The beginning of Bay Area train history dates back to 1869 when passengers first reached Alameda via the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad. Living in California wasn’t always so desirable, however, so in 1898, Southern Pacific produced Sunset magazine to create a more positive image of the west. It worked; to the west they came.
Cars put commuter trains on the sidelines for much of the 20th century, but in recent years, due to worsening traffic and longer commutes, interest in trains has reignited. Ground has been broken for the bullet train, patrons packed LA’s Metro Express Line when it opened its extension to Santa Monica, and in Marin and Sonoma, the SMART train recently began running daily. And if you’re looking for a nostalgic experience reminiscent of a bygone era, there’s plenty of opportunities for that, too. Here’s a selection of railway rides ranging from educational to boozy you can take throughout the Bay Area. (Editor's Note: This article has been updated to be accurate in 2018.)
Roaring Camp Railroads
Roaring Camp offers two different starting points. Visitors can board at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and take the Beach Train through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park — crossing a bridge and going through a tunnel on the route — to Roaring Camp in Felton, or begin their journey in Felton. In Felton, guests can also ride the Beach Train or take the narrow-gauge Redwood Forest Steam Train up Bear Mountain and back. Regular adult fares for the steam train cost $32; adult beach train fares cost $34. Special events take place at Roaring Camp throughout the year that include a kids-friendly Halloween ride on Thomas the Tank Engine and a Holiday Lights Train. During the summer, the Moonlight Train Dinner Party ride provides a novel night out opportunity. Running on June 23, July 21 and Aug. 25, guests are taken to the top of Bear Mountain where they’re met by a campfire, cider and music. A single adult ticket costs $56.
Niles Canyon Railway
Running from Sunol to Fremont, passengers first rode though Niles Canyon in 1866. The city of Niles was established around the same time and served as a junction for Southern Pacific lines from Oakland to San Jose and southern coastal routes, and in 1956 it was incorporated into Fremont. Trains stopped operating there in 1984, but several years later the Pacific Locomotive Association stepped in and began work on tracks, rehabbing them with the purpose of teaching the public about the importance of railroads. This knowledge is offered at a bargain: for $8, kids can ride the Education Train, learn about railroad safety and the role of trains in the development of the Bay Area. But the Education Train runs on just a few dates: June 28, July 5 and 20, and Aug. 3. Prefer to soak in suds as opposed to knowledge? No problem. Beer on the Rails runs on several dates this summer. Here you’ll get to enjoy food and taste local beers on a two-hour ride. Just have someone pick you up after the ride. Tickets cost $50 plus a fee.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Sure you can shuttle between wineries in Napa, but if you’re looking for something more luxurious, hop on the train instead. The Napa Valley Wine Trains take passengers on a 36-mile round trip ride from Napa to St. Helena and back and offer a number of experiences, including six different winery tours with prices starting at $189. The Evening Winery Tour takes guests on a two-hour train ride where they are treated to a multi-course gourmet meal, followed by an after-hours tour and tasting at the Grgich Hills Estate. There’s also variety of dining oriented rides that start at $149. Visitors who wish to make a weekend of it, or those who prefer to go car-free, may want to opt for a special package like Wine, Dine and Dream. Starting at $379 for two people, the package includes one night at the Hilton Garden Inn, fine dining, a three-hour ride on the Vintage Train and a “Taste of the Valley” that gets you two-for-one tastings at select wineries. Take lots of photos so you can remember it.
Further north in Willits and Fort Bragg, the Skunk Train covers 40 miles of track that slices through redwood forests and features several experiences centered around a favorite summer pastime: barbecuing. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, hop on the Sunset BBQ Train and treat yourself to a Southern feast in a NorCal forest. The train makes a roundtrip journey from Willits to Northspur Station which is located is next to the Noyo River. Adult tickets cost $84. Not into barbecuing? The Pudding Creek Express runs daily, taking passengers on an hour-long, seven-mile roundtrip alongside the namesake's estuary passing animals like egrets, osprey and sometimes turtles, too, for $25 a ride. No outside alcohol is permitted on the trains, but a full bar featuring Skunk Beer (brewed by Anderson Valley Brewing Company) is available onboard.