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. Magical Christmas Train 

400 N. Harbor Blvd | West Sacramento

Take a ride down a historic railroad through scenic Northern California. Chugging through open farmland and through a wildlife refuge, the Sacramento RiverTrain runs a Magical 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 “Skippy the Traindeer” 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 $44; Children $39)

Directions: Take the FlixBus from the Bay Area to Sacramento and then a taxi to the Christmas train departure station

holiday trains

2. 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 $6 myBoardwalk card to use at the arcades, 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 ($33)

Directions: Take Caltrain from San Francisco 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, cycle, or taxi 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 ($30) will get you the ride and lights, but spend a little more ($50) and you’ll score you an enviable seat in the Dome Car or Holiday Club Lounge, plus plenty of hot cider and cookies.  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 

1299 E Commercial St | Willits 

Mendocino County’s historic Skunk Train (Adults $44; Children $34; Dogs $10) gets all gussied up for the holidays. Its special Christmas Train will be departing from Willits and Fort Bragg almost 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 (or 60-minutes if leaving from Fort Bragg).

Directions: Take the 3.5 hour Greyhound bus to Willits.

5. Napa Valley Santa Train 

1275 McKinstry Street | Napa

Not to be forgotten is the Napa Valley Santa Train (tickets $69), where your jolly ride with Santa rolls right through stunning California wine country. Traveling from downtown Napa to “The North Pole” and back, the ride promises 90 minutes of cookies, cocoa, and cheer. The on-board menu ranges from fresh lox and toast with caviar to 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.