The Golden State owes almost as much to the “iron horse” as to the yellow mineral that spurred the nation’s westward expansion in the mid-19th century. The first railroad in the state, a 22-mile line linking Sacramento and Folsom, went into service in 1855. Completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869 brought the world to Sacramento’s doorstep. The capital remains the most important passenger railway hub in the West with four routes—the Coast Starlight, the California Zephyr, the San Joaquins and the Capitols—passing through. It’s also a major base camp for rail buffs who come from around the world to visit the California State Railway Museum and a half-dozen other historic train attractions within day-trip distance.
CALIFORNIA STATE RAILWAY MUSEUM, Sacramento
If you’ve never felt nostalgic about trains before, you will after a trip to this superbly curated showcase of railroading history that includes 21 restored locomotives and cars dating to 1862. Visitor favorites include a classic 1930s dining car that offered white-glove service on the Santa Fe Super Chief, and a 1929 Pullman sleeping car that “rocks” through an artificial night. Other highlights include a diorama of an 1860s construction camp in the High Sierra and a steam-powered excursion train that operates on weekends. Admission is $8 for adults, $3 for ages 6-17; train rides are priced at the same rates. For information call 916/445-6645 or log onto www.csrmf.org.
SKUNK TRAIN, Fort Brag & Willits
The state’s best known excursion train started out transporting giant redwood logs from the rugged backcountry to mills on the Mendocino coast. Passenger service began in 1904 on what were quickly nicknamed “skunk trains” for the aroma emitted from their gas engines. Today, a collection of steam and diesel locomotives pull vintage passenger cars out of Fort Bragg on the coast and Willits on Highway 101 over a route that crosses 30 bridge and trestles and passes through two mountain tunnels along the way. Rides are offered round-trip from both terminuses to a halfway turnaround point. Fares start at $39 for adults and $19 for children. Special events include a Mother Day brunch ($65 adult, $30 children) and summer barbecue trips with live entertainment ($65-$70 adult, $35 children). For more information call 877/457-5865 or log onto www.skunktrain.com.
ROARING CAMP RAILROADS, Felton
The Santa Cruz & Felton Railway began carrying tourists between the beach at Santa Cruz and the redwood forest near Felton in 1875, and public fascination with the enterprise has never faltered. Today two routes are offered: a Beach Train traveling three-hour round trips from Roaring Camp to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park ($21.50 general, $16.50 child), and steam excursions traveling a one-hour round trip from Roaring Camp over trestles and through redwood groves to the summit of Bear Mountain. ($19.50 general, $13.50 children; parking $7). For more information call 831/335-4484 or log onto www.roaringcamp.com.
RAILTOWN 1897 STATE HISTORIC PARK, Jamestown
Railtown, about 100 miles southeast of Sacramento in Tuolumne County, is a branch of the California State Railroad Museum and a pilgrimage site for film buffs as well as rail buffs. The vintage locomotives, cars, workshops, and roundhouse on display have been showcased in dozens of movies and television shows, including “Petticoat Junction” (remember the water tower scenes?), “Little House on the Prairie,” and “Bonanza,” earning the historic site its nickname—the “Movie Railroad.” Steam-powered train rides are $8 general, $3 for ages 6-17. Ages 5 and younger ride free. Museum admission is an additional $8 or $3. For more information call 209/984-3953 or log onto www.csrmf.org/railtown.
SACRAMENTO RIVER TRAIN, Woodland
Families and groups love this excursion train operating along a 32-mile route out of Woodland. Open-air observation cars, a patio bar, and high-level dining coach offer a variety of venues for enjoying food, entertainment, and scenery. Sunset dinner rides and Sunday brunch excursions are scheduled monthly, along with murder mystery and train robbery rides that bring themed scripts and characters to the train. Prices range from $49 to $64, with discounts for children. For more information call 800/866-1690 or log onto www.sacrametorivertrain.com.
WESTERN RAILWAY MUSEUM, Suisun
On Highway 12 between Fairfield and Rio Vista in Solano County, the Western Railway Museum is an overlooked jewel only an hour and change from Sacramento or the Bay Area. Its focus is on the electric streetcars and railways that once served as public transportation throughout Northern California. More than 50 cars are on display. Restored streetcars loop the property while Interurban cars run over the restored main line of the old Sacramento Northern Railway. Rides are included with admission of $10 general, $9 for seniors over 65, and $7 for children 2-14. Visitors are invited to bring a picnic to enjoy on the shaded grounds. For more information call 707/374-2978 or log onto www.wrm.org.
NAPA VALLEY WINE TRAIN
The premise is simple: tour the wine country, enjoy a multi-course meal, and leave the driving to the engineer. The Napa Valley Wine train is a rolling restaurant that makes a three-hour journey through the vineyards of Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena. Three levels of meal service are offered, at rates ranging from $94 to $129 per person. Passengers can also opt to pay a fare of $49.50 and order from a menu. The latest twist: Visitors from the Bay Area can take the Baylink Ferry with a bus connection to Napa. The train departs from the McKinstry Street Depot in Napa. For more information call 800/427-4124 or log onto www.winetrain.com.
YOSEMITE MOUNTAIN SUGAR PINE RAILROAD, Yosemite
A restoration of the narrow-gauge railroad operated from 1899 to 1931 by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company, this scenic excursion train is powered by vintage Shay steam locomotives that once hauled logs in the Sierra. It travels through the Sierra National Forest over four miles of track from a terminus near the south gate of Yosemite National Park on Highway 41. “Moonlight specials,” which include a steak dinner, live entertainment, a pretend train robbery, and a campfire singalong, are offered Saturday nights in spring and fall, plus Wednesday nights in summer ($46 for adults, $23 for children 3-12). Daytime rides are $17.50 and $8.75. For more information call 559/683-7273 or log onto www.ymsprr.com.
SIERRA RAILROAD DINNER TRAIN, Oakdale
Enjoy entertainment and a meal while rolling through the Sierra foothills on the popular Sierra Dinner Train. Five dining compartments and a lounge car can accommodate up to 200 passengers on three-hour excursions. Murder mystery trips ($62), wild west trips ($49) and other special events are offered, along with sunset dinner rides ($56), brunch trips ($49) and midweek lunch trains ($49). For more information call 800/866-1690 or log onto www.sierrarailroad.com.
SHASTA SUNSET DINNER TRAIN, McCloud
Elegant dining aboard restored vintage railcars is the concept behind this 1916 passenger train whose mahogany-lined cars roll past snow-capped Sierra scenery. The fare of $98 per adult, $59 per child under 12 includes a four-course, white-tablecloth meal served during a three-hour trip. Dinner trains operate on Friday and Saturday nights. For more information call 530/964-2142 or log onto www.shastasunset.com.