Come winter, we crave the warming comforts of nostalgia and merriment. And railways—with their moseying pace, old-school style, and jolly bells and whistles—hit the spot like an eggnog by the fire. During the holiday season, some of these locomotives ferry passengers to frosty fantasy lands populated with caroling elves, talking reindeer, and Santa Claus. If you’re looking for Christmas cheer, childlike wonder, and historic charm, these rail adventures are just the ticket.
Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express, Arizona
Years before the beloved movie debuted, the Grand Canyon Railway was bringing the storybook magic of the Polar Express to life. The 90-minute train ride from the woodlands of Williams to the North Pole includes a reading of the namesake children’s book. And, like the young protagonist, guests will encounter acrobatic singing chefs, sip hot chocolate, and eat cookies on their way to meet Santa. Adults and children are encouraged to wear pajamas (extra points for matching holiday-themed PJs). Prices start at $58 for adults and $39 for children ages 2 to 15. The most popular dates can sell out months in advance, but the train runs twice daily most evenings from November 10 to December 30, so it’s often possible to get last-minute tickets on less busy days.
This enchanting excursion begins in Clarkdale, where families can stroll among luminarias and meet Flurry, a real bald eagle who gives children wing-flapping lessons. Kids can then don “eagle wings” to “soar” through a fairy-lit miniature village and take photos with Princess Noel, who will sign the Magical Christmas Journey book. Next, elves entertain and serve seasonal drinks on the one-hour train ride to the North Pole—an ornamented hamlet of life-size buildings including the Reindeer Flight School and the Ugly Sweater Factory. Here, Santa boards the train for the return trip, gifting each child with a mini memento. Trains run at various times from November 24 to December 24. Tickets start at $60 for everyone age 11-plus and $40 for children 10 and under. Though it’s wise to book well in advance, it’s often possible to snag a ticket in November.
Napa Valley Wine Train, California
During the holiday season, this vintage train swaps cabernet and chardonnay for hot cocoa, cookies, and singalongs. The 90-minute jaunt kicks off at the station with caroling, a photo-op with Santa, and a merry mailing station where you can send postcards to the North Pole before chugging from Napa to Yountville. You can upgrade to a Gourmet Holiday Express experience, which includes a festive, three-course, kid-friendly dinner and a tableside visit from Santa, or a Jingle on the Rails package to mingle with Kris Kringle in the classy Pullman lounge car. The train departs on 12 evenings from November 30 to December 23. Tickets start at $100 for adults and $80 for children, and it’s recommended to book as early as possible since some dates sell out by mid-September.
California State Railroad Museum’s Polar Express, California
This Sacramento museum celebrates railroad history in the American West dating back to the 1860s. From November 24 to December 20, its collection of vintage rail cars transforms into the Polar Express. You might sit in a gondola car cascading with glittering lights, a plush dining car decked with reproductions of Audubon bird illustrations, or a sunset-pink lounge inspired by New Orleans’ French Quarter. The rail carriages provide a beautifully bygone atmosphere for sipping cocoa and nibbling cookies on your way to the North Pole to meet Santa. Tickets start at $80 per passenger and can sell out in September. If there’s no space left, try the Polar Express train at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown.
Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s Polar Express, Nevada
Once the richest short line railroad in the country, the V&T was constructed in the 1860s and ’70s to ship silver and gold from the Comstock Lode to Nevada’s mills. After trucks eclipsed trains, it became a ghost rail in 1950 before being gradually resurrected as a tourist attraction. These days, this storied line ferries far greater treasures: giggling kids and their kids-at-heart families, all clad in PJs, caroling from Carson City to the North Pole on the Polar Express. In addition to hot chocolate and cookies, all riders receive a silver sleigh bell from Santa. Three trains depart most Thursday to Sunday evenings from November 17 to December 23. Tickets start at $60 for a bench that fits two people, plus a $20 historical upkeep fee, and usually sell out by late November.
Heber Valley Railroad’s North Pole Express, Utah
The Heber Valley Railroad—endearingly nicknamed the “Heber Creeper” for its leisurely pace—has been shuttling folks through scenic Provo Canyon and Parley’s Canyon since 1899. From November 22 to December 29, the train morphs into the North Pole Express, featuring hot cocoa, Mrs. Claus’ chocolate chip cookies, singalongs, elves, and Santa, who presents each child with a keepsake. After Christmas, Santa is technically on vacation, but he still turns up on the train, bearing gifts and sporting tropical-meets-arctic attire. Ticket prices start at $42 for adults, $25 for children, and $10 for toddlers. Tickets typically sell out by mid-November.
Charlie Russell Chew Choo North Pole Adventure Train, Montana
Named after cowboy artist Charles M. Russell, who lovingly painted the open range that scrolls past the vintage railcars’ windows, the Charlie Russell Chew Choo dinner train celebrates the history and scenery of Big Sky Country. The railway travels along a 1914 spur track that typically connects Lewistown and Great Falls. But during the holiday season, it magically transports passengers to the North Pole via the snow-draped Montana prairies. The 1.5-hour journey on the North Pole Adventure Train includes cocoa, cookies, stories, songs, games, and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus. Tickets go on sale October 2 for $49 and routinely sell out within an hour.
Alaska Railroad’s Holiday Train or Aurora Winter Train, Alaska
Whether you’re looking for rollicking family fun or reflective time to contemplate nature, Alaska Railroad can whisk you to a winter wonderland. Bring the kids and board the Holiday Train for meet-and-greets with Santa, balloon-making, and elves strumming, jingling, and singing down the aisles. Alternatively, bring a journal and a camera on the Aurora Winter Train and savor 12 hours of snow-blanketed scenery between Anchorage and Fairbanks, where you might marvel at the northern lights, the Santa Claus House, and moose or reindeer. The Holiday Train departs twice daily on December 2, 9, and 16; tickets cost $89 for adults and $45 for kids up to 11 (lap infants are free). The Aurora Winter Train offers northbound and southbound weekend departures (plus select weekday trips) between September 23 and May 5. Tickets cost $222 for adults and $111 for children aged 2 to 11.