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A winter train ride can make for an unforgettable annual family tradition, with a wide range of options available across the country. Many were designed as a special holiday excursion for the kids and the kids-at-heart, with Santa Claus and his elves hopping on board along with other Christmas activities, while others are all about a snowy wonderland with magical scenes that include snow-capped mountains out your window. Whether you’re looking for magical scenery, holiday cheer, or a little of both, there’s sure to be a perfect ride on this list.
The Polar Express, hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, will take you into the world of the New York Times bestseller, a favorite with children, bringing it to life while enjoying an unforgettable ride to the North Pole in the North Carolina mountains. Santa himself will greet every child and present them with a gift just like in the story, while Christmas carols will be sung on the return to Bryson City Depot. There are three different experiences to choose from: Coach Class, Crown Class, or First Class, each of which comes with various amenities, all of which include a warm cookie and a cup of hot cocoa.
The North Pole Express provides a winter wonderland fantasy popular among all age groups. Located less than an hour from Philadelphia in New Hope, passengers can experience an old-fashioned holiday with lots of scenic beauty on the one-hour trip that travels through the scenic Bucks County countryside on its journey to the North Pole. Musicians roam through the cars for Christmas carol sing-alongs and there are tasty treats like hot cocoa, fresh-baked cookies, and a variety of light snacks and beverages available for an additional fee. Santa himself will be on board so the kids can whisper their wishes, pose for photos, and even get a special gift.
Located in the southwest corner of Colorado, a visit to Durango offers the chance to ride the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, renowned for its historic expeditions on late 19th-century coal-fired steam-operated trains that were built specifically to handle narrow mountain routes. It travels year-round, following the Animas River to Silverton and bringing breathtaking mountain views throughout. Cascade Canyon Winter Train excursions roll through an enchanting snowy wonderland from mid-November through early May, but your best chance for snow is a ride between mid-December and March.
Just south of Park City, world-renowned for its ski resorts, the Heber Valley Railroad hosts the North Pole Express, which departs from Heber City. The 90-minute round-trip journey to the North Pole includes Mrs. Claus’ famous chocolate chip cookies and hot cocoa. There will be hosts, elves, chefs, and special guests for entertainment, sing-alongs to new and traditional Christmas favorites, and once at the North Pole, Santa will give every child a gift.
The Conway Scenic Railroad hosts the annual Winter Steam Event, bringing passengers on a four- to five-hour round-trip journey from North Conway to Sawyers River. This is the opportunity to enjoy the romantic rail days of old, experiencing steam operations in wintry conditions that provide dramatic photo-ops as it whistles down the valley. There are even a limited number of special tickets for the photographers’ car which will allow you to hop off the train at certain locations and capture action photos as it passes by.
The Mt. Hood Railroad hosts the Mt. Hood Christmas Train, promising plenty of fun and music to get passengers into the spirit of the holidays. This 75-minute train ride departs from the Mt. Hood Railroad depot in Hood River. It runs from mid-November through late December and all seating is first class. While the theme changes from year to year, you can expect delights like hot cocoa, cookies, and elves that dance in the aisles and lead Christmas sing-alongs. Along the way, passengers will see Santa and his elves out the window as they prepare to deliver presents. Themes in the past have included a game of I-Spy, searching for animal friends like mice and snowy owls hidden throughout the car.
A view from Pikes Peak is one of the best you’ll find in Colorado and the Pikes Peak Cog Railway makes it easily accessible to all. It’s the world’s highest and longest cog railway with the nine-mile trek up the 14,000-foot mountain peak especially ideal in the winter with the landscape blanketed in snow. This season is the best time for the ride, with the skies the clearest and brightest of the year. The trip takes about three hours total but you may want another hour to browse or buy at the gift shop. It departs from Manitou Springs, which offers plenty to do on its own, including a Historic District lined with magnificently restored buildings that host boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries.
While this train isn’t the quickest way to get from Anchorage to Fairbanks, it’s definitely the most scenic, showcasing Alaska’s backcountry winter landscapes on a 12-hour journey while you stay cozy and warm. If the sky is clear, you’ll see North America’s tallest mountain, Mount Denali, and perhaps the northern lights and wildlife like moose along the way too. It stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Healy, and Nenana before reaching its final destination, returning to Anchorage the following day.
If you want a dose of nostalgia, hop on the East Broad Top Railroad in Pennsylvania. Throughout November and December, this unique holiday rail experience is hosted by the East Broad Top Railroad and its neighbor, the Rockhill Trolley Museum. They’ll be celebrating in true retro style with a unique one-ticket/two-ride event-themed “Christmas in Coal Country.” Train lovers can enjoy a one-hour train ride aboard a selection of heated cars. The trains depart from the historic Orbisonia Station and travel north, where you will encounter Santa along the way, and he will give every child a special gift. Each “Christmas in Coal Country” ticket automatically includes a ride on a vintage trolley car through the Blacklog Narrows, which will be decked out in holiday lights. Trolley rides depart throughout the evening and can be enjoyed before or after your train ride. Tickets also include writing letters to Santa. Every passenger enjoys a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie, and each child takes home a gift!
While snow in Phoenix is unlikely, a short drive to Clarkdale, near Sedona, will allow you to embark on a train trip that hugs the Verde River with views of red rock buttes and pinion trees which occasionally get a good dusting. The Magical Christmas Journey Verde Canyon Train is a four-hour adventure to the “North Pole” that takes place from early December through Christmas Eve. Santa’s elves will provide entertainment and tell the tale of the beautiful Princess Noel and Flurry the Christmas Eagle amid holiday songs. Flurry is a real live bald eagle who gives “wing-flapping” lessons while the princess greets children, signs the Magical Christmas Journey book, and joins Flurry for family photos.
The Royal Gorge is a canyon carved by the Arkansas River millions of years ago. It stretches for nearly 10 miles while its granite walls rise over 1,000 feet. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad brings riders on a 1950s-era train along a famous section of the former Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, and in the winter, passengers can enjoy a ride on the Santa Express Train to the North Pole. It includes Christmas tunes, holiday decor, and an opportunity to order lunch or dinner and drinks from the full bar. Santa will greet every child and provide each one with a special gift too.
Rhode Island has its own exciting Polar Express train operating on weekends in November and December from the Historic Blackstone Valley Train Station in Woonsocket. This one is extra-special thanks to the town’s postcard-perfect small-town setting that will make you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time to the 1800s. The train ride itself is a 90-minute ride to the North Pole with games, singing, and a reading of the children’s classic, “The Polar Express.” Santa Claus will visit, granting wishes to every child, and everyone can enjoy hot chocolate and cookies.
Steam and Sleighs to SeaLyon Farm offers the chance to ride the railway for an incredible winter adventure on a steam train and a horse-drawn sleigh. You’ll board the train at Sheepscot Station in Alna, an hour northeast of Portland, Maine. From there, you’ll enjoy a 20-minute steam-powered ride to Top of Mountain before hopping onto a sleigh or wagon to reach SeaLyon Farm. Here you’ll be able to enjoy a bonfire, food from local vendors and hot beverages, with time to shop for various items like the farm’s famous lavender products. It takes place during the month of February, with the entire experience covering about 2.5 hours.
Leave the skyscrapers and noise behind on this trip that brings you from Penn Station in New York to Burlington, Vermont with its towering church steeples, pancakes covered in real maple syrup, and charming snow-covered streets. Just 15 miles east is the largest ski area in the eastern U.S., Killington Mountain Resort & Ski Area, making this adventure ideal for those who want to take advantage of the slopes. The six-hour ride stops in Yonkers, Albany, and Saratoga Springs, following a scenic route to your postcard-perfect getaway.
For Texas families wanting to experience The Polar Express, the Texas State Railroad offers this fun and joyful trip to the North Pole departing from the station in Palestine. It runs approximately four times a day between mid-November and just after Christmas, featuring a reading of the popular story with sugar cookies and hot cocoa served by dancing waiters. Upon arrival to the North Pole, Santa and his elves will join everyone on board to provide younger passengers with a special gift, a bell right from his sleigh. They say only those who believe in Santa will be able to hear it ring. On the return, there will be sing-alongs to Christmas carols.