Few places have a richer railroad legacy than the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Northern California. Trains were a vital part of the development of the state, from their role in logging in the redwoods to moving goods and people as the state boomed after the Gold Rush. Railroad tycoons like the Big 4 of San Francisco (Crocker, Huntington, Stanford, and Hopkins) helped to build the Transcontinental Railroad – the terminus of which eventually ended up in my now hometown of Alameda, CA.
As a result, Northern California is the place to visit to see a wide variety of train-related attractions today. Travelers to the area will find so many opportunities to learn about historic trains and ride the rails. Over the years, my kids and I have been able to visit most – but not quite yet all – of the most popular train attractions in the Bay Area and all over Northern California.
Here are 11 of the best train-related things to do in the northern part of the Golden State, as well as a dozen more smaller train attractions in the area.
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11 Bucket List Worthy Train Rides and Sights in Northern California
If you are looking for a full scale train ride or a railway-related experience worthy of traveling to see, these are the headliners in NorCal.
Roaring Camp Railroads (Felton, CA)
One of the most well-known train destinations in the state is located in the town of Felton in Santa Cruz County. Roaring Camp Railroads offers two different passenger train experiences. The first, the open air narrow gauge Redwood Forest Steam Train, travels deep into the coastal redwoods with magnificent views. It ultimately climbs a small grade to Bear Mountain by means of a switchback where it reverses direction.
The second route is aboard the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk train. This train travels through redwoods, gorges, tunnels, and across a historic steel truss bridge from Felton, ultimately arriving at the famed Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Each direction takes about an hour, and guests can start either at the beach or in Felton for a round trip journey (and can hop off and spend some time in either destination for a full day’s activity).
Roaring Camp Railroads hosts a number of seasonal events, from Thomas the Tank Engine special visits to holiday celebrations and drive in movies.
Skunk Train (Fort Bragg & Willits)
Far north of San Francisco in the heart of old redwood logging country is an area rich with train history. In Mendocino County on the coast, one of the most well-known and well-preserved of these historic logging trains takes passengers today – the Skunk Train. Dating from 1885, this railroad line has served many functions over the years.
Related: Guide to Mendocino County with Kids
The Skunk Train got its name because of the smell of the trains that carried passengers in the 1920s – railbuses running on gasoline and burning crude oil in stoves for heat. The train doesn’t have the same smell today thankfully!
Two routes are available for visitors to ride. The first is the shorter one hour 15 minute Pudding Creek Express that makes a round trip from the coast in Fort Bragg – perfect for families. The second is the 2 hour Wolf Tree turn from Willits. The railroad now also offers rail bike experiences out of Fort Bragg.
Be sure not to miss the Mendocino Model Railway just behind the Fort Bragg depot. This independently run model train build run entirely by volunteer enthusiasts is truly amazing.
Sonoma TrainTown Railroad (Sonoma)
In the heart of Sonoma County wine country, this beloved local theme park celebrates all things railroad. Sonoma TrainTown has regular amusement rides for kids (trained themed ones, of course!), but the headliner is the park’s miniature gauge railroad. This 20 minute train ride stops at Lakeview, a miniature town and petting zoo play area where kids can hop out and explore. The park also features a few historic train cars that guests can tour.
The park is open daily in summer and Saturdays and Sundays the rest of the year. Admission and parking are free; guests purchase a la carte tickets to each attraction in the park.
California State Railroad Museum & Sacramento Southern Railway (Sacramento)
For families who want to learn more about trains, the California State Railroad Museum is a true gem. The museum has exhibits featuring trains and locomotives from every era of railroad history and is located right in the heart of Old Sacramento. Admission is just $12 for adults and $6 for kids ages 6-12 (kids ages 5 and under are free), making this a very affordable stop that will probably keep most families busy for several hours.
Next door to the California State Railroad Museum, guests can hop aboard the affiliated Sacramento Southern Railroad for a full scale train ride along the Sacramento River. The train operates on Saturdays and Sundays in summer, with seasonal train rides available at other times of the year like the Spookomotive at Halloween and a Polar Express in winter months.
Sacramento River Fox Train (West Sacramento)
Not too far down the road and river northwest of Sacramento is another train ride option. The Sacramento River Fox Train company specializes in train experiences and events. Most rides are 2.5 hours and stop at the train’s private park before returning for the round trip.
There’s a variety of options for both adults as well as families. Excursions for the over 21 set include the Beer Train, Happy Hour, and Old Vine Express.
For families, the regular River Fox excursion focuses on California’s Gold Rush history and includes gem mining. There’s another option where guests don fancy hats and enjoy tea. And of course, there are seasonal trains galore – from Halloween, Christmas, and Easter for families to an adults-only Valentine’s Day offering.
Niles Canyon Railway (Fremont & Sunol)
For a full size passenger train experience in the heart of the Bay Area, head to the Niles Canyon Railway in Fremont and Sunol.
The Niles Canyon Railway operates steam and diesel engines along a portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. During December, look for the railway’s Train of Lights (be ready to book as soon as tickets are released because it normally sells out immediately!).
Railroad Park Resort (Dunsmuir)
For anyone obsessed with trains, the chance to sleep or dine in a historic train car is a truly unique experience. You can do both at Railroad Park Resort in Dunsmuir not far from Mount Shasta along Interstate 5.
The property is a hotel with multiple caboose cars converted into individual hotel rooms. Each caboose is complete with private bathrooms and electricity. The restaurant on property is a fine dining (but ultimately kid-friendly) experience also located within a train car. While a stay is not very expensive, the hotel is extremely popular. Be sure to book well in advance.
(There’s a similar caboose hotel in Lake County, CA – Featherbed Railroad – but rooms there are limited to an occupancy of 2 and the resort is focused on romantic getaways. Save this one for a couples trip!)
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad (Fish Camp)
Yosemite National Park is one of the top stops for travelers to the northern half of the state. It’s easy to add a train experience to your national park trip if you happen to be making the right approach to the park.
Located just 4 miles south of the Yosemite’s southern entrance (by Mariposa Grove and Wawona) is the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. The railroad runs one hour rides with steam engines through the adjacent Sierra National Forest. It’s closed in the winter months, so check your travel dates with their schedule before you go. (If you plan to visit while on a trip to the park, be sure not to miss my complete guide to Yosemite National Park with kids).
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (Jackson)
Travelers taking the northern routes into Yosemite National Park Ride may find a stop at Railtown 1897 Historic State Park an easy detour. Operated in partnership between the California State Parks and the California State Railroad Museum, this park runs both historic steam and diesel locomotives through the heart of California Gold Country in Tuolomne County. The park has a working roundhouse and a number of historic trains on display outdoors to view and explore.
Napa Valley Wine Train (Napa)
This historic rail lines runs through a large swath of Napa wine country, from the town of Napa to St. Helena, passing several dozen famous wineries along the way. More than just a train ride, the Napa Valley Wine Train offers a wide variety of excursions that include meals, tastings, and stops at wineries along the way. Trips can be as long as a full day (6 hours) or just a few hours, depending on what itinerary you book.
Related: Guide to Napa Valley with Kids
While the Napa Valley Wine Train welcomes kids on some trips, I wouldn’t recommend this train for families with younger kids due to its more adult focus on food and wine. But for for couples travelers or those with tweens and teens who appreciate food and views, it’s a unique way to get an overview of the entire area.
Western Pacific Railroad Museum (Portola)
The Western Pacific Railroad Museum is off-the-beaten track in the more remote northeast part of the state about an hour from Reno/Tahoe. Always a favorite with true railroad enthusiasts, it’s worth the trip.
Calling it a museum might be a bit misleading as it is really more about actually exploring and climbing aboard the many dozens of pieces of railway equipment in the outdoor yard. The incredible collection includes a number of diesel-electric locomotives as well as passenger cars, freight cars, and cabooses.
The museum offers train rides on weekends for a small fee. Want to drive a train? The museum’s Run-A-Locomotive Program lets you be be a train engineer for an hour (kids too! – with parent accompanying and a signed release of liability). Be aware that the museum is closed in winter months so call ahead before you make the drive. It will reopen April 1, 2022 next year.
12 More Smaller Trains to Ride in NorCal
If you are a local looking to take a smaller train-related excursion or ride, there are lots of options in the northern half of California – especially in the Bay Area. These are mostly located within local parks, theme parks, or in association with other family-friendly attractions. For some smaller and less expensive train outings, keep these on your radar too:
Redwood Valley Railway (Berkeley)
Tilden Park in the Berkeley and Oakland hills is home to several railway-related attractions known as the Tilden Park steam trains. The main event is the open air narrow gauge Redwood Valley Railway that travels a one mile loop through the park.
There are also miniature scale trains just large enough to sit and straddle like a horse – the Golden Gate Live Steamers. These traditionally run only for a few hours on Sundays and are run by a dedicated group of train enthusiasts who enjoy sharing their love of trains with kids.
Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad (Los Gatos)
In the South Bay, the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad operates real steam engines that travel through Oak Meadow and Vasona parks in the town of Los Gatos. In operation since 1968, this railroad is generally open daily in summer and Saturdays and Sundays the rest of the year.
Railroad Museum at Ardenwood (Fremont)
The Railroad Museum at Ardenwood is a nonprofit railroad in Fremont was founded with a mission to preserve West Coast narrow gauge railroad technology and history. It is located on the grounds of Ardenwood Historic Farm Regional Preserve, a popular family-friendly outing to view a historic working farm in the Bay Area. Train rides are available from the first weekend in April through the weekend before Thanksgiving on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays, as well as for some additional special events.
Oakland Zoo’s Outback Express Adventure Train (Oakland)
Guests visiting the Oakland Zoo can take a ride aboard the Outback Express Adventure Train. The train is located in Adventure Landing along with several other kid-friendly rides outside of the paid entry area into the zoo. No separate zoo admission is required, but the parking fee ($10 per car) is in addition to the small fee for the train itself. The ride takes you into the enclosures where the emus and wallaroos are kept for a down under adventure.
San Francisco Zoo’s Little Puffer Miniature Steam Train (San Francisco)
The San Francisco Zoo is home to the 100+ year old Little Puffer Miniature Steam Train. It’s one of only three 22 inch gauge railroads left in the world. Admission is a little pricey ($7 per passenger in addition to the zoo’s admission and parking fees), and it only takes two short laps. But it’s a really unique steam train experience that enthusiasts will enjoy.
Golden State Model Railroad Museum (Point Richmond)
Owned and operated by the East Bay Model Engineers Society, the Golden State Model Railroad Museum has three model train layouts to view in operation. Admission is very reasonable – a ticket to admit the whole family is just $10. The museum is only open Sundays from noon to 4:00 pm right now, so check operating dates and hours carefully!
Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society
The Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society runs the Diablo Valley Lines model railroad which features a mix of model railroad types – standard gauge, narrow gauge, and overhead electric freight and trolley lines. The railroad is only on view for specific shows (a few days a month on weekends, but more frequently during the holidays).
Theme Park Trains
A number of local Bay Area theme parks also have small train rides you shouldn’t miss if you are planning a day at the amusement park with a train-loving kiddo. Our favorites include:
- Bonfante Railroad Train Ride at Gilroy Gardens (Gilroy): One of the hidden theme park gems for families with young kids is Gilroy Gardens, which has a train that circles the park. This train is the largest of the ones at theme parks in NorCal and is a 1/3 scale replica of an 1863 C.P. Huntington steam locomotive.
- Jolly Trolly at Children’s Fairyland (Oakland): This slow moving train is ideal for even babies and toddlers in laps. Plan to ride it early in the day as lines get long.
- Pixieland Express Train (Concord): This small scale amusement park has a little 1/4 mile train for adults and kids who are big enough sit up on their own.
- Seaside Railway at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (Vallejo): This amusement park just outside of the Bay Area has a small train perfect for families to ride together. (See my related Tips for visiting Six Flags Discovery Kingdom)
- The Little Engine that Could at Fairytale Town (Sacramento): Another neighborhood amusement park great for little ones features this famous blue train kids know and love!
Seasonal & Holiday Train Experiences in Northern California
Trains are often the most popular for families to visit during special events offered around the holidays. From haunted trains to holiday trains of lights, there are a number of special railway seasonal events in San Francisco, Sacramento, and all over Northern California.
(These special events are all hosted by attractions listed above.)
- Halloween Express (Skunk Train)
- Spookomotive (Sacramento Southern Railway)
- Pumpkin Patch Express (Sacramento River Fox Train)
- Halloween Limited (Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railway)
Christmas & Winter Holiday Trains
- Magical Christmas Train (Skunk Train)
- Polar Express (California State Railroad Museum & Sacramento Southern Railway)
- Polar Express (Railtown 1897 State Historic Park)
- Train of Lights (Niles Canyon Railway)
- Magical Christmas Train (Sacramento River Fox Train)
- Tis The Season To Sip (Napa Valley Wine Train)
Other Holiday Trains
- Easter Egg Express (Sacramento River Fox Train)
- Valentine’s Day Dinner Train (Sacramento River Fox Train) – adults only
Are there any train rides or attractions in Northern California we missed? Leave your recommendations in the comments and we’ll keep this list updated.