All aboard for magical, holiday memories! Trains all around the Bay Area are being transformed into real life versions of the Polar Express. Hot cocoa, twinkling lights, even a visit from the big guy himself—taking a ride on one of these locomotives is sure to get the whole family in the spirit! Read on to find the best holiday train ride for your crew.
photo: Napa Valley Wine Train

The Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Train

They pull out all the stops each year, as the Wine Train fills with the sounds of the season. Guests will be treated to sing-a-longs, games and stories, as they deliver Jolly the Bear to the North Pole. On the way back, fairies will collect letters to Santa, and the big guy himself will hand out toy bears. It's a fun-filled, action-packed journey, suitable for all ages.

Good to Know:

  • Make your reservations NOW. This train sells out very early.
  • They'll be collecting new, unwrapped gifts for Napa foster children through Dec. 17
  • 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. 19–Dec. 28 (closed Nov. 28 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)

photo: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

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.

The railroad is also offering a one-night-only Chanukah Train! 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.

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.
  • Download a letter for Santa when you buy your tickets online, and put it in the special mailbox at the boarding area
  • The post-Christmas rides will include live music for dancing!

Dates: Nov. 29-30, Dec. 7-8, 14-23, 26-31
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.

photo: Caltrain Holiday Train presented by Silicon Valley Community Foundation

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.

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. 7-8
Times: See online schedule for arrival and departure times
Where: Caltrain Stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara
Cost: Free!

photo: Jim Koski

Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad Holiday 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.

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: Thursday-Sunday in December
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

photo: Oakland Zoo

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, they've added a new laser light show!

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 6 through January 5, 2020 (closed December 24-25)
Times: 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.
Where: Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Road, Oakland
Cost: $10/adult; $9/child & seniors

photo: Melissa Bouse

Niles Canyon Railway Train of Lights

The Niles Canyon Train of Lights is an extremely popular East Bay tradition. Volunteers meticulously adorn all of the train cars with twinkling lights, garlands, and bows-- inside and out! 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.

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., Sat. and Sun. 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)

photo: Skunk Train

Skunk Train - Magical Christmas Train

Travel through a storybook wonderland in the redwoods aboard the Skunk Train. Board at Fort Bragg for a 60-minute ride or Willits for a 90-minute ride. Both include cookies, hot chocolate in a souvenir mug and a personal visit with Santa Claus himself. Come dressed in your finest holiday jammies and join in the holiday cheer! Seating is unassigned so board with your buddies if you'd like to sit together. 

Good to Know:

  • There are two depots for this train ride, make sure you select the correct one!
  • Well-behaved dogs can join the fun for $10.
  • Purchase a copy of Skippy the TrainDeer for $6 when you order your tickets so that you can read along on the ride. 
  • While tickets are non-refundable, you may contact the Skunk Train at least 72 hours prior to your ride to reschedule or receive a voucher for another ride. 

Dates: Nov. 29-30, Dec. 1, 7-8, 13-15, 19.23
Times: Times vary by date
Where: Fort Bragg Station (100 W. Laurel Street) and Willits Station (299 E. Commercial Street)
Cost: For Fort Bragg: $44/ages 13 and up, $34/ages 2-12, $10/under age 2. For Willits: $49/ages 13 and up, $39/ages 2-12, $10/under age 2.

photo: Melissa Bouse

Western Railway Museum

Santa arrives at the Museum the first weekend in December. There, he joins guests on one of their lovingly-restored rail cars for a 50 minute ride through the golden hills. 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.

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: Dec. 7-8, 14-15, 21-22
Times:  11 a.m.
Where: 5848 State Highway 12, Suisun City, CA
Cost: $15/person

photo: California State Railroad Museum

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. Each coach and first class car has a different theme, so you can book the exact one you want. All riders will get that magical first gift of Christmas from Santa—that beautiful silver bell

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. 29-Dec. 1; and Wed.-Sun., Dec. 4-22
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.

photo: Sacramento RiverTrain

Magical Christmas Train

The Sacramento River Train becomes the Magical Christmas train, as it chugs along a storybook wonderland. This year, it will include the story of "Skippy the Traindeer", who helps a child in danger of losing his Christmas spirit. The 90 minute journey includes, cookies, hot chocolate, and a visit from Santa.

Good to Know:

  • A souvenir mug is included with the ticket price
  • Seating is assigned, so make a note when purchasing tickets if you want to sit with another party
  • Christmas jammies encouraged!

Dates: Various dates Nov. 22-Dec. 23
Times: 10 a.m., 2, & 6 p.m.
Where: 400 North Harbor Blvd., West Sacramento, CA
Cost: Starting at $10/infants, $39/child, $44/adults

photo: Northern Nevada Railway

Nevada Northern Railway Santa's Reindeer Flyer

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. Passengers aboard Santa’s Reindeer Flyer will enjoy a comfy ride in their pajamas with hot chocolate and cookies as they listen to the story of how this year’s Christmas Train came to be. Santa Claus himself will board the train and personally present each child their own special gift to remember the spirit of the season and their time on Santa’s Reindeer Flyer.

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. 23, 29 and 30, Dec. 6-8, 13-16, 18-23 and 26-28 
Times: See online schedule for departure times
Where: Ely, NV
Cost: $41/adults, $20/kids ages 4-12

Polar Express - Jamestown, CA 1897 Railpark

Experience a Polar Express that is off the beaten track when you head up into the California foothills to Jamestown, a historic gold rush town perfectly preserved for your holiday photo backdrops. Head to the Jamestown 1897 Railpark where you can embark upon your official Polar Express train consisting of several cars pulled by a vintage engine from Railtown 1897’s collection. The elegantly decorated Sugar Plum Car is divided into two sections: Parlor and Lounge. (When purchasing tickets, passengers must select either the Parlor or Lounge section). All First Class passengers receive a souvenir cocoa mug, and are free to move about the car and step off onto the observation platform. All class tickets enjoy hot chocolate and yummy cookies as you ride along with many of the story’s characters. Once you reach the North Pole, the jolly old elf—Santa himself—will come on board to give each passenger a silver sleighbell, the “first gift of Christmas.”

Good to Know:

  • All seats are comfy but consider upgrading to the First Class Sugar Plum Observation Car: This car offers large windows and comfortable seating.
  • Make it a weekend to remember and stay at the nearby Rush Creek Lodge and visit Yosemite

Dates: Nov. 29-30 and Dec. 6-8, 13-15 and 20-22
Times: 4:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Where: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park., 10501 Reservoir Rd, Jamestown, CA 
Cost: Coach class is $50/seat; First Class is $70/seat + a $6 per ticket purchase fee; children 2 and under (on laps) are free. 

—Melissa Bouse

Featured photo courtesy of the Skunk Train. 


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