Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles California tourist railroads you must visit

California tourist railroads you must visit

By Lucas Iverson | May 17, 2023

| Last updated on June 28, 2023

The Golden State has a rich railroading history. Here are our must-see tourist railroads, museums and displays.

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Shay steam locomotive pulling logs and passenger cars.
California is rich with railroad history from sleek streamliners to mountain-climbing logging trains. Here’s one of the California tourist railroads you should visit: the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Behind a Shay-geared locomotive, you can ride into the scenic logging territory near Yosemite National Park. Jim Wrinn

California holds a rich railroad heritage. There’s the Central Pacific building over Donner Pass and the Southern Pacific’s cab-forward locomotives battling the same grade. Narrow-gauge logging lines and restored interurbans. Depots of all shapes and sizes just waiting for you to explore them.

I often get asked: “Bob, I’m going to (insert state here). What train places should I go to?”. When it comes to California, there’s no shortage of options. Below are 10 of my top recommendations, ranked in no particular order. But keep in mind there are plenty of other railroad sites you can visit in the Golden State. I’ve listed those below, as well.

Before taking any railroad trip, I do recommend is a visit to Kalmbachhobbystore.com to pick up a copy of the Tourist Trains Guidebook — 9th Edition. It includes details on railroad preservation and sites throughout North America, and is a great resource for your travels.

“Seriously, Bob, you’re going to make me read a book? Can’t you just tell me what to see?”

Patience. I’ll gladly give you some pointers and recommendations. The book is for out on the road. You’ll need it for phone numbers, websites, and other details. Now, here are my top California tourist railroads and museums you should visit.

California Tourist Railroads and Museums

Cable Car Museum 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco
San Francisco’s cable cars are legendary. Riding them up and down San Francisco’s hills is a must when visiting. Your cable car experience is not complete unless you visit the Cable Car Museum. Yes, there are plenty of exhibits relating the system’s history. A number of cable cars from the 1870s are displayed. The big draw is the winding room. Here you can see the engines that power the cables, the huge pulleys guiding the cables, and cables, themselves, running into and out of this central power plant. A visit to the Cable Car Museum puts the entire system into perspective.

California State Railroad Museum — 125 I Street, Sacramento
There are eight sites where you can see a Union Pacific Big Boy. There is only one place you can come face-to-face with a Southern Pacific Cab Forward — the California State Railroad Museum. This museum opens the railroad history book in an exciting and dynamic fashion. Experience the building of the Transcontinental Railroad from the Central Pacific perspective. Have you ever seen a 4-2-4 steam locomotive? What was it like to dine aboard a Santa Fe dining car in the 1930s? This is just the beginning of what this world-class museum has to offer. I guarantee you won’t be able to see it all in one day.

Napa Valley Wine Train — 1275 McKinstry Street, Napa
Rolling the clock back to a time when a fine meal in the dining car was part of the travel adventure is not possible. Or, is it? Combine the delicious wines found in California’s Napa Valley with fine food and the elevated elegance of the railroad dining car. The result is the Napa Valley Wine Train. The food is outstanding. The wine properly chilled. The service is impeccable. Oh, and did I mention that all of this takes place aboard beautifully restored, historic rail cars? This is an outstanding California railroad experience.

RailGiants Train Museum — 1101 West McKinley Avenue, Pomona
Where did Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 reside before its restoration? At the RailGiants Train Museum on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. The museum still tells Big Boy’s story, but that is not the only reason to visit this exhibit. The collection features the only Union Pacific 9000-class 4-12-2 and Southern Pacific 4-10-2 locomotives in existence. The museum is based around the Santa Fe’s depot from Arcadia, Calif., which was moved to the fairgrounds in the early 1970s.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park — 10501 Reservoir Road, Jamestown
Mining and logging are integral to California’s history. Railtown 1897 is a living museum that will take you into the railroad world that served the mines and logging camps of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is not a stand-and-read-about-it experience. Here you walk into the blacksmith shop and watch the work. You ride the train through the heart of gold country. It could easily be 1897 as opposed to 2023.

Skunk Train — 100 West Laurel Street, Fort Bragg
In the 1920s, the exhaust from the line’s railbuses created a pungent stink you could smell before the train arrived. The locals began calling the railroad the Skunk Train. Today, the smell is greatly improved, but the scenery is just as spectacular. Seeing the California redwoods is amazing on its own. Now imagine seeing these tower trees, some of which are 2,000 to 3,000 years old, while riding on a train. Welcome aboard the Skunk Train.

Tehachapi Depot Railroad Museum — 101 West Tehachapi Boulevard, Tehachapi
Here is an icon on the American railroad landscape: Tehachapi — the name means “hard climb,” in the Kawaiisu language, the Native American tribe whose homeland was the Tehachapi Valley. Trains pass the museum as they make their way to either the San Joaquin Valley or the Mojave Desert. The Depot Museum details the history of this storied mountain pass and is a good place to begin your railroad exploration of the area.

Western America Railroad Museum — 685 North First Street, Barstow
No visit to the West is complete without visiting a Harvey House. Fred Harvey operated a series of restaurants along the Santa Fe in the time before dining cars. Casa Del Desierto, which houses the museum, is a fine example of a Harvey establishment. Beyond the railroad interest, the facility is also home to the Route 66 Mother Road Museum.

Western Railway Museum — 5848 State Highway 12, Suisun City
Generally, when we think of passenger trains in California, names like the California Zephyr, City of Los Angeles, and the Super Chief spring to mind. Off the main lines and outside the traditional train, California had a network of interurban lines radiating from the big cities, linking the smaller communities. It is this interurban history that you will explore at the Western Railway Museum. Be sure to ride one of the restored cars to experience California travel, pre-freeway style.

Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad — 56001 CA-41, Fish Camp
The Yosemite area is rich in timber, which at one time was harvested and transported by train to be milled. The natural beauty of this central California region is outstanding. You can see this from one of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad’s trains. Ride into the Yosemite wilderness behind a geared Shay locomotive to experience the scenery and hear of logging during the late 1800s.

Other California railroad sites to consider

During your visit to California, consider also visiting these railroad sites:

Learn more about tourist railroads in North America.

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