All Steamed Up About Northern California Excursion Trains

Is there anyone who doesn’t like trains? From early childhood, we played with toy trains, and the real ones are even more exciting! Kids (and adults) love watching movies like “The Polar Express,” and hearing the “All Aboard!” call at Disneyland or maybe as an old-time  excursion train, complete with private railroad car, huffs and puffs out of its loading depot in Old Sacramento. (The trains at Disneyland are actual working steam trains that once ran on narrow-gauge rail lines.) Nowadays, you can take a fun ride to watch scenery, eat a meal, taste wine, or take part in a costumed theme production! Maybe you want to take an excursion on the Napa Wine Train, or enjoy a special rail trip to the Santa Cruz  Boardwalk down the tracks along the San Lorenzo River? Or what about a specially-themed Halloween train, or a trip on a train where outlaws will come through and attempt to steal the gold shipments? Want to ride the Polar Express, or maybe experience murder most foul and detective work? All these are available, plus a big secret: sshhh- you can sample wine and food on more trains than just those in the Napa Valley!

Probably the best-known vintage trains run out of the Sacramento State Railroad Museum, adjacent to Old Town Sacramento. You can take a 40 minute train ride in a vintage train car, pulled by a historic steam engine, down along the levees of the Sacramento River, then return to the Railroad Museum to explore its exhibits and historic passenger station, once terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. One car even rocks on its rails, with the familiar clatter, giving the illusion you are truly traveling! Then have dinner in Old Sacramento at one of its terrific restaurants!

Also run by the California State Historic Parks is Railtown 1897, in historic Jamestown. This railroad also features weekend excusions through the month of October, including those on the recently-restored Engine Sierra #3, the “Movie Star Engine.” The Jamestown railroad, in use since 1897, has been featured in many productions for both screen and TV, including “Back to the Future III” and “Petticoat Junction.” The Sierra #3 engine is instantly recognizable, and does special excursions on the first weekend of the month in summer and fall. On other weekends, another of their historic steam engines pulls passenger cars through the rolling countryside.

The Sierra Railway also offers dinner excursions out of Oakdale, pulled by Sierra #42, their historic Baldwin Engine. Watch the sunset as you dine, then retire to the lounge car for cocktails and dancing. They also run lunch, brunch, and special holiday trains, so you can pick whichever dining experience works for you, while you enjoy the scenery of the lower Sierra foothills.

Another dinner train runs out of Woodland, near Sacramento. It runs along 32 miles of track, and its 3 ½ hour excursions allow plenty of time to enjoy the train, dine, or participate in a special event. Known as the Sacramento River Train, it serves meals in its dining car, and allows guests to experience murder mysteries being played out on the train, or a train robbery along the way.

The Historic Niles Canyon Railway furnishes excursions for the Bay Area. This rail museum offers train rides from the Fremont area, handy to the Southern San Francisco Bay Area. The Niles Canyon Railway follows tracks back through the canyons of the East Bay Hills, between Niles and Sunol. You can also explore a complete collection of trains and passenger cars, in various stages of restoration, at their Niles station. They run daytime trains through October, including the occasional special Wine Train, and their evening Holiday Train of Lights Thanksgiving through two days after Christmas) fills quickly, so make plans well in advance!

Roaring Camp Big Trees features not just a historic ride through the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, on a train pulled by one of its steam engines, but also a train to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk that takes you on a picturesque trip down the San Lorenzo River. You can ride one of their historic steam trains to the top of Bear Mountain, and either stay to picnic and catch a later train back down the mountain, or simply enjoy a short stop to check the redwoods up close, before catching the return on the same train. Want to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, but don’t want to hassel with parking and traffic? Park at Roaring Camp and take the train, enjoying a beautiful trip through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, along the way. Their Santa Cruz Beach Train, also known as the “Suntan Special” lets you off right in front of the Boardwalk, runs through the summer, and also in the Holiday season. Roaring Camp also features theme events throughout the year, from Civil War battles to Mountain Man encampments of the Early West, to Harvest Festivals and Scarecrow contests in the fall!

The Napa Wine Train is essentially a gourmet dining experience that just happens to take place in historic early 20th century railroad cars. You not only get to have a wonderful train journey in vintage train cars and dining cars, but you get an elegant dinner as well, and  experience fine wine and dining as your train moves through the Napa Valley. There are also special trains where you can watch the full moon from the Vista Dome car, or experience a murder mystery played out on the train, a la Orient Express!

For more information on how you can experience another era as you ride the rails into the past, check out the web sites below.

California State Railroad Museum

Railtown 1897

Sierra Railroad Dinner Train

Sacramento River Train

Niles Canyon Railway

Roaring Camp Railway

Napa Valley Wine Train

Jane Beckman

Jane Beckman is a reformed workaholic who has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Her passions are food, wine, cooking, travel, and history, in no particular order. In fact, they tend to feed into each other. She might be found cooking over a fire at a historic adobe one weekend, eating crabcakes at a 19th century hotel in downtown Gettysburg on another, or getting lost on a back road, only to find an amazing park or hidden gem of a winery. Her family's love of exploring back roads has always influenced her, as did her father's love of exotic foods. Living in Hawaii at the age of 5, she acquired a taste for poke, pickled octopus, and poi. Japan hooked her on mochi and udon noodles, as well as Japanese kimono. When she was growing up on the Central Coast of California, her parents taught her how to be a "resident tourist" and find things even the locals didn't know about. She continues in that tradition, keeping an eye out for the unique and unexpected.

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