Whether you are two, three, four or even 45 years old, and you love trains, there is nothing better than getting up close and personal with these huge machines. Opportunities abound in the Bay Area for trainspotting, including some unexpected places. We’ve mapped out five different ways to spot, ride, and enjoy trains from riding one of these cool locomotives to marveling at model trains to even enjoying large-size model trains above your head as you enjoy breakfast.
1. For the Hungry Trainspotters: Climb aboard at Claremont Diner:
For an easy train-lovers’ day out, head to the Claremont Diner for brunch. There you will find delicious omelets, scrambles, pancakes, salads, and housemade pastries, as well as a healthy collection of large-size (G-gauge) model trains—on shelves, in display cases, and running in a circle past plastic trees on an acrylic shelf track near the ceiling. This art-deco restaurant is an old-time throwback and ideal for a day out with your littlest ones who will be certainly be mesmerized with the trains running high above their little heads.
2. For the Adventurous Trainspotters: Climb aboard at the Redwood Valley Railway Steam Trains
If you haven’t been attacked by a food coma at the Claremont Diner we suggest continuing straight up Claremont Avenue to Tilden Park to take a ride on the beautifully maintained Redwood Valley Railway Steam Trains.
The Steam Trains are a Berkeley tradition, run by several generations of a single family and dating back to 1952. The engines are true (and truly impressive) replica steam trains, built to almost 1/2 scale of the narrow gauge steamies that were used to haul lumber during the early years of the California Timber industry, when the tight mountain curves required more nimble navigation than standard gauge tracks, like Amtrak, could provide.
Open-top and closed cars with wide wooden benches are your perch for enjoying the scenic, winding and slightly bumpy 12-minute ride through the redwoods, featuring sweeping views of the whole North Bay when the fog burns off. Wear layers, as it’s usually chilly on the mountaintop, even in summer. (In winter, tracks are flanked by patches of snow!). Tickets are $3 each ($12 for a pack of 5). Kids under 2 are free.
3. For the Trainspotters who love animals: Climb Aboard at the SF Zoo
Even though a visit to the zoo usually means getting up close and personal with lions, and tigers and bears, there’s also an opportunity for your little train lovers to take a ride on the Little Puffer, a historic steam train that runs right through the middle of the Zoo. Your kids will love the roaring train whistle and you’ll love that this train ride will give your feet a break from all of that walking around! The Little Puffer train often undergoes maintenance so you’ll want to check the SF Zoo website to confirm that it’s running on the day you visit. $4 per ride, not including admission to the Zoo.
4. For the budget-minded Trainspotters: Climb Aboard the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad
A ride on this Los Gatos favorite only costs $2. Ride on a real steam locomotive (there are also diesel trains) as you enjoy one mile of a picturesque park. After enjoying your fun train ride, scoot on over to the W.E. “Bill” Mason Carousel, which is situated right next to the railway station, for a turn on the 101 year old carousel. We love this pairing of a train ride and carousel and think it’s definitely worth the drive.
5. For the Museum-Loving Trainspotters: Climb Aboard at the Golden State Model Railroad Museum
For a more “model” train experience, start with the delicious eggs and crepes—and the transportation collection, including running models of BART and Amtrak, a rising hot air balloon, and a high-wire unicycle-riding clown—at the Montclair Egg Shop.
After finishing your whip-cream-topped waffle or ham-and-cheese potato pancake, hop on the highway and head out to The Golden State Model Railroad Museum at Point Richmond. A model-train-owners club, founded in 1933, GSMR is open to the public on Sundays from April-November, and weekends in December, when the 70+ members run their trains for the public.
Nearly every scale and type, O, HO, N, passenger, freight, diesel, steam, the model trains run across massive mountain landscapes and miniature urban installations that replicate prototypical Bay Area locations. In addition to gawking at the displays, kids love to run around inside the 10,000 square-foot metal-walled warehouse building—and the members don’t mind if they do. Admission: $4 adults, $2 kids 2 – 12 and seniors, or $9 per family.
What’s your family’s favorite place to trainspot in the Bay Area?
— Julie Feinstein Adams