Historic Train Rides and Museums in Northern California

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 state 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 Capitol Corridor — passing through. It’s also a major base camp for rail buffs who come from around the world to visit the California State Railroad Museum and a half-dozen other historic train attractions within a day’s drive.

Featured Photo: Courtesy of Skunk Train

California State Railroad 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 back 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 $12 for adults, $6 for ages 6-17; train rides are priced slightly higher. californiarailroad.museum

Skunk Train, Fort Bragg and Willits

The state’s best known excursion train started out transporting giant redwood logs from the rugged backcountry to mills on the Mendocino coast in 1885. Passenger service began in 1904 on what were quickly nicknamed “skunk trains” for the aroma emitting from their gas engines. Today, a collection of steam and diesel locomotives pull vintage passenger cars out of Fort Bragg on the coast and from Willits on Highway 101, taking a route that crosses 30 bridges and trestles while passing through two mountain tunnels. Rides are offered round-trip from both terminals to a halfway turnaround point. Fares start at $49.95 for adults and $29.95 for children. Special events include holiday themed rides throughout the year and cinema nights at a new outdoor theater nestled amongst the redwoods. skunktrain.com

Roaring Camp Railroads, Felton

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Photo: Courtesy of Roaring Camp Railroads

The Santa Cruz and 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 with round trips from Roaring Camp (throwback to an old mining town with plenty of kid friendly activities) to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park ($41.95 general, $27.95 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. ($39.95 general, $24.95 children). There is a $10 parking fee at Roaring Camp. roaringcamp.com

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown

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Photo: Courtesy of Railtown 1897

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 fans of railroads and trains. The vintage locomotives, cars, workshops and roundhouse on display have been shown 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 $15 general, $10 for ages 6-17 and includes park admission. Ages 5 and younger ride free. Park-only admission (no ride) is $5 or $3. railtown1897.org

River Fox Train, West Sacramento

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Photo: Courtesy of River Fox Train

Families and groups love this diesel train operating along a 28-mile route out of West Sacramento along the picturesque Old Garden Highway. Open-air observation cars, a patio bar, and high-level dining coach offer a variety of venues for enjoying food, entertainment, and scenery. They offer holiday excursions for families as well as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day rides. Of note, some of the rides cater to the 21+ crowd, so make sure to look for the family-oriented ones, including popular train robbery rides that bring themed scripts and characters to the train. Prices start at $39 for adults and $24 for kids; special events cost extra. riverfoxtrain.com 

Western Railway Museum, Suisun City

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Photo: Courtesy of Western Railway Museum

On Highway 12 between Fairfield and Rio Vista in Solano County, the Western Railway Museum is an overlooked jewel only an hour-plus from Sacramento or the Bay Area. It’s a step back in time to the electric streetcars and railways that once served as public transportation throughout Northern California. More than 50 cars are on display, including restored streetcars that loop the property while interurban cars run over the restored main line of the old Sacramento Northern Railway. Open weekends year-round with train rides included with admission: $15 general, $14 for seniors over 65, and $12 for children 2-14. Open extra days in summer for walking tours only. Visitors are invited to bring a picnic to enjoy on the shaded grounds. wrm.org

Napa Valley Wine Train, Napa

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Photo: Courtesy of Napa Valley Wine Train

Truth be told: although kids are welcome, this one is better suited for the grown-ups. 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 journeys through the vineyards of Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena, some with stops at wineries. Several levels of meal service are offered, starting at $109 and up, and there are special events including afternoon tea and murder mystery dinners. The train departs from the McKinstry Street Depot in Napa. winetrain.com

Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, Yosemite

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Photo: Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

Thanks to 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 or chicken dinner, live entertainment and a campfire sing along, are offered Saturday nights in spring and fall, plus Wednesday nights in summer ($65 for adults, $30-40 for children 3-12). Daytime rides are $28 for adults and $16 for kids. ymsprr.com 

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