It’s the train’s time again in Silicon Valley. Caltrain electrification. High speed rail. Renewed interest in the dormant Dumbarton rail corridor. Railroads are more than transportation: they’re a visceral, ground-shaking, ear-splitting, whoop-whooping link to what brought people out West in the first place.
All you need to see is the look on a kid’s face when one whooshes by to know why railroads still inspire bold ideas and big hopes in all of us. The Peninsula is loaded with ways to stoke your kid’s imagination and even give the parents a chance to relax and enjoy.
Here are our picks for how to get your choo-choo on whether you have a day or an hour.
Billy Jones Wildcat Raiload in Los Gatos
Billy Jones liked to give back: the former railroad worker bought a 1/3 scale steam engine from a scrapyard and ran it free of charge for 25 years on his Los Gatos ranch (Walt Disney was a passenger).
Today the Wildcat Railroad continues as a non-profit in Oak Meadow Park with two steam and two diesel engines and a 106-year-old carousel. The ride lasts about 8 minutes, costs $3 (kids under 3 are free) and is best finished with some barbecue or a rainbow sno-cone from the snack stand.
The Wildcat also puts on tons of events all summer long including pay-what-you-want carousel rides on July 9 and railroad rides on July 23. An old Air Force plane and a 1930s firetruck are nearby and adjoining Vasona Lake County Park has bike trails and other attractions.
Roaring Camp Railroad in Felton
It’s farther afield but Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton just outside Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a place to spend the day. A narrow gauge steam train climbs through ancient redwood groves for over an hour while a regular size train wanders along the Santa Cruz coast for 3 hours ($22 for kids).
Saturdays are busiest but weekends also include craft-making classes for kids and more scheduled train trips (check schedules and purchase tix online). On weekdays kids can enjoy historical demonstrations like blacksmithing and gold panning or talks with train engineers. Tons of special events this summer and year-round. Best of all, the state park next door is a hiking paradise featuring a 1,500-year-old tree among its old-growth brethren.
Sometimes close to home is as good as gold, even better if it comes with cappuccino for the parents. Stations in downtowns such as San Mateo, Redwood City, Burlingame and Milbrae offer a chance to watch trains within easy reach of restaurants, cafes and family-friendly activities, notes Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman (he likes his station, Sunnyvale, too).
Sip wines and snack while watching trains at Redwood City’s CRU. Enjoy espresso inside Palo Alto’s Venetia Cafe (weekdays only) right on the tracks. Weekends bring less train traffic, so check the schedule.
Niles Depot and Niles Canyon Railway
Check out a vintage caboose, signals, track tools and other early East Bay railroad artifacts at this small museum open Sundays only (12–4) then drive over to Fremont or Sunol for a ride on the historic Niles Canyon Railway ($13 for adults, $7 for kids), which was part of the original transcontinental line. Diesel and steam engines, wine tasting and beer rides, you can even charter a caboose for your group.