Looking for something really useful to do with your little-engines-that-could? Hop on board the Niles Canyon Railway and enjoy the clickety-clack all the way down the track, and back! With both Gold Rush era steam engines and vintage diesels pulling a train of historic Pullman coaches, excursion cars for taking in the fresh air, and even a little dining car, it’s like climbing aboard a toy train set, in real life. Throw in some bedazzling conductors in full regalia, a crew of overall-clad engineers, and row upon row of excited kids (and kids-at-heart) and you’ve got a trip that is well worth the 45 minute drive from San Francisco.
The train ride winds through the Niles Canyon, between Niles and Sunol. Once part of a longer rail line that ran from Sacramento through to Stockton and out to Alameda Point—built to connect the First Continental Railroad with the Pacific Ocean. From depot to depot, this one hour and twenty-minute ride takes you back to a time when the line boasted stops between saloons, gambling tents, swimming holes, and picnic areas. Little Engineers will delight at the Brightside maintenance facility where spare engines, boxcars, and other equipment hang out.
Board the train in Niles. For a totally awesome experience, park in the (free) parking lot on Niles Boulevard and take the vintage railway bus shuttle to the train. It’s just a short hop across the tracks, but the 1950s bus will get your little ones in the mood for the adventure. Note: you can board the train in Sunol and do the reverse round trip but Sunol has fewer amenities. Sunol does have a small but well-stocked gift shop to mill around while waiting for the engines to reverse.
Eat, Drink, Play
Niles, a little hamlet of Fremont, offers a bevy of eateries within its quaint city blocks. Bronco Billy’s on Niles Boulevard offers pizzas and pastas amidst cowboy décor, The Nile Café on I Street has ice-cream and other sweets. The Baby Tree Boutique on J Street is a kid’s consignment store with a small play area for browsing parents. Owners Lee and Carrie are kind enough to let weary parents change diapers and nurse here, too. They also feature an array of custom and hand-crafted baby gifts, and with incredibly reasonable prices you just might find a Thomas the Tank shirt to keep as a souvenir.
Insider Tip: Although the line to board the train will be relatively short, the line to buy tickets can be long. Skip having to wait in line twice and buy your tickets in advance. Arrive early, and pull into the lot next to the train to get your tickets in advance, and then head over to the main parking lot (where you can get the shuttle bus).
The historic line runs every Saturday and Sunday from April to August and every Sunday in September and October. Watch for special events like wildflower viewing in the springtime and Holiday Lights in December. Check the website here for exact departure times and dates.
Limited snacks are available on the train and don’t expect a 7-11 at either end, so be sure and have water and a few bites especially for tired toddlers. The weather is usually warm except in December. Bring sunscreen and a sun hat for riding in the Excursion cars. Engineer hats are available for purchase at the gift shop in Sunol.
Bonus: Need more? Charter a train or just rent the caboose for a party! And remember, all proceeds go to preserving the line and historic cars and the museum, all sponsored by the nonprofit Pacific Locomotive Association.
Prices: Adults are $12; Seniors $10; Kids 3-12 $7; 2 and under free! Handicapped boarding & free parking available.
Niles is just outside of downtown Fremont, California in the East Bay. The train depot and shops are all along the main drag, Niles Blvd. For mapping: 37001 Mission Boulevard Fremont, California, 94536.
Have you been to the historic railway? Let us know below!
copy and photos by Amber Guetebier