Train Spotting

The clanging bells, lonesome whistles, gently rocking Pullman sleepers, and chuffing of steam engines are endangered species. But for train buffs and the generally nostalgic there are still a lot of fine, old trains running on historic tracks of the West.

Niles Canyon Railroad, image

Board the Niles Canyon Railway in Sunol for a one-hour, 12-mile trip.

Yreka Western Railroad "The Blue Goose"
The Yreka Western Railroad has been hauling freight since 1889. Since 1986, the Blue Goose tourist train has run on the same tracks through three lumber, plywood, and decorative bark companies and across Shasta Valley cattle ranches. The 1915 Baldwin steam locomotive is affectionately called "Pancho" because its side was punctured by bullets during one of Pancho Villa’s battles in Mexico. Board at Foothill Drive near Central Yreka exit from I-5. Allow three hours for the 15-mile round trip, which includes an hour layover for lunch or picnic in Montague. Musicians serenade passengers with railroad tunes and Western ballads, and outlaws stage a holdup. Train runs once at day, at 10 a.m., Wed.-Sun. Memorial Day-Labor Day; weekends in Sept. and Oct. Yreka Western Railroad ("The Blue Goose"), P.O. Box 660, Yreka, CA 96097; (916) 842-4146.

McCloud Railway Company
The McCloud Railway Company began two diesel excursions through the Shasta National Forest last spring. The one-hour, 5-1/2-mile ride in an open car to Signal Butte switchback runs on the south flank of Mount Shasta, at an elevation of 4,200 feet, on Saturdays and Sundays. The three-hour Shasta Sunset Dinner Train—in a restored 1916 Illinois Central coach car—expands this year to include Friday and Saturday dinners, Sunday lunch, sea-sonal special excursions and holiday party charters. The train travels a varying route over 100 miles of track. Future plans include year-round excursions and depots at Mount Shasta City and Mount Shasta Ski Park. The McCloud Railway Company celebrates its 100th anniversary with its first steam dinner train Memorial Day weekend. Passengers board at the Main Street Park in McCloud. Open car and lunch train rides run June-Aug. Dinner Train rides run April-Dec. McCloud Railway Company, (800) 733-2141.

The Skunk Train
The Skunk has been running through the redwood groves for over 100 years. Although it operates all year, peak season (when more trains are scheduled) is June to the last week of September. Special trains are run from time to time: barbecues, robberies, and Shakespeare are among the themes. Diesel, steam, or motor car train travel is available depending on the date of travel. Round trips from Fort Bragg to Willits leave daily. Half day trips to the midway point of Northspur leave every afternoon from Fort Bragg. Reservations necessary. Handicap access available. The Laurel Street Depot is at the inter-section of Main and Laurel streets, Fort Bragg. The Willits Depot is at Main and Commercial streets.  Fort Bragg, (707) 964-6371. In Willits board at 299 E. Commercial St.; (707) 459-5248.

Northwestern Pacific Railroad
Passengers board at 320 Hudson Street in Healdsburg. Popular demand for the diesel excursions with two vista dome cars prompted operators to increase their Healdsburg to Hopland and Willits trains this year, pulling additional coaches, a dining car, and a car with private compartments every weekend beginning in February. They plan to expand their schedule to run Wednesday through Sunday by mid-summer, tapering off to week-ends through November. The four-hour trip (with two-hour layover) to Hopland and the eight-hour round trip to Willits pass through vineyards, three tunnels, and meander along the Russian River. Going through historic Squaw Rock south from Hopland, dome car passengers get a close look at the carved rock inside the tunnel. In Hopland, a free bus shuttles passengers to three outlying wineries, and the casino on the Hopland Reservation. Northwestern Pacific Railroad, Grand Getaways, 17500 Taylor Lane, Occidental, Calif.; (800) 550-2122; or Redwood Coast Railway Tours, (888) 4-REDWOOD.

Napa Valley Wine Train
This fine-dining train operates year-round, with varying schedules for champagne brunch, lunch and dinner, and vintner’s luncheons most Fridays. On most of the Wine Train’s runs, there are no stops along the way. An exception is the Grgich Hills Winery luncheon tour package, offered Monday through Thursday (limited to 30 people). Special event trains operate for all holidays, winemakers dinners, and murder mys-teries. Dine in restored 1915 Pullman dining and lounge cars. Each three-hour trip covers 36 miles running parallel to Highway 29 through the vineyards to St. Helena and back. Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa, CA 94559; (800) 427-4124, (707) 253-2111.

Western Railway Museum
One admission ticket to this all-volunteer organization of motorcars, streetcars, and electric trains is good for unlimited rides on each of four different trains along a 1-1/4 mile track. Reser-vations are required for 1-1/2 hour, 14-mile round trip seasonal special excursions—Wildflower Express and Santa Claus Express—across the Jepson Prairie National Natural Landmark. Dinner trains can be chartered. A diesel pulls a Pullman lounge car with original 1931 art deco interior, a club car once used in President Franklin Roosevelt’s private train, and a Southern Pacific commuter coach car. Elec-tric streetcars run all year on weekends. Western Railway Museum, 5848 State Highway 12, Suisun City (between Rio Vista and Fairfield), (800)-900-RAIL.

Niles Canyon Railway
Board in Sunol on Main Street at Kilkare Road. Trains run the first and third Sunday of each month, year-round, rain or shine. This one-hour, 12-mile round trip crosses an 1896 bridge over Alameda Creek in the canyon where Bronco Billy Anderson and Ben Turpin starred in 1912 movies. Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp was shot here in 1915. A diesel pulls the train down the canyon, a steam engine pulls it back to Sunol. During spring wildflower season extra Sunday excursions are added. Suggested donations ($6 adults, $3 children) are collected on board. Carry exact amount (no change available). Niles Canyon Railway, Niles Station, (510) 862-9063.

Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Guage Railroad
Two rides in the Santa Cruz mountains originate from the depot on Graham Hill Road. A 2-1/2 hour round-trip diesel runs down the scenic San Lorenzo River gorge to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Passengers can stay an hour or a day at the beach. (Or, board the train at the Boardwalk for round-trip ride to Roaring Camp.) A one-hour, 15 minute steam train ride on either a 100-year-old Shay, or Heisler steam locomotive, runs six miles on the steepest narrow-gauge grades in North America and through the first grove of California coastal redwoods preserved in 1867. Both trips run weekends and major holidays (except Christmas) year-round, weather permitting; daily during summer months. Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad, Felton, Calif., (408) 335-4484.

Sacramento Southern Railroad
Operated by the must-see California Railroad Museum, this train runs from the museum seven miles (45 minutes) along the east bank of the Sacramento River. Choose a seat in an open car with canopy, a coach car, or the VIP observation car, all more than 70 years old. Passengers are not allowed to move from car to car during the ride. Trains run week-ends April through October, also on Thanksgiving weekend and the first weekend in December. The Sacramento Southern Railroad is located kitty-corner to the California Railroad Museum. Sacramento Southern Railroad, Front Street between "J" & "K", Old Town Sacramento, (916) 552-5252 x 7245 (RAIL).

Yolo Shortline Railroad Company
The Yolo Shortline runs on tracks used by electric trolleys from 1912 until they were replaced by diesels in 1941. Now a steam train is used for a two-hour, 20-minute trip from Woodland to West Sacramento. It crosses a 1-1/2 mile wooden trestle 30 feet above the Yolo bypass of the river, then parallels the west side of the Sacramento River. One Saturday a month the Clarksburg Special leaves West Sacramento for a three hour trip through rural farm land. The Narrow Gauge String Quartet strums railroad tunes and Western ballads on board and train robbers interrupt your ride. Snacks are served in the baggage car. Occasionally, a 2-1/2 hour dinner cruise aboard a paddlewheel riverboat on the Sacramento River is included with the Clarksburg Special. Woodland to West Sacramento train boards at kiosk on East Main at E Street opposite Thomas Street in Woodland Sat., Sun. & holidays May-Oct. The Clarksburg Special boards at South River Road and Jefferson Blvd. in West Sacramento (no depot) selected Saturdays May-Oct. Yolo Shortline Railroad Company, West Sacramento, Calif., (916) 372-9777.

Portola Railroad Museum
Here’s a train that’s all cabooses. Board at Western Pacific Way for a five-minute, one-mile ride around a loop track. A diesel pulls five cabooses—three bays and two cupolas, one of which is a veranda caboose. One ticket entitles you to ride all day in each if you wish. For hands-on experience, reserve an hour with an instructor and learn to operate a diesel locomotive for $75. Train runs weekends, Memorial Day through Labor Day. A family (generally up to 5 people) can ride for $5. Portola Railroad Museum, Portola, Calif., (916) 832-4131.

Railtown 1897
Board the Sierra Railway at this historic state park at Fifth Avenue depot. Six-mile round-trip rides run through former gold fields along Gold Creek. Also known as "The Movie Railroad" because it is home to the Hooterville Cannonball, a steam locomotive that has appeared in more than 50 films and 20 television series. High Noon was filmed here. Take time to explore the park—the operating shops and historic displays remain much as they were around the turn of the century. Trains run weekends April through September, and on select weekends and holidays. Railtown 1897 Historic Sierra Railroad Shops, Jamestown, Calif., (209) 984-3953.

Yosemite Mountain-Sugar Pine Railroad
Two Shay steam locomotives alternate pulling cars around a four-mile circular track in the Sierra National Forest. The one-hour ride passes through a forest of sugar pine, white fir, incense cedar, white alder, and black oak—an area that had been clear-cut more than 60 years ago by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company. Most passenger cars are logs with cut-out bench seats. If you miss the steam train, ride a Jenny railcar, powered by a Model A Ford gas engine. Each carries six passengers for a 30-minute ride. Moonlight Specials/Melodramas including dinner and entertainment run selected Satur-day nights June through September. Times vary Mar.-Oct. and, weather permitting, Nov., Dec., Jan. & Feb. Yosemite Mountain-Sugar Pine Railroad, Fish Camp, Calif., (209) 683-7273.

Nevada Northern Railway Museum
Board at Avenue A & 11th Street for a variety of steam and diesel excursions through eastern Nevada’s scenic desert landscape. The Ghost Train of Old Ely, a 14-mile, 90-minute excursion to the ghost towns of Lane City and Keystone passes through one of the few curved railroad tunnels in the world. The Hiliner diesel trip runs one hour and 45 minutes in the opposite direction 22 miles to the McGill copper ore smelter. Other excursions include the Ely After Dark—an evening train with wine and hors d’oeuvres, combination steam and diesel runs, a July Fourth barbecue and fireworks train, a Christmas Train all decorated in lights, and a photographer’s special. Dress appropriately to ride behind the coal-burning 1910 Baldwin locomotive. Reservations are required to learn how to operate a steam locomotive ($300-$500) or a diesel ($l50-$250). Trains run Sat. and Sun., Memorial Day-Labor Day. Nevada Northern Railway Museum, East Ely, Nev., (702) 289-2085.

Nevada State Railroad Museum
Built in 1888, steam locomotive No. 8 regularly appeared in films and television ranging from 1939’s Jessie James to the more recent Gambler series starring Kenny Rogers. No. 8 pulled tourists on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, the Sierra Railroad at Jamestown, California, and, for seven years, the Sacramento Southern. Now the star at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, No. 8 pulls visitors for 20 minutes around a mile track circling the museum grounds. When No. 8 is resting, a 1926 motorcar offers a 15-minute ride. Trains run selected weekend dates from Memorial Day through September. Nevada State Railroad Museum, 2180 S. Carson Street, Carson City, Nev., (702) 687-6953.

Virginia & Truckee Railroad
Board at the passenger car depot on "F" Street south from Washington. This 1916 Baldwin steam locomotive runs nine times a day every day from the end of May to the end of September, weekends October and November, weather permitting. The 40-minute, six-mile round trip ride to the Gold Hill depot travels over the 1869 right of way past silver and gold mine tailings and through tunnel No. 4. Alert passengers may spot wild mustangs roaming the hills. Passengers may not move from car to car or stand outside on rear observation deck while train is moving. Call about special excursion and party trains. Virginia & Truckee Railroad, Virginia City, Nev., (702) 847-0380.

Heber Valley Railroad
Board at 450 South 600 West for steam and diesel excursions year-round, rain or shine, through sleet or snow. The 3-1/2 hour round trip Summer Canyon excursion to Vivian Park passes Heber Valley farms and livestock ranches, rivers, and streams, Deer Creek Lake and Dam, and into Provo Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains. Summer weekend evenings a diesel pulls passengers on a 2-1/4 hour round trip to Deer Creek Dam to the accompaniment of a blue grass band. Saturday evenings in August, a diesel runs an hour round trip to Charleston. In winter 3-hour, 15-minute weekend round trips run to Deer Creek. On board cozy warmth is provided by pot-bellied stoves. The Heber Valley Railroad will mail a Mile-by-Mile Guide of their excursion and history of the train for $5. Summer canyon excursions run May-Sept. Heber Valley Railroad, Heber City, Utah, (801) 654-5601.

passenger pointers

  • The cost of a train excursion can range from $1 for a 20-minute ride to $150 for a New Year’s Eve dinner ride. Schedules vary from season to season, and are subject to change. Recent floods caused some damage to tracks in Northern California. Call ahead for prices, days, and hours of operation, reservations, and special event information, and to assure that trains are running as scheduled.
  • Many trains require reservations. If you are riding a train that doesn’t have reserved seats, get there early—sometimes boarding is as much as 30 minutes before departure time.
  • Some excursions have closed coach cars with restrooms; others are open cars, with bench seats or no seats at all.
  • Inquire ahead about handicapped accessiblity.
  • Passengers riding in an open car behind a coal-burning steam locomotive may get wet and sooty; dress appropriately.
  • Most of these tourist trains go slow—10 to 20 mph.
  • Most excursions run on straight tracks, not loops. You may want to switch seats to the opposite side of the train for the return trip.
  • On many dinner trains, advance reservations and appropriate dinner clothes advised.
  • Ask about AAA discounts.

Photography courtesy of Drew Jacksich/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in March 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.


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