Fall is a great time of year to see Southern California through the eyes of a railroader. Starting in October with pumpkin and zombie train rides and heading into November and December with Santa Trains, you can hop aboard the rolling stock of our many rail-related museums, depots, and railroads that are open all year – but just make it a little more special around the holidays.
Whether you want to journey in a luxury dining car, hang with the crew in the caboose, or just do a little spectating from a vintage depot (along some historic tracks), here are six great attractions for SoCal railway buffs and curious travelers alike.
1. Orange Empire Railway Museum, Perris
Are you still mourning the loss of the Pacific Electric Red Car in L.A. (and, more recently, San Pedro)? How about the Yellow Car? Well, there are specimens of both that are alive, well, and running at Orange Empire Railway Museum, the largest collection of locomotives, trolleys, and streetcars in Southern California. On special days (like their annual Open House), they’ll even open up their stash of antiques that are a little worse for the wear and not quite camera-ready. There’s always some vintage rail car being restored, and if you’re lucky they’ll let you into the mechanics pit to have a look at its undercarriage. Take a ride on any of the trains – or all of them – or take a walk through the property to inspect what remains of the town of Pinacate (and the Pinacate gold mining district), whose train station remains in place as part of the museum. Be sure to make a reservation for the Run One Program, which puts you behind the throttle as the train engineer. You’ve got to be 18 to run the train, but you can bring three of your friends with you.
Bonus: Visit the restored, Queen Anne-style Perris Depot from 1892, just 1.5 miles from the museum site.
2. Barstow Harvey House & Rail Depot, Barstow
Along Old Route 66, you’ll find a 1911 train depot known as Casa del Desierto (“House of the Desert”), one of the last remaining Harvey Houses. It was almost lost after it closed in 1971, until the City of Barstow purchased it in 1990, restored it, and reopened it in 1999. Neckties are no longer required in order to enter the depot, and there’s no longer a hotel upstairs. But the building does house the Route 66 Mother Road Museum, the Western America Railroad Museum (focusing specifically on the BNSF Railway), and some ghosts. Visit during one of their paranormal tours, or just show up during regular business hours and have a look around. You’ll see plenty of freight and passenger trains go whizzing by as you peruse the vintage stationary displays.
Bonus: Make a pit stop to nearby Barstow Station, which seems like a tourist trap but actually has a collection of vintage dining cars on display.
The Santa Fe Depot, a Spanish Mission Revival style train station from 1918, was once the largest station west of the Mississippi. Originally built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company (now BNSF), it’s currently used by both Amtrak and Metrolink passenger trains. The station itself is a sight to see, both inside and out – with original floor and wall tiles, coffered ceilings, domed towers, and a red tile roof. The combined museum site is west of the waiting room, in the former baggage area with original brick floors. And boy, do they have a lot of stuff: from precision-accurate clocks and watches to signals, bells and whistles, maps, posters, and wagons. The best way to take it all in is to allow one of the volunteers to show you around – otherwise you might miss the dormitories where the Harvey Girls used to stay.
Bonus: For a really special experience, join one of the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society excursions with the former Santa Fe Steam Locomotive #3751 from 1927. She still runs – and they occasionally take her out and show her off at various train shows and rail-related events in other areas, including Fullerton Railroad Days.
At the northern end of Griffith Park is Travel Town, a FREE museum that’s open every day except for Christmas with some restored railroad passenger cars (and a dining car) on static display, parked along an actual abandoned rail line right in Griffith Park. Volunteers are also working on restoring a variety of other artifacts, like Pullman sleeper cars, a crane built by the U.S. War Department in 1942, and a Southern Pacific boxcar. For $2.75, you can go for a ride on one of their trains that runs on their 16” gauge track. Right next door is L.A. Live Steamers, which operates 7 ½” gauge model trains for public rides on Sundays (including those powered by steam, diesel, and even batteries). Their railroad’s main line is about a mile and a half long, with over 80 electrical switches and signals. On the ride, you’ll cross bridges, pass through tunnels, and pass by three miniature towns – making this a pretty elaborate miniature model railroad that you can actually ride. This year (which is also their 60th anniversary), the Halloween Ghost Train’s service was suspended – but look for it in a future year, because riding it (both during the day and at night) is always a highlight.
Bonus: Head south on Crystal Springs Drive for the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad, where you can ride 1/3-scale reproductions of 20th century trains on a unique 18 ½” gauge track. Open every day.
5. Fillmore and Western Railway, Fillmore
You don’t have to go very far to make a scenic train trip worthwhile. Case in point: The Fillmore and Western Railway’s murder mystery dinners, fireworks trains, zombie trains, pumpkin trains, and Christmas trains that run between Fillmore (where there’s a small train museum and a restored 1887 Southern Pacific Railroad depot) and Santa Paula, two Heritage Valley towns that are less than 10 miles apart. There’s even a train excursion that can take you to a local honey farm. But even just the regular weekend scenic excursion is a unique way to see the valley along the Santa Clara River. When they take a train out, it's made up of a jumble of pieces from different train lines and different eras, all mixed up depending on where they're going and how many passengers have booked the trip. During the ride, you’ll pass through orange and lemon groves and flower nurseries, with a few avocado and walnut trees in between. Going only 15 mph, it takes almost an hour to reach Santa Paula, a.k.a. the Citrus Capital of the World, where you get just over an hour to grab lunch or see some sights.
Bonus: During the stopover, you can walk from the Santa Paula depot to the California Oil Museum, or you can walk right across the street to the Glen Tavern Inn – a Craftsman-style hotel that once operated as a brothel, speakeasy, and gambling hall – and have lunch with the ghosts.
6. Calico Railroad, Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park
You can get your boysenberry fix and geek out on trains at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town, which has been celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The Calico Railroad itself is a little more recent: It’s been in operation at the Ghost Town depot at Calico Square since 1952. There are actually two trains that run on this track: the authentic Denver and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge steam train from the turn of the 20th century and “The Galloping Goose,” a smaller, 1930s-era narrow gauge, diesel-powered machine from Colorado that wobbles from side to side due to its lighter weight. It looks more like a school bus than a rail car (technically considered a “motor rail bus”), and it’s only one of seven ever produced. If there’s room, you can sit up front with the engineer. Your family-friendly train rides are included with your park admission, but the bandits who frequently ride the rails may ask you to fork over any valuable jewelry you might be wearing during your trip on the Knott’s Scenic Route, just 5/8 of a mile, round trip.
Bonus: Swing on over to Camp Snoopy for a miniature version of the Ghost Town steam locomotive on the Grand Sierra Railroad. It’s considered a “low thrill” ride that takes only four minutes, but it’s a real 1980s-era steam locomotive on a 24” narrow gauge track.
Hiking the Ghostly Tracks of Forgotten Trains