In cities as dense as Los Angeles or San Diego, sometimes you’ve got to learn to live with less space. But that doesn’t mean you have to curtail your sense of adventure.
For train fanatics and junior engineers, it’s not always possible to ride the rails over the long haul (though there are opportunities to do so) — but playing with toy trains or setting up a model railroad just won’t do.
And that’s where SoCal really delivers, with train excursions in miniature.
Whether it’s a petite commuter train that goes back and forth over the course of one city block… or a scale railroad that runs in circles over a narrow gauge track… there are plenty of ways to travel SoCal by train without having to go very far.
So, here are eight essential tiny train excursions for passengers of all sizes.
1. Angels Flight Railway, Los Angeles
The little miniature incline railway on Bunker Hill in downtown L.A., known as "Angels Flight," has had a tough time of it in the 117 years since it was built in 1901. It's changed hands between seven different private owner/operators. It was moved a half a block down from its original location to where it stands now, across from Grand Central Market. And besides that, it hasn't been consistently open and operational, and it was closed for several years due to safety concerns and red tape. Appearing abandoned, the twin cars of the funicular (Olivet and Sinai) were left exposed to the elements; and in 2017, they fell victim to vandals. But it was a blessing in disguise — because the vandalism created a sense of urgency to protect them from further damage and reopen the railway to the public.
Known as "The Shortest Railway in the World,” Angels Flight merely climbs one little hill — Bunker Hill — that’s one block in length. (Granted, Bunker was a bigger hill back at the turn of the last century, before the top was flattened for development in the mid-20th century). But even if it doesn’t provide much of a commuter solution, riding it up and down is a major gigglefest. And it’ll only set you back a dollar round trip with your TAP card ($2 without). Ride it any or every day of the year from 6:45 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
2. Southern California Live Steamers, Torrance
In 1989, the Southern California Live Steamers set up a tiny railroad in Wilson Park, a former Navy-owned parcel in Torrance that had a vacant five acres in the back. The engine club, founded in 1941 in Beverly Hills, had counted Walt Disney among its members but hadn’t had a permanent home or proper clubhouse since its inception. Upon its invitation to operate out of the South Bay, the non-profit organization laid 1,000 feet of track along the newly established "Crenshaw Line," where its miniature trains still run at speeds of 10 or 15 mph.
The present-day SCLS home in Wilson Park features a number of tiny buildings in a kind of model train "village" as well as an almost full-sized depot. Twice a month, the Live Steamers host public run days, which are still free — even if you ride all three of their trains in one visit. And you might as well ride them all, too, since there’s an inner track, and outer track, and a spur track. For a modest charge, SCLS also hosts a variety of themed special events, including its Halloween Trainspooktacular, Eggspress Train Ride and Egg Hunt for Easter, and Starlight ride for the holiday season. It’s enough to keep you coming back all year long.
3. Irvine Park Railroad, Irvine
Irvine Regional Park (formerly known as Orange County Park until 1928) is Orange County's oldest park and California's first county park. And the most efficient way to get to know this historic and rather gigantic open space is to take a ride on the Irvine Park Railroad. Over the course of 12 minutes, you'll learn more about the park's centuries-old trees and poison oak grove than you ever would on your own — like how it spent years during World War II as a military training facility called Camp Rathkey, and a while even as a tuberculosis camp. And you’ll get a good look at the picnic tables, BBQ pits and Craftsman-style structures contributed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
The propane-powered train itself is a miniature replica of an 1863 C.P. Huntington mini at locomotive, manufactured by Chance Rides in Kansas. It chugs along at a leisurely 7 MPH, with a horsepower clocking in at 60. The current 1/3-scale railroad didn't open until 1996, but it recalls the bygone days when park visitors used to ride the rails upon a tiny train, back in the 1920s to the 1950s. And so, the meandering, three-quarter mile ride transports you as much back in time as through the park. The train ride is open at 10:00 a.m., seven days a week except major holidays, weather permitting. Tickets can be purchased for both adults and children at the depot.
4. Castle Park Railroad, Riverside
This two-foot narrow gauge railroad was built by Castle Park founder Wendell "Bud" Hurlbut, who'd already made a name for himself in miniature locomotives and train-based amusement park rides designed for Knott's Berry Farm (like the Calico Mine Train). Self-taught as a mechanical engineer, Hurlbut is considered one of the country's first theme park creators, having opened Castle Park with a medieval overlay of King Arthur and Camelot in 1976.
The train ride is the centerpiece of the park, though “thrill rides” and a water park have since popped up around it. There are actually two trains that run on the same track (though rarely at the same time): the Castle Park Railroad and the Riverside Express, a scale model replica of an old-fashioned, coal-burning locomotive. Train rides are included with park admission and offer a low enough thrill level to accommodate even the youngest of passengers, as long as they’re accompanied by someone 12 years or older.
5. Griffith Park Train Rides, Los Angeles
There are no less than three miniature train rides in Griffith Park. Why not ride all of them? After all, they each provide their own unique experience. For instance, at the Griffith & Southern Railroad, you’ll embark on The Colonel Griffith, a 2-8-0 locomotive built by Severn Lamb Ltd. in 1983, and ride along a mile of 1/3-gauge track through a tunnel, over a bridge, and past a train barn back to the depot — all of which date back to the 1960s. One of the more recent additions to the ride is the local ghost town, Griffith Gulch, which was established 2014. A highlight is its Holiday Light Train, which runs in the evenings at the end of the year.
But you’ve also got to head up Crystal Springs Road and hit the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad, which runs the same course at the same scale as originally built by Walt Disney. The Carolwood Pacific Railroad was the focus of Walt's energies from 1950-53, until he shifted them to the creation of something even more magical: Disneyland. Now, thanks to the LA Steamers, families and childless railroad fanatics can ride a variety of tiny locomotives (steam, diesel, electric) that run the mile-and-a-half steel track across bridges, through tunnels, and along the canyon walls of the park. And before you exit the park, head up to Zoo Drive for Travel Town Museum and take a ride on “The Courage,” a 2-6-0 Mogul circa 1993 that pulls a set of Pullman-style coaches from 1956 that were relocated to Griffith Park from Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley.
6. El Dorado Express, Long Beach
The El Dorado Express, located in El Dorado East Regional Park in Long Beach, is a live steam engine train originally built in 1946 as a kiddie railroad ride. After sitting in a dirt lot for two decades, it was acquired in 1988 and refurbished by Tony Ruvolo and his son Greg from 1989 to 1991. Locomotive "No. 2" can carry a maximum of 38 passengers as it travels a maximum of 7 MPH along the 18-gauge miniature track through ye olde ghost town and its corresponding tunnel (made out of shipping containers) and along nearly a mile's worth of track.
It’s located in an area formerly known as “Caboose Corners” but recently rebranded as the “El Dorado Frontier” theme park — though while it’s being built out, the same train is still up and running. It can be a little difficult to find, as El Dorado Park has two separate entrances across the street from one another. You’ll want to enter at 7550 E. Spring Street. For now, the train runs Saturdays and Sundays only, though hours will be extended soon. Riders must be ticketed, and there is a charge for parking on weekends and holidays.
7. Descanso Gardens’ Enchanted Railroad, La Canada Flintridge
While you’re exploring one of Southern California’s best and most historic public gardens, follow the sound of a whistle to the Enchanted Railroad, a 1/8-scale model of a diesel train from 1960s/70s. The conductor calls “All aboard!”, and the train chugs along the 7 1/2"-gauge rails through the oaks, over a bridge, past the rose garden and encircling the Promenade and Nature’s Table. It’s somewhat of a hat tip to what the Rancho del Descanso could have become, since Walt Disney’s representatives had approached Descanso founder Manchester Boddy about developing the real estate while scouting locations for what ultimately became Disneyland.
Descanso Gardens, which began as a "Ranch of Repose," now offers 160 acres of gardens where you can get lost among its flowers and trees. Once a private estate, it holds plenty of secrets in its far-reaching corners, and it’s a lot of ground to cover all on foot. So, why not ride the rails? The Enchanted Railroad is open on Tuesdays and Friday from 10:00 a.m. to noon and Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., subject to weather conditions (call ahead just to be sure). Purchase tickets at the Visitor Center and bring a train buddy, as long as they’re at least 30 inches tall and can sit on their own.
8. Balboa Park Miniature Train, San Diego
When you first notice a tiny train chugging through Balboa Park, its only passenger might be a giraffe. But that’s just because the park’s miniature train is operated by the San Diego Zoo — and, in that moment, you know it’s the perfect time to come aboard without having to wait in line. Without delay, the conductor will blow the train whistle and sit at the helm to take you along a half-mile journey, right between the zoo and the carousel. Though the entire trip on the San Diego Miniature Railroad takes only three minutes to complete, you end up traveling the entirety of San Diego County across just four acres, through towns like Julian, Jacumba, Valley Center, and so on.
The railroad was installed in this exact location in 1948, just two years after the The Miniature Train and Railway Company introduced the "G-16" model that runs here (the "G" for "GM locomotive" and "16" for a 16-inch track gauge). Hundreds of G-16s were manufactured until 1963, but now a few dozen remain (and not all of them in operation). Here, the cars have been restored and are still operating in their original location. Zoo admission is not required to ride the train, whose station is located outside of the zoo’s exit. It operates on weekends from 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is appropriate for children as young as 1 year old and under (and, of course, adult rail fans without kids, too).
Next On My List: I’ve been on a quest to ride all the tiny trains of Southern California, but I’ve yet to experience the Orange County Model Engineers’ train ride in Costa Mesa or the Chula Vista Live Steamers. And unfortunately I missed out on the Descanso, Alpine and Pacific Railway in East San Diego County before it was disassembled and relocated to the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo earlier this year.
What else have I missed? Share in the comments section below.