Last revised: March 14, 2023
By: Adam Burns
California is home to many heritage railroads and museums, making it a top attraction for such venues. These organizations also host many special events during the holidays, including Christmas.
Such train rides have exploded in popularity since the 2004 release of "The Polar Express" starring Tom Hanks. Many of these events are tailored around the movie while other organizations have elected to host their own version for the holidays.
The information included here highlights these Christmas train rides and where they may be found throughout California.
(Biggs): This ranch is located in Biggs and offers a number of activities for special needs kids and families. Its activities and entertainment venues are also open to the public.
As a working farm the organization offers a great deal of local produce for sale. They also host field trips for school children, weddings, birthday parties, and have two train ride attractions to choose from; a "trackless train" and a 20-inch gauge railroad.
The latter is meant to replicate a logging operation, complete with a Shay geared steam locomotive originally built in the 1940's.
During the holiday season they host the Christmas Light Extravaganza, which includes the Polar Express train ride where folks can see Christmas lights around the grounds and enjoy hot chocolate. They also sell Christmas trees and wreaths for the holidays.
(Napa): Simply put this is one of the finest excursions you will find anywhere; the Napa Valley Win Train not only offers superb, first class amenities but also maintains a fleet of all-matching equipment.
It truly evokes the bygone streamliner era where no expense was spared to provide passengers the very best in accommodations. The Napa Valley's rail corridor was previously a component of the historic Southern Pacific.
It originally totaled 42 miles between Calistoga and Vallejo where it crossed another SP line that linked up with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (a property jointly owned with the Santa Fe) which hugged the Northern California coastline.
The line began as the Napa Valley Railroad in 1864 and was leased by the SP in 1885. Today, the Napa Valley Wine Train, which launched on September 16, 1989, takes visitors on an 18 mile journey from Napa to the Krug Winery.
If you the chance and means, a ride aboard this train is highly recommended. Their Santa Express Train is offered from late November through late December and features a one-hour ride where kids can meet Santa during the trip.
(Nevada City): Based in Nevada City this organization's mission is to preserve the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad's memory.
Chartered on March 20, 1874 the NCNG was built to the typical narrow-gauge of 3 feet and intended to serve the ongoing gold rush. Promoters were aided by the Transcontinental Railroad's completion, enabling a direct outlet to the national network.
This was established along the Central Pacific at Colfax with the line running roughly due north. John F. Kidder was the chief engineer who had completed 22.5 mile to Nevada City on May 14th (service began on May 24th).
The narrow-gauge was not only prosperous (handling quartz gold ore, lumber, and general freight) but also very scenic and rugged featuring four large wooden trestles and two tunnels (one at You Bet and the other at Town Talk).
The latter (bridges and tunnels) were utilized for only 32 years as the railroad elected to bypass them all in the early 1900's. The project, a total of 3.56 miles in length, began in 1906 and was completed two years later.
It shaved two miles off the main line and included two noteworthy steel bridges over Bear River and Long Ravine. Interestingly, the NCNG also opened a 3.63-mile standard-gauge component near Bear River to serve a gravel pit.
The branch was located along the railroad's southern periphery and to improve efficiency a third-rail was laid to the Colfax interchange.
The gravel pit ceased production in 1923 and operations generally wound down over the next twenty years; when restrictions on gold mining began in March, 1942 the railroad applied for total abandonment and all service ceased on July 10th that year.
Today, the museum hosts excursion over original NCNG property in Nevada City featuring a small yard and section of circular track.
Also be sure to visit their one preserved NCNG steam locomotive, 2-6-0 #5 built by Baldwin in 1875. While they do not offer any type of Christmas or holiday train ride they do host "Christmas At The Railroad Museum" allowing the kids to visit Santa and receive a gift.
(Fremont): One of the California's finest train rides can be found in Fremont at the Niles Canyon Railway.
Like most attractions around the state it utilizes a short stretch of the old Southern Pacific, in this case 9.2 miles from Fremont to Verona on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.
Well into the mid-20th century the route was one of importance serving port facilities, a strong manufacturing base, and the perishable/produce industry.
However, the decline in these businesses coupled with growing competition and the railroad's fading service by the 1970's, led to the right-of-way's sale to Alameda County in 1984.
On May 21, 1988 the Niles Canyon Railway operated its first public excursion and has since worked to rebuild more of the abandoned right-of-way.
While the organization offers some wonderful trips, if you are a history buff you will love their impressive collection of rare locomotives like Clover Valley Lumber Company 2-6-6-2T #4, Robert Dollar 2-6-2T #3, and Southern Pacific ML-4000 #9010 (the only one of its type preserved).
During the holidays they host the Train Of Lights during late November and throughout most of December with the train decorated in Christmas lights for the holiday season.
(Campo): This organization has a long history tracing back to two San Diego railfans, Fred Sanders and Doug Duncan, who wished to launch a museum dedicated to the region's railroad heritage.
It began as the Railway Historical Society of San Diego and in 1955 acquired its first true addition, San Diego & Arizona Eastern 2-8-0 #104 (C-8), which was donated by Southern Pacific.
The organization changed its name to the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association in 1963, which was slightly amended to the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association, Inc. a year later.
Since that time the group has acquired an impressive collection including four other steam locomotives (including one under restoration, Coos Bay Lumber 2-8-2T #11) and numerous historic diesels.
They began hosting excursions in 1986 and still operate a train known as the "Golden State" (a nod to a notable streamliner of the same name).
Today, they now offer locomotive cab rides, school trains, being an engineer for a day, party and school rentals, and holiday specials. For the Christmas season they host the North Pole Limited from late November through late December during the weekends.
It lasts about one hour and a half with elves serving kids hot chocolate and cookies; afterwards a Christmas story is read and the children meet the "Big Guy."
(Felton): Most tourist railroads operate tracks previously abandoned or sold by a larger freight line.
However, for the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge it was built entirely from scratch by F. Norman Clark who sought to resurrect steam-powered train rides during an era when the iron horse was vanishing across America.
He began his quest during the late 1950's by acquiring a defunct Shay geared steam locomotive from Virginia and then leased 200 acres on the Big Trees Ranch in Santa Cruz County near Felton.
His little railroad proved successful and has remained so for nearly a half-century with several geared steam locomotives now restored and in operation.
Among their specials is the Holiday Lights Train, a unique experience offered during late November through late December where riders can ride through the streets of Santa Cruz enjoying treats, listening to music, and visiting Santa and Mrs. Claus.
They also host the Holiday Tree Walk, where a daytime train trip to Bear Mountain allows guests to disembark and view the beautifully decorated Christmas trees.
(West Sacramento): California's generally mild climate allows organizations, if they so choose, to host rail excursions year-round.
Such is the case with the Sacramento RiverTrain which offers upscale, lavish trips running 14 miles from West Sacramento to Woodland.
During your journey you will see open farmland, pass through the Yolo County Wildlife Refuge, and cross the Fremont Bridge while enjoying the experience either within climate-controlled or open-air cars.
The history of this line can be traced back to an electrified interurban, the Sacramento Northern, one of the nation's largest.
Among their many popular productions is the Magical Christmas Train, a 90-minute event held during November and December where kids and adults can experience a wide array of activities from meeting Santa to enjoying treats and listening to live music.
The railroad also hosts a Holiday Dinner Train during select weekends in December. Finally, after Christmas a Holiday Excursion is offered in late December.
(Fort Bragg): The Skunk Train, officially known as the California Western Railroad, is a popular Northern California railroad running 40 miles from the coast at Fort Bragg to Willits.
If you enjoy rail history a visit to this location is a must; a sort of time capsule most of the original property, dating back to the 1880's, has been preserved and remains in use as a tourist attraction/historic interpretive center.
It was originally the idea of Charles Russell, "CR" Johnson, who wished to timber the region's iconic redwood forest. However, Johnson was also visionary environmentalist; understanding the forest's age and rarity he carried out the now common-practice of select cutting.
Today, visitors can see the majestic redwoods by train while navigating through tunnels, over bridges, and passing small communities such as Pudding Creek, South Fork, Northspur, and Burbeck.
Among the Skunk Train's many special events is the Magical Christmas Train held during November and throughout much of December. It is a 90-minute train ride with music, hot chocolate, music, and a visit from Santa himself.
(Portola): The WPRM is the museum dedicated to the Western Pacific's memory. This railroad was Arthur Keddie's dream of opening a second major rail corridor between Salt Lake City and San Francisco/Oakland.
Unfortunately, by the time he began this quest the Central Pacific/Southern Pacific, led by the infamous "Big Four" of Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker had already cornered this market with the Transcontinental Railroad's completion in May, 1869.
Keddie never gave up and was finally successful when he received George Gould's financial backing. The modern Western Pacific was much smaller than SP but nevertheless maintained a respectable system that was not only well built but also circumvented the treacherous Donner Pass by building through the Feather River Canyon.
The engineering superiority of this route has kept it in operation under successor Union Pacific today.
The WPRM, which began as the Portola Railroad Museum in 1984 (renamed in 2006), has amassed the most complete collection of original WP equipment found anywhere including steam and diesel locomotives, passenger cars, and freight cars.
The museum closes for the winter season but during the holidays hosts the Santa Train excursion during select weekends in December.
Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum
Pacific Southwest Railway Museum
Skunk Train/California Western Railroad
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Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives.
It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.
It is quite staggering and a must visit!