Does your little one get all steamy for a steam engine? Go crazy for a caboose? Then bookmark this ASAP. From museums to rides to miniatures, we have rounded up the best train activities for kids in the Bay Area (and beyond). Plan a field trip to one (or all!) of these and become a true hero of the rails—that’s a “Thomas” reference for those of you not in that deep…yet!
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. This is also a great place to stock up on cable car memorabilia and souvenirs. You can afford it because admission 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, and there are only 3 others like it in the whole world. A ride will cost you an extra $5 on top of your zoo admission.
Sloat Blvd at the Great Highway
San Francisco, Ca
Photo: SF Railway Museum
SF Railway Museum
This petit and free museum is located right on the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building, and really, there is only one proper 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. The museum features a full-sized exact replica of the motorman’s platform of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar, where kids of all ages can experience what it was like to be at the controls. You’ll also find historic artifacts, illustrative and informative displays, rarely seen archival photography, and audio-visual exhibits that use 21st century technology to bring rail transit in the 19th and 20th centuries to life.
77 Steuart St.
San Francisco, CA
Redwood Valley Steam Train
Perched high in the hills above Berkeley, this mini-train winds through Tilden Park. You’ll travel over a couple bridges and through a tunnel on the 15 minute round trips. At $3 a ticket (discounts available for purchasing 5 at a time), you can afford to ride the rails all afternoon.
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 3pm (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. On Sunday, trains run from noon-5pm. The train enthusiasts who designed the set-ups have recreated the terrain of Northern and Central California in incredible detail.
900-A Dornan Dr.
Point Richmond, Ca
Photo: Melissa Bouse
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 an hour, the lights dim and you’re treated to an evening scene, complete with a thunderstorm.
2751 Buena Vista Avenue
Walnut Creek, Ca
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 2, however, you will still have to pay to park at the zoo.
9777 Golf Links Rd
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.
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 horse-drawn railway that takes you from one end of the property to the other. Rides are included in the price of admission so you can get onboard as many times your little passengers would like.
34600 Ardenwood Blvd.
Image Courtesy: BJWRR
Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad
The price is right for this journey. For just $2/person (children under 2 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!
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 10am-3pm.
1005 Railroad Avenue
Santa Clara, Ca
What’s better than a big indoor playground? Why, a big indoor playground that encourages learning through exploration. The Children’s Discovery Museum is full of interesting things to prod, test, and explore—with over 150 interactive exhibits, it’s a fun way for little ones to learn about the world they live in. And train lovers, don’t miss their special summer exhibit, Thomas & Friends®: Explore the Rails. Thomas and Percy are on hand to cheer budding engineers on as they face all sorts of design and building challenges. Schedule a visit before Thomas chugs away into the distance on September 10.
180 Woz Way
San Jose, 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 the Railroad hosts. 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.
Image courtesy of the author
Train Town in Sonoma
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. It even makes a stop 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—the brand-new Mine Train just opened (replacing the Dragon Train) and was built by the same company who erected the coaster on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Coaster-loving kiddos must be 36″ to ride solo, 33″ to ride with an adult.
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 cost extra on top of the museum admission, but kids under 5 ride free.
125 I Street
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
What is your favorite place to see, ride, or play with trains?
–Melissa Bouse and Erin Feher