santa waving on train
Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Wine Train
Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Wine Train

Ho-Ho-Hop Aboard These Festive Holiday Train Rides

Santa visits, holiday lights, and… cocktails?

Trains have long been linked to the holiday season, from the invention of the railways and the subsequent ability to visit family in the 19th century to chugga-chugging model trains encircling Christmas trees and Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved The Polar Express. Today, countless historic steam engines and modern scenic trains across the country are getting decked out in wreaths and lights for December’s festivities. They’ll soon pull out of their stations on holiday joy rides, carrying cheerful passengers on brief yet delightful journeys through a winter wonderland.

Many of these trains are geared for children—or adults indulging in a hefty dose of nostalgia—complete with Santa visits, hot cocoa, and even Christmas-centric storytime performances. Other rides are decidedly not for kids, their vintage cars stocked with an even longer-standing holiday tradition: booze

But whether you plan to eat a three-course meal aboard a luxury train, or simply cheese it up with thematic sweets and a stop at a Christmas tree farm, riding the rails during the coldest months of the year is always a good idea. Climb aboard one of these chipper locomotives for breathtaking views, cozy vibes, and holiday cheer that will melt even the Grinchiest of hearts.

train conductor on christmas train
Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Wine Train

Napa, California

Hop onto a century-old train car for a 1.5-hour ride from downtown Napa to Yountville and back, rife with stunning views of Napa Valley. While the Wine Train’s usual longer route includes stops at a series of vineyards and wineries, the line’s holiday excursions are all about the journey. File into the Cookie Car for a sweet treat and warm beverage, or enjoy a three-course meal aboard the train. Those who dine on the Gourmet Holiday Express will enjoy their feasts inside a dining car dating to the early 1900s, while Very Merry Vista Dome passengers will eat on the second story of a domed car, an incredible vantage point from which to watch the surrounding countryside fly by. No matter which ticket you book, you’ll have the option to take a photo with Santa, watch caroling performances at the train station, and munch on cookies with hot cocoa. 

Cost: Santa’s Cookie Car tickets run $95 per person ($75 for kids). Gourmet Holiday Express tickets run $155 per person ($95 for kids). Very Merry Vista Dome tickets run $195 per person ($105 for kids).
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

train coming around bend
1880 Train, Black Hills Central Railroad

Hill City, South Dakota

Choose between standard, first class, or Spiked rides on the Black Hills Central Railroad Holiday Express. The decked-out train with a vintage diesel engine runs from Hill City to the North Pole (well, sort of), where Santa will board the train for the return journey back to the station. The entire trip takes an hour, and every ride includes a sugar cookie and mug of hot chocolate, as well as a visit with ol’ St. Nick. If you opt for a Spiked journey, you’ll be seated in an adults-only car and your hot chocolate will arrive fortified with the hard stuff. First class passengers can spread out thanks to more spacious seating, hang with Mrs. Claus and an elf in addition to the jolly man himself, and down as many cups of cocoa as they’d like. If you can’t climb aboard before December 25, after-Christmas runs continue into the new year. 

Cost: Holiday Express tickets run $42-$75 per person ($21-$56 for kids). Holiday Express Spiked Tickets run $55 per person.
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

person loading train with christmas tree
Strasburg Rail Road

Strasburg, Pennsylvania

More than 60 years of tradition bolsters Strasburg’s Christmas train experiences. The line’s original train ride, the Santa’s Paradise Express, is a 45-minute weekend adventure with a Santa visit and carolers, plus cookies and cocoa for first class passengers, a meal for dining car passengers, and a Christmas market for all. Newer additions include the weekday Santa Claus Limited with Santa on board, a Night Before Christmas ride that features a performance of the titular poem, and a Christmas Tree Train that goes to Leaman Place Grove so passengers can pick out a Frasier fir and have it delivered back to the station. If the latter two options appeal, just know that these rides won’t feature any appearances from St. Nick.

Cost: Santa’s Paradise Express tickets run $33-$52 per person ($26-$45 for kids). Santa Claus Limited tickets run $27-$40 per person ($20-$40 for kids). Night Before Christmas tickets run $33-$45 per person ($26-$45 for kids). Christmas Tree Train tickets run $25-$32 per person ($13-$32 for kids).
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

woman serving drinks
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Independence, Ohio

For a holiday railroad experience that doesn’t entirely cater to children, reserve a seat on Cuyahoga’s Christmas Cocktails train, only open to those over the age of 21. Your ticket includes two themed cocktails and a personal charcuterie spread—but if you’re attending as the designated driver, you can nab a cheaper ticket and two non-alcoholic beverages instead. The Dinner to the North Pole excursion is also an adults-only affair, and typically offers a four-course gourmet meal with wine and a complimentary bar, though this year the ride will be shorter due to erosion on the tracks and the meal will be replaced with “heavy hors d’oeuvres.”

If you’re looking for a family-friendly experience in the Independence area, there’s no need to fret. In addition to the grown-up options, the line offers two journeys that welcome kiddos. The North Pole Adventure travels to the North Pole alongside elves, Santa visits, and cookies and cocoa. And the Christmas Caboose ride is the coziest of the bunch, outfitted with a wood-burning stove, cookies, and a hot cocoa bar. If you reserve an entire 10-seat car, you can even upgrade your hot cocoa bar to make it boozy.

Cost: Christmas Cocktails tickets run $90-$105 per person ($75-$90 for designated drivers). Dinner to the North Pole tickets run $95-$130 per person. North Pole Adventure tickets run $45-$92 per person. Christmas Caboose Ride tickets run $50 per person.
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

red christmas train
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad

Trego, Wisconsin

Cookies and cocoa may be the typical seasonal combination, but is there ever really a wrong time for pizza? The Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad’s Santa Train won’t require you to play favorites, because you’ll find both onboard. Each family or group rides in their own private dining room fitting up to six people, and every ticket includes a personal pizza, beverage, and holiday sweets. Watch the fields and forests of northern Wisconsin fly by through the window as you eat, then make the trip to Santa’s private car for some photos and cheer.

Cost: Santa Train tickets run $40 per person ($30 for kids).
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

train arriving at station
Photo courtesy of Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum

Adams, Massachusetts

These train rides through the stunning hills of western Massachusetts come courtesy of the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, which operates two types of holiday railway excursions throughout November and December. The Tinseliner Santa trains are more standard, with carols and Santa visits onboard. But it’s the Mistletoe & Music cabaret trains that offer a truly unique seasonal experience. The cabaret trains run for just three days during December, with musical performances lasting for the duration of the one-hour themed ride. Bring your own drinks and snacks for this one and prepare to groove to some tunes.

Cost: Tinseliner tickets run $25 per person ($22 for kids). Mistletoe & Music tickets run $40 per person.
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

lantern hanging on train
Railroad Museum of New England

Thomaston, Connecticut

Ride the train affectionately known as “the Naugy” on one of its two Christmas-themed outings this season. The rides are very similar, but the Santa Express runs during the daytime, while the Northern Lights Limited is the one to catch if you want to see the train’s vibrant lights shine through the night. Snuggle into the 1920s-era coach on either trip to enjoy elf-led caroling, a Santa visit, and small gifts for any kiddos, or snag a seat in a lounge car for longer Santa visits and some hot cocoa. But to really make the most out of the journey, reserve a spot on one of the Naugy’s two premium cars. The tavern lounge comes with better goodies (AKA both gifts and cookies), along with onboard bar service. The observation lounge offers all the above plus a charcuterie box. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but note that the premium cars are the only ones that feature in-car restrooms.

Cost: Santa Express tickets run $20-$149 per person. Northern Lights Limited tickets run $29.50-$149 per person.
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

santa and conductor looking at train
Colorado Railroad Museum

Golden, Colorado

Official Polar Express-inspired train rides take place all over the country, with engines departing from locations in New York, Florida, Arizona, Chicago, and Maine, among many others. You can expect a similar experience in any location, including the one that departs from Golden, Colorado just outside of Denver. At the station, you’ll enjoy caroling and a performance of the “Hot Chocolate” song from the movie, before partaking in cookies and cocoa as you watch a reenactment of the story. Then it’s time to board the train to the North Pole, where you’ll watch the elves dance and sing. When the train arrives back at the station, Santa will be there to greet passengers and give away some iconic Christmas bells. Traveling as a group? Book a table or two on a first class parlor car, which also comes with some additional perks like themed mugs, small gifts, and a hardcover copy of The Polar Express.

Cost: Polar Express Standard tickets run $100 per person ($80 for kids). Polar Express First Class tickets run $475 for a table of four.
How to book: Purchase tickets online.

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Kori Perten is a senior travel editor at Thrillist.