Amtrak’s not the only game in the railroad business these days. It seems that the Christmas train event is a uniquely American thing, as most other countries have holiday trains that take you to a destination rather than celebrating the ride itself. And America tends to celebrate its railroad history more than other countries, so classic steam trains are more often preserved along scenic railways. So, for a classic American adventure, I’ve rounded up some of the best Christmastime train rides across the U.S.
- Santa’s Holiday Express, Conway Scenic Railroad, North Conway, New Hampshire – I fell in love with North Conway the moment I stepped into the little village known for its shopping outlets, settled at the foot of the White Mountains. The crown jewel of North Conway Village is the gorgeous Victorian-style train station nestled behind an enormous grass field and set against a mountainous backdrop. At Christmastime, this is where you depart on Santa’s Holiday Express, where you’ll meet Santa while enjoying cookies, hot cocoa, and snowy (hopefully!) vistas through pine forests and across roaring mountain rivers. It’s a classic New England train ride.
- North Pole Express, Essex Steam Train, Essex, Connecticut – Another classic New England adventure is the Holiday Express on the Essex Steam Train in Connecticut. Trains run year round on this route, and during warmer months can be paired with a riverboat excursion (this is the only steam train & riverboat connection in the country). But at Christmas, the train is transformed into a locomotive powered sleigh, with each coach car serving as a stage for a live performance of The Night Before Christmas. Sing-a-longs, hot chocolate, visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus…and of course, a visit to the North Pole! You can even spot a castle high up on the banks of the Connecticut river along the way.
- Polar Express, Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, AZ – This is a true recreation (one of many in the U.S.) of Chris VanAllsburg’s classic book, The Polar Express. Good boys and girls will love the festive decor, hot chocolate, and free keepsake gift! The book is enacted live on the train while you enjoy scenic landscapes on your way to the North Pole (which looks surprisingly like the Grand Canyon). You can even do an overnight package that includes dinner and breakfast buffets and a hotel stay.
- Various Trains, Fillmore & Western Railway Co., Fillmore, CA – The FWRC goes all out at Christmastime, offering four different holiday themed adventures. The North Pole Express is a traditional trip to the North Pole, with all the trimmings: holiday decorations, cookies, cocoa, and Santa! The Christmas Tree Train delivers passengers to a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm and garden center/gift shop. The weekend before Christmas, the train turns into the Santa Shopper, delivering passengers right up to the Loose Caboose Garden Center and Gift Emporium where they can pick up last minute gifts. And finally, for two nights only, Santa makes a special trip to host a family dinner on the train during Dinner With Santa.
- The Santa Express, Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, Mineral, WA – Their website doesn’t say much about this train adventure, but the thought of riding a train through the foothills of Mount Rainier in Washington, drinking hot cocoa, and visiting with Santa paints distinct pictures of elves, reindeer, and a little pole at the top of the world. I wouldn’t want to miss this one.
- Various Trains, Strasburg Rail Road, Strasburg, PA – Three different train experiences await the adventurous traveler in Strasburg. Two dates are available each year for an enactment of The Night Before Christmas, while the rail road offers one day to hop the train to Leaman Place Grove, where you can pick your own Christmas tree and have it brought back to the station on a flatbed car. But the big event is, of course, Santa’s Paradise Express, where the whole family can meet Santa Claus as you travel to Paradise (Pennsylvania) and back, and kids receive a free gift.