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The Ultimate California Train Trip: The Museums and Railways to See Next

The Ultimate California Train Trip: The Museums and Railways to See Next

By Rebecca T.
April 07, 2021

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe. 

Train rides are for people who value the journey as much as the destination. Trains likely aren’t the first thing to come to mind when you’re thinking of the Golden State, but you’d be surprised to see how prevalent they used to be. From railroad museums to scenic rides on the Pacific Surfliner, a California train trip boasts plenty to see.  

California trains and railroad museums

Trains and California share a rich past. Whether you’re a history buff, railfan, or just out to explore California, these rides and museums are must-adds to your list. Take a spontaneous ride, explore the Golden State, and learn unexpected truths about its history. 

Can't-Miss California train rides

The Pacific Surfliner route provides a one-of-a-kind vantage on the San Diego seascape.

Train to San Diego

If you haven’t tried it yet, the best train to San Diego is the Pacific Surfliner. This train ride in California covers a lot of ground. It goes all the way from San Luis Obispo through Santa Barbara and L.A. down towards San Diego. If you’d like to get off on the way and explore the shores on your surfboard, you’re more than welcome.

The Surfliner has special racks to hold boards and bikes. You’ll also find plenty of noteworthy attractions along the way. Make sure to plan enough time to explore between each stop on this California train trip.

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Train from San Diego to L.A.

Leaving the coast of one sunny southern California metropolis for another is made easy thanks to the Pacific Surfliner. Most trains from San Diego to L.A. take about three hours, and rides are serviced throughout the day offering flexibility. Select a window seat and take in the striking views of the Pacific.

Train from L.A. to Santa Barbara

Continue your Surfliner trip from L.A. to Santa Barbara. You won’t have to change tracks—Amtrak operates a ride from Los Angeles Union Station to Santa Barbara Amtrak Station five to six times a day. You’ll have fantastic views of the West Coast on your journey and will arrive in less than three hours.

The Skunk Train's name originated in 1925, when the fumes created a very pungent odor, and people compared the motorcars to skunks.

Skunk train Mendocino

Stepping back in time on the Skunk Train is one of the best things to do in the state.  The Skunk Train in California takes you on a magical journey—you’ll spot towering redwoods, scenic bridges, and spectacular tunnels. The final destination? The heart of Noyo River Canyon.

Built in 1885, the Skunk Train was meant to transport redwood logs from the rugged countryside to the coast. To this day, the route remains largely unchanged. Riding this California rail is an annual tradition for many families. On special occasions, you even get themed seasonal rides. The Easter Express, Autumn Pumpkin Express, and the Magical Christmas Train are the best ones yet. These seasonal rides feature decked-out interiors and fun activities for everyone on California's Skunk Train.

Train to San Francisco

You have plenty of options when it comes to hopping on a train to and from the City by the Bay. Depending on your destination, scenery of choice, and allocated time, trains to San Francisco are aplenty. 

To travel along some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, book a seat on the California Zephyr. Your journey begins from the Bay Area and goes towards Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago. Had more of a Los Angeles to San Francisco train ride in mind? The Coast Starlight is your go-to ride.

It doesn't matter which side of the tracks you're from, the train still rolls the same.

Train from San Jose to San Francisco

A complete Northern California train trip isn’t a fantasy, but a possibility. Hop aboard the Capitol Corridor to discover Auburn, Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. Providing up to 32 daily train rides, this train from San Jose to San Francisco is convenient, affordable, and frequent. Whether you ride the entirety of this California train trip or just one portion (maybe the train from Sacramento to San Francisco), you’ll love the adventure.

California railroad museums

Pack your bags it's time to go on a ride. Board this historic train now. Photo courtesy of Southern California Railway Museum.

Southern California Railway Museum

Location: 2201 South A Street, Perris

The Southern California Railway Museum focuses on the area’s railroad history. This museum has the largest collection of Pacific Electric Railway rolling stock in the world. A significant portion of it was rescued from scrap yards after the discontinuation of operations. The railroad museum houses a large collection of historical locomotives, railcars, trolleys, model trains, and a three-foot gauge. Take a California train ride on an operating trolley every Saturday and Sunday at the museum.

Parking and admission to the museum are free year-round except for special events. Tours of the grounds, static exhibits, and shops can also be self-guided. There’s a picnic area near the main entrance, as well as an interactive railroad signal garden on site.

Train museums in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum

Location: 5202 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles

Located in Griffith Park, the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum is a non-profit museum founded in 1956. Live steam enthusiasts established the museum to educate the public about railroad history. The founders also wanted to promote live steam and scale model railroad technology in L.A. 

This train museum in Los Angeles operates a stationary 19th-century steam plant. The plant runs every third Sunday with a variety of vintage restored steam appliances. Almost everything you see at the museum—tunnels, bridges, tracks, switches, buildings—are built by members of the non-profit.

San Diego train museum

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is the largest indoor exhibit of its kind in North America.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Location: 1649 El Prado, San Diego

This San Diego train museum is definitely one worth visiting. Out of all the inspiring museums in the city, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is among the most interesting. Upon visiting, you’ll come across miniature constructions of California railroads around every corner. 

San Diego’s train museum boasts the largest indoor exhibit of its kind in North America. With 27,000 square feet of space, the museum holds five large-scale model layouts depicting railroads of the Southwest. Not only does the museum collect exhibits, but it also preserves the heritage of American railroading. This California railroad museum is where many people discover their love for trains and engineering. 

Sacramento train museum

The California State Railroad Museum features 21 restored locomotives and railroad cars. Some of them even date back to 1862.

California State Railroad Museum

Location: 125 I Street, Sacramento

Boasting over two and a half acres of exhibits, the California State Railroad Museum offers a deep dive into the rail history of the region. You’ll find the place filled with countless trains. The museum features a store, library, passenger station, and an authentic excursion train ride. 

This Sacramento train museum is one of the biggest draws for tourists in the region. The collection contains 19 steam locomotives from 1862 to 1944. The museum’s trains illustrate the development of steam technology from its early years to its climax in the 1940s.

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