Along with the Gold Rush and Hollywood, railroads have played an outsized role in the formation of California. Once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, trains connected the Golden State to the rest of the nation, establishing new towns and industries along the way. Trains starred in a lot of movies, too. You can still explore the state by train, traveling on scenic Amtrak lines such as the Coast Starlight, the Pacific Surfliner, or the San Joaquins.
You can also appreciate the railroad’s legacy by visiting museums, taking excursion rides, or staying at resorts comprised of vintage cars. Some of these experiences will especially thrill train-loving kids, but all of them will delight anyone whose heart soars at the sound of a train whistle.
Scenic Excursion Trains
Skunk Train, Mendocino County
This 1885 train used to transport redwood logs and got its name from its pungent-smelling exhaust system. Today the “skunk” is gone but you can enjoy rides between Fort Bragg and the cowboy town of Willits, winding through redwood forests and along the Noyo River. Keep your eyes peeled for deer, egrets, and other waterfowl, and the occasional river otter. The Skunk Train offers railbike rides, too, as well as holiday-themed rides. (learn more)
River Fox Train, Yolo County
The 14-mile line from West Sacramento to Woodland in Yolo County used to transport goods from local farms into the capital city. Today, the six-car, gold-and-blue train offers a leisurely view of the river and farmlands. Choose from themed rides such as the family-friendly River Fox Train Excursion, the wine tastings of the Old Vine Express, or the local craft brews of the Beer Train. For a more active excursion, book an outing on one of the River Fox’s two-seater, pedal-powered railbikes. (learn more)
Napa Valley Wine Train, Napa
Sit in lushly restored Pullman railcars and enjoy the delights of Napa Valley on this special wine country tour: rolling, vineyard-covered countryside out the window and great wine tasting right in front of you. The three- to six-hour rides (some paired with hotel stays) feature foodie-magnet meals prepared in the onboard kitchens. The train has an onboard wine list as well as a private label bottled by nearby Raymond Winery. (learn more)
Roaring Camp Railroads, Santa Cruz
Ride a century-old steam locomotive along an old logging route in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This hour-long loop ride out of Felton, near Santa Cruz, starts at a recreated 1880s logging camp and includes lots of redwood scenery. There are themed rides, too, such as a Starlight Evening Train with a campfire supper or an interactive Great Train Robbery ride. (learn more)
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, Fish Camp
Ride this vintage, narrow-gauge steam train that operates just three miles beyond the national park’s southern entrance in Fish Camp. The two beautifully restored steam locomotives—one built in 1913 and the other in 1928—feature tree-carved bench seats and run along four miles of track in Sierra National Forest’s scenic woodlands, with a stop for photo ops in the forest. (learn more)
Museums & Rides for History Buffs
Western Pacific Railroad Museum, Portola
This hands-on railyard museum in Plumas County near Lake Tahoe celebrates a smaller railroad from the early 20th century. Climb into the cars, take a ride around the grounds, or sign up for the Run-a-Locomotive session to drive (with supervision) a locomotive yourself.
California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento
Located in Old Sacramento, this acclaimed museum houses 21 “iron horse” locomotives and railway cars—meticulously restored down to the china in the dining cars and the velvet in the Pullman sleeping cars. Don’t miss the high-speed train simulator that lets you feel what it’s like to pilot a modern high-speed train. Check the museum’s calendar for excursion rides along the Sacramento River. (learn more)
Railroad Square District, Santa Rosa
The Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa first developed in the 1870s around the railroad. Today, that nerve center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the 1904 depot, the still-operating 1907 Hotel La Rose, and the area’s antique stores. You can still ride a train too, on the updated Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. (learn more)
Western Railway Museum, Suisun City
Take an 11-mile roundtrip, or even just a 15-minute ride, on one of the street cars, commuter trains, and older railroad cars at this Solano County museum that offers a time machine of Bay Area transit.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown
This “movie-star railroad” has been a popular filming location for decades—from early talkies to High Noon and Unforgiven. Walk around the still-working roundhouse in Tuolumne County to look at props from past films, or, on select dates, board a vintage passenger coach for a 45-minute ride through the Sierra foothills.
Cable Car Museum, San Francisco
San Francisco has its own form of rail history—namely, the iconic cable cars that still clang their way around town. This free Nob Hill museum houses three cable cars from the 1870s, but this is not just a time capsule: The museum is part of the Washington-Mason powerhouse and carbarn—the giant mechanisms that actually power today’s cable cars. (learn more)
SF Railway Museum, San Francisco
The free museum across from the Ferry Building Marketplace celebrates both cable cars and their cousin, the streetcar. Be sure to check out the 1911 San Francisco streetcar, where visitors can stand at the controls of an exact replica of the motorman’s platform.
Niles Canyon Railway, Fremont
This “living history museum” in the East Bay has preserved locomotives and artifacts from the Central and Southern Pacific railroads, active here from 1910 to 1960. Peruse the exhibits in the Sunol Depot and take a ride on a steam or diesel engine between the Sunol and Niles Depot.
Oceano Depot, Oceano
Explore the interpretive displays, artifacts, and two full-sized historic train cars at this depot in San Luis Obispo County. The building dates back to around 1903 and celebrates both the railroad era as well as the Chumash people who lived in the area long before railroads.
Harvey House Railroad Depot, Barstow
This depot was part of the Fred Harvey Company of stations, hotels, and restaurants serving the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, as well as travelers driving along Route 66. Called “Casa del Desierto” (House of the Desert), this Spanish and Moorish-style building is now home to the free Route 66 Mother Road Museum.
When San Bernardino’s Mission Revival-style depot opened in 1918, it was the largest station west of the Mississippi. It’s still impressive today thanks to its domes, towers, and intricate details. Check out the recreation of a 1910 railway office and the three-wheeled velocipedes used for track inspections. And be sure to listen for the sound of freight trains that still whiz past outside.
This Riverside County museum boasts of having the West’s largest collection of locomotives, freight cars, and interurban electric cars—more than 200 vehicles total, mostly from Los Angeles’ early days. On weekends, you can often ride a trolley or locomotive too.
Places to Stay
Railroad Park Resort, Dunsmuir
This UpState CA resort in Siskiyou County near Castle Crags State Park features 12 cupola-topped cabooses big enough to sleep families of five. Each stationary caboose includes a private bathroom, mini-fridge, and microwave, but you won’t want to miss the Dunsmuir resort’s onsite restaurant, which is housed in antique dining cars. (learn more)
Featherbed Railroad B&B, Nice
This lakeside bed-and-breakfast in Lake County is comprised of nine antique cabooses, each decorated with its own theme—like the Orient Express, Easy Rider, and Wine Country. Each is set up to sleep two, with views of Clear Lake from the back deck or enclosed cupola. The resort is a short drive from about a dozen Lake County wineries, too.
This grande dame hotel—formerly known as the Inn at Furnace Creek Resort—was built in 1927 at Death Valley National Park to help support the Death Valley Railroad. Many Hollywood stars visited back in the day, and the Mission-style inn has remained plush, with its spring-fed swimming pool, casitas, date palm gardens, and a wellness center.
Sonoma Traintown Railroad, Sonoma
Trainspotters of all ages will love this 10-acre Sonoma railroad park that’s one of the most detailed sets of quarter-scale trains in the country. Take the 20-minute ride through tunnels and over bridges before stopping at the little village that includes a petting zoo. There are five other little kid–friendly rides, too, including an all-heights coaster and Ferris wheel. (learn more)
Redwood Valley Railway, Berkeley
Take a ride on a scaled-down steam train that has been a staple of Tilden Park since 1952. On weekends, you can also ride the Berkeley park’s miniature live steam trains at Golden Gate Live Streamers.
Griffith Park Train Rides, Los Angeles
Train lovers will find three fun attractions in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Start at Travel Town, which features dozens of vintage cars and a rideable miniature train. Then ride the mini-trains at the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad or the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum, which is also home to Walt Disney’s Barn. Disney used to be a member of the Los Angeles Live Steamers himself, and had this barn in his backyard for his own model-train layout. You can tour the barn the third Sunday of each month.
Model Railroad Museum, San Diego
You don’t have to know the difference between HO and O scale to enjoy the 27,000 square feet of model trains, trestles, and tracks displayed in this Balboa Park museum. The elaborate layouts depict California railroads such as the Tehachapi Pass, which was designed as a spiral loop in order to help traverse the steep Sierra Nevada Mountains.