Six Historic Trains That Embody the Holiday Spirit

Trains have always been a part of holiday celebrations—so why not hop aboard this season? Here are six seasonally appropriate rides to consider

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Experience the magic of the holiday season on a historic train. Chuck Denlinger

Though America's historic and scenic railroads long predate Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 holiday classic The Polar Express, many railroads are finding inspiration in the pages of the award-winning children's book. The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who boards a mysterious train on Christmas Eve, and who later learns the train is bound for the North Pole and Santa Claus. It's a tale about belief and discovery, punctuated by the woes of disillusionment that come with growing older, and its beautifully drawn pages are filled with a sense of merriment that easily lends itself to recreation during the holiday season. And trains themselves have long been associated with this time of year.

"A lot of people equate trains to Christmas," says Jen Lipshultz, director of passenger operations at the West Chester Railroad in Pennsylvania. "Kids ask Santa for toy train sets, and there's usually a train depicted under Christmas trees in all of the holiday books and movies."

For a unique holiday adventure, consider taking a ride on one of these historic trains inspired by The Polar Express or other classics. Though many feature similar amenities, like hot chocolate or a visit from Santa Claus, each experience is influenced by the particular history and scenery of the historic railway itself.

West Chester Railroad

West Chester, Pennsylvania

Established in the early 1830s, the West Chester Railroad is one of the country's oldest. Originally used for both passenger and freight trains, the railroad's service stopped for nearly a decade in 1986—but today, thanks to the effort of private railroad management company States Railway Service Inc., it once again carries passengers.

West Chester Railroad offers a 90-minute holiday ride, which takes passengers through Chester Creek Valley to the historic rail station of Glen Mills, where passengers can disembark, explore and have a picture taken with Santa. While aboard, passengers are treated to live music and hot chocolate. "We want our families to have the emotional memory of how much fun they had during our trip," Lipshultz says. "We aim to provide an experience that families will make into a tradition."

Grand Canyon Railway

Williams, Arizona

In the late 1800s, word was just beginning to spread about the incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon—but it wasn't yet the popular tourist attraction that it is today, mainly because it was so difficult to access. Seeing a potential for business, area entrepreneur Buckey O'Neill transformed his railway—which he had originally built in Williams, Arizona, to access his (failed) mines in Anita, 45 miles to the north—into the Grand Canyon Railway, spurring the development of the Grand Canyon as a tourist destination. The train has been used for a number of things throughout its history, from hauling ore out of mines to carrying passengers and tourists, but has found new life since 1989 as a historic train carrying pleasure riders along the two-hour, 15-minute ride from Williams to the Grand Canyon.

Since 2001, the Grand Canyon Railway has also transformed into a Polar Express-inspired train during the holiday season, from November through the first week in January. Though the holiday train doesn't make the entire journey to the Grand Canyon, passengers do get to enjoy hot chocolate, Christmas lights, Santa Claus and a recreated North Pole during the 90 minute, 17-mile trip.

"It has become a hugely popular family tradition, in Arizona especially," says Bruce Bossman, director of sales and marketing of Xanterra, the company that has owned and operated the railroad since 2007. This year, Bossman estimates that the program will draw some 90,000 passengers. "It is a really fun thing. Trains in general are very connected to Christmas, and very romantic and fun," Bossman says. "It's a great fit."

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Bryson City, North Carolina

In the late 1800s, workers in the North Carolina hills set about connecting the state through a series of railroads. Some of them would eventually become the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, a historic railroad created in 1988. The 53-mile track runs through valleys and mountains, giving passengers a glimpse of North Carolina's wilderness.

From November to January, however, the trains are transformed into a holiday railroad, shuttling festive passengers from the train's Bryson City depot to the North Pole (actually a small North Carolina town that has been decorated appropriately). The journey lasts an hour and 15 minutes round-trip, and includes hot chocolate, a reading of the Polar Express and a visit from Santa—who presents passengers with a special gift before they disembark. 

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Durango, Colorado

Built in the early 1880s, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad began carrying passengers and freight between the Colorado towns of Durango and Silverton in 1882. Though the line was primarily constructed to haul ore from mines, it was always billed as a scenic train route—and since the 1980s, that has been the train's primary function. Today, the train—which features 1923-25 vintage locomotives—operates year-round and still runs on coal and steam.

Each year, the historic railway also features a Polar Express-themed train ride. This year's Polar Express train runs through January 3, 2015. Hot chocolate is served throughout the ride from the onboard hot chocolate factory (housed in the converted concessions car), as chefs wander throughout the train reading from the Polar Express book. In the spirit of the classic story, participants are encouraged to wear their pajamas while aboard. The train itself is bound for the North Pole—a decorated winter park about 30 minutes from the train's departure point—where passengers can experience a holiday light show. On the return trip, Santa wanders through the train's cars, doling out a gift to each passenger.

At the train's terminus, passengers are encouraged to explore the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Museum, which is decorated for the holiday season—there are even live reindeer.

Napa Valley Wine Train

Napa, California

Originally built in 1860 to cart guests to the hot springs of Calistoga, the Napa Valley Wine Train operates today as a 36-mile journey through the heart of California's Napa Valley. 

For parents looking for both family fun and some adult refreshments, the Napa Valley Wine Train's Santa Train is a unique holiday train experience. Unlike a lot of holiday trains, which explicitly prohibit alcohol in order to cultivate a child-friendly atmosphere, the Napa Valley train offers tastes of the valley's wine as well as holiday treats such as eggnog and brandy. The train ride lasts one hour and thirty minutes, and includes time on board with Santa Claus.

Strasburg Rail Road

Ronks, Pennsylvania

The Strasburg Rail Road has served central Pennsylvania since 1832, first as a link between the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroads and later as a historic railroad meant to preserve the spirit of steam-powered trains.

Strasburg's holiday train is inspired by The Night Before Christmas. For four Fridays in December (ending December 19), the train seeks to recreate the excitement of Christmas Eve, complete with pajamas, milk and cookies. Dressed in a Victorian nightdress and cap, a reader wanders through the train reciting The Night Before Christmas to passengers. The Strasburg Rail Road also offers another holiday train ride, which features a visit from Santa Claus