Links Road
photo: Niles Canyon Railway
Niles Canyon Railway
History comes to life on this old-school railway and museum. This line runs just south of Pleasanton and makes a round trip between Fremont and Sunol (you can get on at either location). Choose your own adventure by selecting either a diesel or a steam engine. If you really want to be the host-with-the-most, consider renting out a caboose or even the whole train for your next party. The volunteers who run this line also put on the incredible Holiday Train of Lights in November and December. It’s practically a rite of passage for East Bay kids.
37105 Vallejo Way
Ardenwood Historic Farm
The East Bay Regional Park District operates this fully functional farm. Everything is as it was at the turn of the last century including (drum roll) a short railway that takes you from one end of the property to the other. On board, you’ll find staff and docents dressed in period costumes. Rides are included in the price of admission so you can ride as many times your little passengers would like. Admission ranges depending on the day from $3-5, but children under four are always free.
34600 Ardenwood Blvd.
Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad
The price is right for this journey. For just $2/person (children under two are free) this historic, 1/3-scale railroad loops around idyllic Oak Meadow Park. Locals love it and those coming from a distance will also enjoy that there are plenty of other attractions at the park (snack shack, playgrounds, a carousel) to make a day of it. You may just have to ride the train twice! Ride the train during the annual lights exhibit in December for an extra-special treat.
233 Blossom Hill Rd
Los Gatos, CA
Edward Peterman Museum of Railroad History
Located inside the Caltrain depot in Santa Clara, the South Bay Historical Railroad Society operates this museum of artifacts and paraphernalia. Displays include two working model railroad lines. Admission is free, though hours are limited to Tuesday nights and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
1005 Railroad Avenue
Santa Clara, CA
photo: Roaring Camp Railroads
Roaring Camp Railroads
You’ll think you’ve been transported to the island of Sodor when Roaring Camp Railroads hosts its annual Thomas the Tank Engine Day (end of July/early August—get tickets NOW!) But that’s just one of the many special events at this railroad in the mountains. The line just north of Santa Cruz travels through the Redwoods and over trestles, a true adventure no matter when you visit!
5401 Graham Hill Rd.
photo: Melissa Bouse
With a name like “Train Town” it’s no wonder this place is a big hit with railroad lovers of all ages. The passenger train takes visitors through tunnels and over bridges before stopping at a petting zoo (bring your quarters for food). The park also offers a concession stand, a train-tastic gift shop and several amusement rides. Parking and admission is free, you just pay for individual tickets for the various attractions.
California State Railroad Museum
Turn a daytrip in to a train-trip by taking the Amtrak to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. The Museum is located just a block away from the Old Town stop. Once inside, it’s all the trains you can handle with full-size refurbished cars, an elaborate model railway and a room with a whopping EIGHT train tables. On weekends during the summer, the museum also offers train rides along the Sacramento River. This costs extra on top of the museum admission, but kids under 5 ride free.
125 I Street
photo: Melissa Bouse
Western Railway Museum
Chug on out to Solano County to check out the dozens of railcars, engines and trolleys housed in this one-of-a-kind museum. The kids can climb on many of the cars in the giant sheds out back. Once they’ve burned off some of that pent up energy from the car ride, hop aboard one of the trains or streetcars for a ride around the hills. The trains leave every 90 minutes, streetcars every half-hour. Be sure to check out their calendar for special events around Halloween and Christmas.
5848 State Highway 12
Suisun City, CA
photo: Napa Valley Wine Train
The Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Train
While this train is usually full of wine-tasting adults, it transforms into the Santa Express every winter to the thrill of little ones. Travel to the North Pole (aka the halfway, turnaround point) where riders are treated to games, music and sing-alongs. Hot cocoa and fresh-baked cookies are also served on the way back. The big man himself will visit everyone along the journey!
The Napa Valley Wine Train Station
1275 McKinstry Street