You like hearing the conductor shout as the engine chugs slowly back in time, the kids like the wild west cowboys and robbers, everyone digs the fantastic scenery, and one thing is certain—there’s something about trains. Whatever it is, families can have a full day of exploration and excitement while riding the rails. Read on to discover our picks for the country’s most dazzling train rides for kids.
The Coaster - California
The COASTER is a commuter train that runs north and south along the San Diego County coast from the Santa Fe Depot in downtown to Oceanside. Plan to stop in one of the coastal communities and pack a picnic to enjoy at the beach. Or, just enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean along the route.
Begin by planning a trip by checking out the COASTER's online schedule. It should be noted that fares vary from start-to-end zone. For example, an adult round-trip fare from downtown San Diego to Oceanside (through 3 zones) is $11. Kids 5 and under ride free.
Cape Cod Central Railroad - Massachusetts
You'll see oceanfront trails, marshes, cranberry bogs, sweet little towns and other stuff you can't see from the road when you ride the rails on the Cape Cod Central Railroad. There are special events throughout the year for families, such as the Easter train, the Polar Express and the Sunday brunch train.
Northern Nevada Railroad - Nevada
Once you've checked out all the buildings that make up the National Landmark Museum, hop aboard the train for a 90-minute train ride towards the Ruth mining district near Ely, Nevada. You and your crew can choose between the open-air car, the coach, or the caboose (check out the details here) Regulars rides depart the station on a daily basis, but there are seasonal and themed rides as well: the Pony Express ride, the Rockin’ & Rollin’ Geology Train, the Star Train, the Ghost Train among others.
The Heber Creeper - Utah
The historic Heber Valley Railroad calls the idyllic hamlet of Heber Valley, Utah, home. The train runs along the world-famous Provo river and offers impressive views of Mt. Timpanogos. Opt for a lazy ride along the river, or choose between adventure packages: Reins 'n’ Trains, Raft 'n' Rails and the Wilderness Zip Line. The special train events are also popular, offering themed rides like Dinosaur Days, Wizard’s Train, Wild West Days, the Hobo Train and of course, the North Pole Express. Dubbed the “Heber Creeper,” folklore claims the train had to “creep” along the treacherous pass through Provo Canyon, lending the locomotive its now legendary moniker.
Insider Tip: When catching a ride on the Creeper, be on the lookout for Black Jack Raven and the Soldier Hollow Gang, they may be lurking in the trees awaiting your arrival!
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad - Tennessee
The Tuckasegee River Excursion, traveling 32 miles round trip through old railroad towns and scenic meadows, is a family favorite. From over 125 species of trees to the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, riders can revel in some of the most beautiful natural scenery in America. The little ones will go wild on one of the various specialty excursions, including the Freedom Train, The Great Pumpkin Patch Express and The Polar Express™, while older kids will want to try the Tarzan Train, which involves ziplining through the Smoky Mountains!
Insider Tip: The Ride & Trail excursion will take riders up the mountains in a customized jeep—past waterfalls and lakes—to the Appalachian Trail and back.
Virginia Truckee Railroad - California
All aboard for a train ride into Gold Hill Country! When riding the rails of the Virginia Truckee Railroad, choose between the tiny-traveler-friendly, 35-minute adventure—go through Tunnel No. 4, take a 1600 ft descent to the valley floor, watch for mines, silver and ore veins, stop at Gold Hill to see the train depot, the Liberty Engine Fire Company monument and the 1859 Gold Hill Hotel—or opt for the longer Sisters in History route that begins in Carson City and includes view of old mining ghost towns, wild mustangs and a three-hour tour of Virginia City.
Insider Tip: Check out Virginia City’s calendar before taking a ride. There are fun festivals and events happening throughout the year.
Mount Hood Railroad - Oregon
From spring blossoms to summer greens and bold fall colors, you can capture the changing beauty of Oregon’s seasons when taking the Odell Excursion, the most popular route on the Mount Hood Railroad. Stretch little legs and nosh on a seasonal boxed lunch (available for purchase) at Odell, a 30-minute turnaround stop offering spectacular views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams.
Insider Tip: The food offered on the trip is seasonal, fresh and local produce is from the Columbia River Valley.
The Texas State Railroad - Texas
The historic, 50-mile round-trip adventure on the Texas State Railroad takes riders through the scenic piney woods and hardwood creek bottoms of East Texas. Depart from the Victorian Style Depot in Rusk, cross over the Neches River and stop at the Palestine Depot for lunch (be sure to check out Eilenberger’s Bakery), before taking the 1.5-hour return trip. There are several special trips offered throughout the year, including the Teddy Bear’s Train Ride, the Pumpkin Patch Express, Father’s Day BBQ Train, the Happy Hobo and The Patriot Train. The Texas State Railroad is also the home of The Lone Ranger®; so if any bandits board the train, he’ll arrive in time to save the day!
Insider Tip: Want to stay a while? The Texas State Railroad campground in Rusk is filled with family-friendly amenities: a splash zone, nature trail, General Store, shuffleboard and more.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad - Colorado
Narrow is right! The rails are only three feet wide and climb an astonishing 3,000 feet through the mountains. Originally built to carry gold and silver down from the peaks, this historic train now delights in carrying passengers behind vintage steam locomotives with bright shiny colors. Relive the sights and sounds of yesteryear for a spectacular journey.
Insider Tip: The Prospector Car is the only enclosed family-with-wee-ones-friendly car. Other options include the open-air gondola and the vintage coach, which provide sweeping views of the mountains.
The Grand Canyon Railroad - Arizona
All aboard to the Grand Canyon! From 65 miles out, this adventure trip takes travelers to the edge of the canyon and back. Ride along the Colorado Plateau from the open desert to the pine mountains. This fun jaunt includes a visit from historical characters from the Wild Wild West. The Annual Pumpkin Patch ride is also great fun, and everyone is encouraged to wear costumes and brave the haunted rail car to select pumpkins from the patch only accessible by train.
Insider Tip: The extremely popular Polar Express Ride is now taking reservations for the Nov. - Dec. 2018 rides. Call 888-848-3511 or go online to make a reservation today.
Strasburg Railroad - Pennsylvania
As America's oldest short-line railroad, Strasburg Railroad is full of authentic family fun. This gigantic coal-burning steam train, complete with an old-fashioned conductor, was built to carry people and freight over 175 years ago and now travels through the scenic Pennsylvania Dutch Countryside and the state's large Amish areas. The Strasburg Railroad holds several exciting events throughout the year for the little ones, like Day Out With Thomas™ and the Great Train Robbery.
Insider Tip: For your littlest passengers, try the Cranky Cars. The kids can take control of these mini hand-propelled cars and crank their way around a track.
Mount Washington Cog Railway - New Hampshire
This funky train is a one-of-a-kind adventure! It carries passengers up a three-mile-long trestle on the steepest railroad tracks in North America, to the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington. Once at the top, admire the awesome panoramic view, spanning the mountains and valleys of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, north into Canada, and east to the Atlantic Ocean. The Cog Railway runs from Apr.-Dec.
Insider Tip: Be on the lookout for the service house defying the laws of geometry along the steep grade!