Polar Express: 5 Holiday Train Rides in Northern California

niles canyon train of of lights

During the holiday season, the rule of thumb is the more time spent in pajamas, the better. Of course, we still love the holiday parties and gift shopping, but at the end of it all, we anticipate the jammies—the fireplace, the hot cocoa, and the jammies. So when we found out about the Bay Area’s wealth of holiday trains (where pajamas are totally welcome) we couldn’t resist sharing the good news.

1. Sierra Railroad Christmas Train | 330 South Sierra Avenue | Oakdale

Take a ride down the third oldest railroad in North America. Chugging through Gold Country, the Sierra Railroad runs a Christmas Train all through the month of December. Besides a meet-and-greet with Santa and his elves, your ticket gets you all the cocoa and cookies you can handle. Enjoy an enactment of “Morgan and the Magical Christmas Train” during the 90-minute trip, or simply sit back, cozy up,and enjoy the ride. Either way, your favorite PJ’s are the garb of choice.  (Adults $36; Children $29)

Directions: Given many train and bus transfers, it is best to drive to Oakdale.

holiday trains2. Roaring Camp Railroad | 5401 Graham HIll Road | Felton

Hop aboard Roaring Camp Railroad’s Holiday Lights Train and ward off the night’s chill with a glass of cocoa or cider while rolling along in vintage cars decked with holiday lights. The train will wind through the Santa Cruz Redwoods while Christmas carols jingle out, and then end up at Santa’s Kingdom at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Your ticket for the train includes a game of mini-golf or laser tag, and since a handful of local hotels are offering discounted rates for passengers there’s hardly a reason not to extend your ride into a full blown Santa Cruz getaway (Adults $28; Children $22)

Directions: Take Caltrain to San Jose Diridon and catch the Highway 17 Express to Cavallaro Transit Center. From there, take the 35/35A bus to Felton Faire, and then walk or cycle one mile south to Roaring Camp.

3. Niles Canyon Train of Lights | 36001 Mission Boulevard | Fremont

Board this colorful Yuletide express in Sunol or Niles for a 13-mile, round-trip ride that lasts just over an hour and takes in the beautiful scenery of Niles Canyon. A general admission ticket will get you the ride and lights, but spend a little more and you’ll score you an enviable seat in the Dome Car or Holiday Club Lounge, plus plenty of hot cider and cookies. (Tickets $25; Bargain Wednesday Trains $17) Bonus: While in Fremont, head over to Cripps Place, the Fremont street that becomes all things magical as “Crippsmas Place” each holiday.

Directions: Take BART to Union City, and catch the AC Transit bus 264 or 275 to Fremont Boulevard/Nicolet Avenue

4. Skunk Train | 100 W Laurel Street | Fort Bragg

Mendocino County’s historic Skunk Train (Adults $35; Children $25; Dogs $10) gets all gussied up for the holidays. Its special Christmas Train will be departing from Willits and Fort Bragg every day in December. Come early to enjoy holiday tunes, steamy hot chocolate, and all of Santa’s favorite cookies before sitting down for a visit with Santa himself. Pajamas are encouraged for the 90-minute, round-trip ride. Tip: Take off from Fort Bragg so you can fill your pockets with loot from glass beach, or pop in for a pint at North Coast Brewery (455 N Main Street).

Directions: It’s best to drive to Fort Bragg, but once there you can explore the area car-free before hopping on the train.

5. Napa Valley Santa Train | 1275 McKinstry Street | Napa

Not to be forgotten is the Napa Valley Santa Train (tickets $20), where your jolly ride with Santa rolls right through stunning California wine country. Traveling from downtown Napa to Yountville and back, the ride promises 90 minutes of treats and cheer. The on-board menu ranges from classic fresh-from-the-oven cookies to lox and toast with caviar, plus holiday favorites like spiked eggnog or cider and (of course) wine by the glass or bottle.

Directions: Take BART to El Cerrito, and then catch the Napa VINE 29 to Napa College, followed by the Napa VINE 10 to Soscol Avenue and Imperial Way. From there, it’s a six-minute walk to the train.


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