Singing carols and visiting Christmas markets are time-honored ways to ring in the holiday season. And for a growing number of families across the country, taking a Christmas train ride is near the top of the list of holiday traditions too. Decked out with twinkling lights and sparkling ornaments, Christmas-themed train rides offer the perfect opportunity to snap a photo with a certain white-bearded, red-suited gentleman—and maybe snack on some wintery confections while you’re at it.
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The best holiday train rides around the U.S. brim with nostalgia and yuletide cheer, and because they typically last no more than a few hours, they’re the perfect length for little merrymakers. If you’re in the mood for a magical journey to rival the Hogwarts Express, consider one of these family-favorite, kid-approved Christmas train rides.
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1. Christmas Train Rides on the Napa Valley Wine Train
Savoring an elegant meal, sipping fine wine, and watching vineyards roll by from the perch of an antique railcar may sound like an adults-only indulgence, but during the holidays kids can get into the act when the Napa Valley Wine Train transforms into a festive fantasy for all ages. Guests on the Santa Train Jolly Journeys can choose from three 90-minute train ride experiences: Santa’s Cookie Car, Gourmet Holiday Express, or the Very Merry Vista Dome.
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Each of these Christmas-themed train rides include hot cider or cocoa, carolers, and of course a ride with Santa. When you book the Gourmet Holiday Express or the Very Merry Vista Dome, you’ll enjoy a three-course meal; on Santa’s Cookie Car, you’ll munch on assorted sweets. The Napa Valley Wine Train partners with Expressions of Hope, encouraging passengers to bring small gifts that will be donated to foster youth.
2. Christmas Train Rides on the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad
It’s no exaggeration to say that in December, Wisconsin’s North Woods look like the inside of a snow globe. This winter wonderland is home to the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad, where each year its Christmas Pizza Party Train Ride combines meeting Santa with feasting on pizza.
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The jolly two-hour ride runs for approximately 15 miles and includes glimpses of the region’s vast stretches of snow-capped landscape and a photo and visit with Santa, cookies, and a hot beverage. Oh, and a nice cheesy pizza, of course!
3. 1880 Train
Hill City, South Dakota
Sip a cup of hot cocoa and nibble a warm sugar cookie when you hop aboard the 1880 Train‘s one-hour Holiday Express journey with Santa and Mrs. Claus. These holiday train rides depart from Hill City in the heart of the Black Hills, near some of the state’s biggest attractions, including Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Adults may purchase a spiked ticket and enjoy their hot drink enriched with a potent potable served in a keepsake mug.
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4. Christmas Train Rides on the East Broad Top Railroad
Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania
Constructed in 1872, East Broad Top Railroad is America’s oldest operating narrow gauge railroad, situated in what was once the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. Each holiday season the Christmas in Coal Country ride evokes the region’s mining history on a one-hour Christmas train ride that meanders through the hills, farms, and forests where miners and their families once lived. Snacks and a gift from Santa are icing on the cake. Tickets also include an additional 45-minute ride on a vintage train car trolley adorned with holiday lights.
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5. Skunk Train
Ft. Bragg, California
Mendocino County’s old-growth redwood forest, lush tangle of ferns, and velvety moss are on full display for passengers who ride the Skunk Train any time of year. But when you book the Magical Christmas Train, departing from Willits Depot, you and your kids can see all that natural beauty decked out in colorful Christmas lights and other whimsical decorations.
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You’ll enjoy two hours of onboard treats, games, and songs that are as memorable as the sublime scenery. And when you disembark, there’s plenty of time to visit with Santa after your holiday railroad experience.
6. Christmas Train Rides on the Grand Canyon Railway
The Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express is an immersion in holiday cheer. The Christmas train ride starts at the historic depot in Williams, passing high plains desert and a ponderosa pine forest before heading straight to the “North Pole.” Once the holiday train arrives, Santa and his herd of reindeer greet every child. A memento from Santa’s workshop, hot chocolate, sweets, and a reading of the classic children’s book The Polar Express keep spirits bright for the entire 90-minute excursion.
7. Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad Holiday Train Rides
Cooperstown, New York
Cooperstown is best known as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but when the snow starts falling this family-friendly New York vacation destination gets all dressed-up for the holiday season. The Santa Claus Express on the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad is jubilantly decorated with Christmas lights, garland, and ornaments, and there’s no shortage of holiday music and refreshments either.
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For these festive train rides, parents are encouraged to bring a small token with their child’s name written on it, which Santa himself will gift to them. The holiday train ride lasts just over two hours.
8. Christmas Train Rides on the Wilmington and Western Railroad
Delaware’s Wilmington and Western Railroad offers two very merry Christmas train rides. On the Santa Claus Express, families are encouraged to bring their cameras and capture a moment with the jolly old elf, who meets and greets passengers on this first-generation diesel locomotive. After posing for pictures, guest of all ages may indulge in tasty treats during the 90-minute ride.
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An shorter alternative is the 60-minute Holiday Lights Express aboard 100-year-old coaches traversing the Red Clay Valley. The train cars are decked out with thousands of shimmering lights, and many of the houses along the route get in on the action of spectacular home lighting displays.
9. Journey to the North Pole
North Conway and Lincoln, New Hampshire
From downhill skiing to snow biking, New Hampshire’s White Mountains are a wonderland of winter adventures for families. And when you hop aboard the Journey to the North Pole, you’ll enjoy a two-hour Christmas train ride traversing frosty terrain straight to Santa’s workshop. Nibbles and interactive activities with Santa and his helpers are a sure way to get into the holiday spirit. The annual expedition departs from the towns of North Conway or Lincoln.
10. New Hope Railroad’s Christmas Train Ride
New Hope, Pennsylvania
Bucks County’s gentle hills paint a pretty picture when dusted with a coating of snow. Situated on the banks of the Delaware River, the cute little town of New Hope is home to the New Hope Railroad and its Victorian-style rail station, which is fully decked out with holiday cheer throughout the Christmas season.
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To get in on the holiday excitement, hop aboard the railroad’s Santa’s North Pole train, a one-hour Christmas train ride filled with roaming musicians, chats with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and assorted holiday goodies. Three classes of service offer a ticket price to suit a variety of budgets.