CALIFORNIA "IRON HORSES" ARE STILL ON TRACK
Story & Photos by Barbara L. Steinberg
No sound is more thrilling then the shrill whistle of a train as it rumbles down the tracks. Visitors to California's many railroading attractions will be thrilled beyond their wildest dreams. California's railroad history dates back to the 1860s, and much of this history is alive and well, preserved in numerous railroad museums, excursions and attractions around the State.
In California, railroad attractions can be a day's outing or an entire vacation. Journey into the past aboard restored vintage train coaches and cabooses, ride 1/4-scale model passenger cars through exquisitely landscaped gardens, explore refurbished depots and roundhouses, browse through gift shops for momentos of your railroading expedition, or experience the dream of a lifetime and learn to operate a working diesel locomotive.
Excursions on vintage or modern trains are definitely the highlight of railroading adventures in California. Visitors will be transported through some of the state's most beautiful scenery -- bountiful vineyards and agriculturally rich valleys; the magnificent Sierra Nevada or snowcapped Mt. Shasta; a grove of 1000-year-old redwoods or dramatic coastal vistas.
A wide variety of railroading festivals and special events are sponsored by railroad organizations year-round. The festivals showcase all types of railroad cars and paraphernalia and give visitors a glimpse into the fascinating past of California railroads.
The following is a selection of organizations dedicated to the preservation of railroading in California.
California State Railroad Museum, 111 'I' St., Sacramento, CA 95814;
24-Hour Information - (916) 445-6645 or Museum Front Desk - (916) 323-9280.
Part of California's State Park system the museum, the largest of its kind in the U.S., houses 21 restored locomotives and cars. A variety of exhibits and interpretive displays depict the history of Western railroading. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas & New Years. Excursions on a steam-powered train are available on weekends April through September; and special event trains operated Oct. - Dec. and holidays. Steam-powered excursion trains depart on-the-hour from the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot in Old Sacramento (located just two blocks south of the Railroad Museum on Front Street, between "J" and "K" streets). Always check ahead to confirm ticket rates. (PLEASE NOTE: Ticket prices for special "theme trains" may be higher.)
Amtrak, (800) USA - RAIL. Experience all that California has to offer from north to south and all points in between. Amtrak offers a wide variety of train experiences. From Sacramento, take a leisurely ride on the "Capitol" for a day of shopping and sightseeing in San Francisco; experience California's best beaches aboard the "Coast Starlight”; take a ride through Gold Country and the Sierra Nevada aboard the "California Zephyr” or enjoy views of California’s lush Central Valley from the “San Joaquin” which travels from Sacramento to Bakersfield.
Barstow Station, 1611 E. Main St., Barstow, CA 92311, (760) 256-0366. Shopping and dining complex features unique railroad station with converted 1900-era passenger cars and caboose. Convenietnly located on Historic Route 66.
California Western "Skunk" Trains, 100 Laurel St., Fort Bragg, CA 95437, or 299 E. Commercial St., Willits, CA 95490, (707) 964-6371 or (866) 457-5865. The yellow "Skunk" trains, named for their original gas engines, promoted the saying, "You can smell 'em before you can see 'em." California Western operates two "Super Skunks" down 40 miles of track between Ft. Bragg and Willits. Full-and half-day trips, originating from both Fort Bragg and Willits, depart daily throughout the year.
Fortuna Depot Museum, 3 Park St., Fortuna, CA 95540, (707) 725-7645. Built in 1893 for Northwestern Pacific, the restored building was moved to Rohnert Park in 1976. Major displays include railroading and logging memorabilia. Open daily, Noon-4:30pm, June-Aug; open Thursday-Sunday, Noon-4:30pm, Sept. - May.
Laws Railroad Museum & Historical Site, Hwy. 6 to Silver Canyon Road, Bishop, CA 93514, (760) 873-5950. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and California State Historical Landmark #953, Laws' is full of treasures from the past. Eleven acres of restored buildings include the original 1883 depot and agent's house. Highlights include the "Slim Princess Narrow Gauge Train," the self-propelled 1920s Blue Goose and an impressive collection of railroad cars. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa, CA 94559, (707) 253-2111 or (800) 427-4124 (reservations). This excursion train carries passengers through the heart of California's most famous wine-producing region. On the 36-mile round trip from Napa to St. Helena, passengers can enjoy wine tasting, luncheon or dinner service aboard elegantly refurbished 1915-vintage Pullman parlor cars drawn by classic 1950s diesel locomotives. The food, wine and service are all 5-star! Increase that star quality and include other local wineries and tastings pre- or post-lunch. Downtown Napa has a multitude of tasting rooms to round out your visit.
Niles Canyon Railway/Depot Museum, 5550 Niles Canyon Rd., Sunol, CA 94586, (925) 862-9063; museum is lcoated at t37952 Niles Boulevard, Fremont, CA, (510) 797-4449. Operating on nine miles of ex-Southern Pacific right-of-way, the railway maintains eleven steam locomotives, eight internal combustion locomotives, several passenger cars and a 1924 caboose. Visitors can enjoy a 55-minute, 5-1/2 mile excursion the first and third Sundays of each month between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Orange Empire Railway Museum, 2201 S. A Street, Perris, CA 92570, (951) 943-3020. Organized by electric car enthusiasts, the museum features dozens of restored trolleys, interurban and locomotives. The display includes more than 20 passenger cars and a three-foot narrow gauge, vintage 1880s western railroad collection. The museum sponsors several special events, which are listed online. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., electric streetcar and interurban excursions are offered on weekends only. Avaiable year-round is the "Run One" which allows visitors to operate a locomotive.
Western Pacific Railroad Museum, End of Western Pacific Way, Portola, CA 96122, (530) 832-4131. Founded to preserve rolling stock and artifacts from the Western Pacific Railroad, the museum is operated by the Feather River Rail Society. The museum is open the first Saturday in March through the first Monday in November, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Railroad enthusiasts from around the world come for the chance to operate a working diesel locomotive. Dedicated to families, weekend caboose rides cost $2.00 for as many rides as you want.
Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow-Gauge Railroad Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway, Graham Hill Rd., Felton, CA 95018, (408) 335-4484. Roaring Camp's steam logging trains climb the steepest narrow-gauge grade in North America through virgin redwood forests to the top of Bear Mountain. A re-creation of an Old-West logging camp, Roaring Camp is the starting point for two railroads that carry passengers through the redwood forests and to Santa Cruz Beach. Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway's diesel operated railroad offers 2-1/2 hour sightseeing excursions aboard historic 1920s-era passenger coaches from the SP Felton Depot, through the San Lorenzo River Gorge and down to Santa Cruz. Both trains operate year round.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Sierra Railway Depot, End of 5th Avenue, Jamestown, CA 95327, (209) 984-3953. Sierra Railway trains have been featured in more than 200 television shows, movies and commercials, including "Bonanza" and "High Noon." View the Back to the Future III set on the two-hour "Keystone Special" or take the "Twilight Limited" followed by a barbecue dinner at the park. Railtown offers excursions Saturdays and Sundays only, March - November.
San Diego Model RR Museum, 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, (619) 696-0199. Four layouts of operating model railroads, covering 21,000-sq.-ft., depict aspects of San Diego railroad history. Interactive displays for children. The museum is open Tuesday-Friday, 11am-4pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11am-5 pm. Railroad memorabilia available at gift shop. Children under 15 are free when accompanied by an adult.
San Diego Railroad Museum/San Diego & Arizona Railway, 1050 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, CA 92101, (619) 478-9937. The restored 1894 depot-museum houses memorabilia and antiques from the Southern Pacific. The San Diego Railroad Museum located off Highway 94 at Campo, conducts walking tours of the freight yard and restored vintage equipment and excursions on historic passenger trains. Open weekends only 9am-5pm.
Sonoma Traintown Railroad, Broadway (Hwy. 12), Sonoma, CA 95476, (707) 938-3912. Travel through 20 acres of landscaped parks, bridges and tunnels on the most well-developed scale-model railroad in America. Twenty minute train rides leave every half hour. Open daily. Wheelchair accessible train car. Adults $3.75; Children and Seniors $2.35.
Sacramento River Train, E. Main St. & Thomas, Woodland, CA 95695, (916) 372-9777. Pulled by a 1930s diesel locomotive, this 2-1/2 hour round-trip excursion crosses the Yolo Byway via the wooden, 8,000-ft. Fremont Trestle and offers views of scenic Yolo County farmland and the Sacramento River. Trains depart from Woodland every Sunday, May - Labor Day, with special excursions on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.
Western Railway Museum, 5458 State Highway 12, Suisun City, CA 94585, (707) 374-2978. Visitors have the rare opportunity to ride historic streetcars and interurban electric trains from California and other western states. Streetcars loop the shaded picnic grounds. Interurban cars run over the restored main line of the old Sacramento Northern Railway. With more 50 historic cars on display, railway exhibits, the Museum Store and Gift Shop and the large, shaded picnic grounds, the Western Railway Museum is ideal for family and group outings. This is a one-of-a-kind!
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, 56001 Hwy. 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623, (559) 686-4636. Four miles from Yosemite National Park's south entrance on Highway 41, this narrow-gauge steam engine operates on the same tracks once used by turn-of-the-century logging trains. Gold panning; gift shop, museum and bookstore feature railroad memorabilia and souvenirs. Open daily, mid-March - October.
Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast Resort, 2870 Lakeshore Blvd., Nice, CA 95464, (707) 274-8378 or (800) 966-6322. A cozy bed and breakfast resort, Featherbed Railroad's nine caboose guest rooms contain full baths and comfortable featherbeds. Located in beautiful Lake County overlooking Clear Lake. Relax and enjoy great outdoor adventures.
Napa Valley Railway Inn, 6503 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599, (707) 944-2000. Nine railroad car suites on the original tracks of the Napa Valley Railroad in picturesque Yountville.
Rail Road Park & Resort, 100 Railroad Park Road, Dunsmuir, CA 96025, (530 ) 235-4440. Railroad Park has guest rooms, dining areas and a lounge -- all in authentic railroad cars.