Hop on board the holiday season with these magical train rides in the San Francisco Bay Area that’ll keep your winter festivities on track
It’s the time of the year to start thinking about booking your family’s holiday train tickets. Sure, your winter schedule is already packed with experiences like picking out your Christmas tree or catching a merry show nearby. But the holiday trains are just waiting for you to jump on board. The magic of these festive rides—from twinkling lights to hot cocoa to Santa himself—will get the entire family in the spirit and could even become one of those traditional can’t-miss local events. However, holiday train rides in the Bay Area are super popular, so be sure to book early so you don’t miss out, and then get ready to bring on the cheer.
1. Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train
It’s a true Californian Christmas when Santa is at the beach. St. Nick will join your family aboard this vintage Bay Area train decorated with thousands of lights. Once you embark on this 60-minute round trip, your family can enjoy refreshments, a holiday sing-along, and, of course, a visit from Santa. And the fun doesn’t stop when the train pulls back into the station. For just $7 you can purchase a pass to take advantage of the attractions and arcade at Neptune’s Kingdom.
Good to Know: There is also a Holiday Tree Walk where you can take a steam train from Roaring Camp’s Felton location to Bear Mountain and view a tree-lined walk of decorated trees. Stick around in town after the ride for winter-themed activities.
Dates: Nov. 25-26, Dec. 3-4, 10-11, 17-23; Times vary.
Cost: $44/adults; $33/children ages 2-12. Parking in lot across the street is $10.
Neptune’s Kingdom on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk
400 Beach St.
2. The Caltrain Holiday Train
This train brings the holiday fun to you. A tradition since 2011, this free family event is a chance to check out special Caltrain cars decked out with over 70,000 glittering lights. The Holiday Train stops at nine Caltrain stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara. Come to one of the Bay Area stations to take in the beautiful train, listen to holiday entertainment, and bring a donation for Toys 4 Tots, as they will be collecting there. This is a great option for those looking to experience the magic of a Holiday train, without committing to an hour-plus ride. Not to mention, the price is right.
Good to Know: This is not a ride and no passengers are allowed on the holiday train. The public is invited to join in the celebration at each of the stations 30 minutes before the expected arrival time.
Dates: Dec. 3-4; Times vary
Caltrain Stations between San Francisco and Santa Clara
3. Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad Holiday Train
The Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad offers all of the holiday fun on a smaller scale. The sweet little open-air train winds through part of Vasona Park’s Fantasy of Lights spectacular. The 1.5-mile loop is just enough to get that festive fix and get to bed on time. If you’re up for a little more action after the ride, there are plenty more light displays in the park to check out, which aren’t visible from the train (a separate ticket is needed).
Good to Know: Dress warmly: The train is small (roller coaster-style seats) with no roof or windows. You can also walk or drive your car through Vasona Park to see the Festival of Lights. Avoid University Avenue when arriving: Take Los Gatos Boulevard to Blossom Hill Road and turn right into the Oak Meadow parking lot.
Dates: Thurs.-Sun., Dec. 8-30; 6-9 p.m.
Cost: $7/person for one train ride and one carousel ride. Children under age 3 ride free with a paying adult.
Oak Meadow Park
233 Blossom Hill Rd.
4. Glowfari at the Oakland Zoo
The Oakland Zoo transforms into a shining spectacle with hundreds of illuminated, larger-than-life lantern animals lighting the way on a mile-long journey. Ride both the gondola and express train and end the evening with Santa himself. New displays this year include creatures such as whales and otters from the California coastline and a walkabout with kangaroos and koalas from the land down under.
Good to Know: This event often sells out so reserve your tickets in advance. Parking is free, children under 2 get in free and zoo members receive a 10 percent discount. Meet Santa from 6-9:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday in November and every night Dec. 1-23. Animals will not be visible, as they’ll be in their night houses.
Dates: Nov. 16-23, 25-27, 30; Dec. 1-23, 26-31; Jan. 1-8, 11-15, 18-22, 19-23, 25-29; 5-9 p.m.
Cost: $24/adult; $20/child & seniors; under 2 free
9777 Golf Links Rd.
5. Magical Christmas Train
The River Fox Train becomes the Magical Christmas Train as it chugs along a storybook wonderland. Santa's elves will be on board to join the passengers in holiday sing-a-longs and festive games. The one-hour train ride will include hot cocoa, a cookie, and an opportunity to send a letter to Santa.
Good to Know: A souvenir mug is included in the ticket price. Seating is assigned, so make a note when purchasing tickets if you want to sit with another party. Christmas jammies are encouraged.
Dates: Fri.-Sun., Nov. 25-Dec. 18, daily Dec. 19-23; Times vary
Cost: $55/adults, $45/children ages 3-12, $10/ages 2 and younger
River Fox Train
18095 County Rd. 117
6. Christmas Tree Train
Travel through a storybook wonderland in the redwoods aboard a newly-imagined Christmas experience out of Willits on the Skunk Train. This two-hour journey takes you to Mr. Skunk's Giant Christmas tree, a decorated redwood along the line that Santa Mr. Skunk uses as a workshop. Come dressed in your finest holiday jammies and join in the holiday cheer. Seating is unassigned so board with your buddies if you'd like to sit together.
Good to Know: Purchase a copy of Skippy the TrainDeer for $7 when you order your tickets so that you can read along on the ride. While tickets are non-refundable, you may contact the Skunk Train at least 72 hours prior to your ride to reschedule or receive a voucher for another ride.
Dates: Nov. 26-27, 30; Dec. 2-4, 7, 9-11, 14, 16-23, 26-31; Times vary
Cost: $60/per person, $95/VIP seating, $11/dog
299 E. Commercial St.
7. Western Railway Museum
Santa arrives at the museum in late November. There, he joins guests on one of the lovingly-restored rail cars for a 50-minute ride through the golden hills. Cookies and hot chocolate are included. The trains run during the day, so this is a great option for kids (and adults) who can’t stay up late.
Good to know: The train is usually comprised of one or two cars which run on electricity. So no giant locomotives here. There is a huge barn of rail cars in various stages of repair, which is super fun to check out before and after. The railway museum is all volunteer-run. Older kids will especially enjoy hearing the history of the trains and cars.
Dates: Nov. 26-27, Dec. 3-4, 10-11, 17-18; trains run every hour from 12-5 p.m.
Cost: $27/adults; $25/children/$12-$15 members
5848 State Highway 12
8. California State Railroad Museum Polar Express
It’s like the pages of “The Polar Express” come alive on this one-hour journey. Many of the book’s characters join riders, including the Conductor, the Dancing Waiters, and the ghostly Hobo. It’s no wonder these tickets seem to sell out as soon as they’re available. Each coach and first-class car has a different theme, so you can book the exact one you want. All riders will get a magical first gift of Christmas from Santa—that beautiful silver bell.
Good to Know: Museum members get first crack at tickets for this wildly-popular event (remember that for next year), but it’s worth checking the website frequently as tickets are occasionally available as the museum processes returns. Commemorative photos with Santa are also available for purchase. No strollers on board; stroller parking area near the boarding platform.
Dates: Wed.-Sun., Nov. 25-Dec. 21; 3:30 p.m., 5 p.m., 6:30 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Cost: $60/person for coach class; $80/person for first class; children under 2 are free if sitting on lap.
Central Pacific Passenger Station
930 Front St.
9. The Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Train
They pull out all the stops each year, as the Wine Train fills with the sounds of the season. Guests will be treated to three all-new Jolly Journeys after they arrive at the station to cheerful carolers, a welcome cup of hot cider or cocoa, photo opportunities with Santa, and a merry mailing station for postcards to the North Pole. Jingle and mingle in Santa's Cookie Car, have a three-course kid-friendly dinner on the Gourmet Holiday Express, and indulge in 360-degree views of wine country from the Very Merry Vista Dome. It's a fun-filled, action-packed journey, suitable for all ages.
Good to Know: Make your reservations NOW. This train sells out very early. They'll be collecting new, unwrapped gifts for Napa foster children. Regular seating at a table, no booster seats available. Food and drink are available for purchase on the train, including a kid-friendly menu.
Dates: Thurs.-Sat., Dec. 1-23; departure at 6:10 p.m.
Cost: $95-$195/adults, $75-$105/children
The Napa Valley Wine Train Station
1275 McKinstry St.
10. Nevada Northern Railway Santa's Reindeer Flyer
If your holiday plans take you to Nevada, then you’ll want to grab a ticket aboard the Christmas Express Train that leaves from the town of Ely. Passengers aboard Santa’s Reindeer Flyer will enjoy a comfy ride in their pajamas with hot chocolate and cookies as they listen to the story of how this year’s Christmas Train came to be. Santa Claus himself will board the train and personally present each child their own special gift to remember the spirit of the season.
Good to Know: Discounts are available for military, AAA members, and groups of 12 or more. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis so arrive early. The train is pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive.
Dates:Various dates Nov. 19-Dec. 28; Times vary
Cost: $45/adults, $20/kids ages 4-12
Nevada Northern Railway Museum
1100 Ave. A
11. Polar Express Railtown 1897
***Sold out for the 2022 season but check online for cancellations***
Experience a Polar Express that is off the beaten track when you head up into the California foothills to Jamestown, a historic gold rush town perfectly preserved for your holiday photo backdrops. Head to the Jamestown 1897 Railpark where you can embark upon your official Polar Express train with several cars pulled by a vintage engine from Railtown 1897’s collection. Guests can enjoy hot chocolate and yummy cookies as they ride along to the North Pole, where the jolly old elf—Santa himself—will come on board to give each passenger a silver sleighbell, the “first gift of Christmas.”
Good to Know: Make it a weekend to remember and stay at the nearby Rush Creek Lodge and visit Yosemite.
Dates: Fri.-Sun., Nov. 25-Dec. 18; 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $60/seat; children 2 and under (on laps) are free.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
10501 Reservoir Rd.
12. Niles Canyon Railway Train of Lights
***Sold out for the 2022 season but check online for cancellations***
The Niles Canyon Train of Lights is an extremely popular East Bay tradition. Volunteers meticulously adorn all of the train cars with twinkling lights, garlands, and bows—inside and out. Santa and Mrs. Claus make the rounds as the train winds through the canyon wilderness. Sit in an open-air car to get the best view of the decorations outside (or just go out for a peek as the train rounds one of the bends). A concession stand offers treats like cookies and cocoa but families are also allowed to bring their own refreshments.
Good to Know: Get your tickets early: This event is very popular and sells out quickly. They sell some day-of at the station, however, so get there early if you haven’t booked or check for cancellations online. The ride lasts a little over an hour and runs rain or shine. No strollers are allowed on board.
Dates: Wed., Fri.-Sun., Nov. 18-Dec. 28 (except Dec. 24 & 25); train departs Niles at 4:30 p.m. and Sunol at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $35/person, $65/person in the first class dome (children 3 and under are free if on a lap)
37029 Mission Blvd.
6 Kilkare Rd.