Train rides of all types—from steam train jaunts that chug a few miles into the woods to Amtrak Superliner endurance rides that span the continent—are most popular in the summertime. But taking a train in the winter can be even more exhilarating. The mountains turn from green to white, and instead of admiring the moving landscape from an air-conditioned coach, you watch it in heated comfort, peering out from your cozy quarters at snowfields and icicle-laden boughs. A flurry of holiday-themed trains between Thanksgiving and New Year’s add an extra dollop of fun, especially for families. All aboard!
The Polar Express: Nationwide
The Polar Express, the Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book and Tom Hanks movie, is re-created during 40 Polar Express rides in 24 states (plus eight trains in Canada and England), putting more than a million annual passengers in train seats. The story is read and performed by onboard actors, while Santa, his elves, and dancing chefs who serve hot chocolate and treats add to the fun en route to the “North Pole.” Most are on heritage railroads in scenic spots like the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier, and the Catskills.
Aurora Winter Train: Alaska
This seasonal scenic train that heads north from Anchorage is so popular that departures have been added for the fifth straight winter. From the Winter Train you’ll see a snow-white Denali, America’s tallest peak—and with any luck, a trackside moose. You can detrain after three hours at Talkeetna to Nordic ski in the shadow of Denali or continue on for another nine hours to Fairbanks for some northern lights viewing. There are few better places, as Fairbanks is America’s northernmost city. Select midweek departures between Thanksgiving and March let you return after a few days; return trains also run every Sunday.
Christmas Feast Train: Strasburg, Pennsylvania
Train enthusiasts know Strasburg is America’s oldest short-line railroad, operating since the mid-1800s, but it also boasts one of America’s merriest menus of holiday trains. The tracks slice through Pennsylvania Dutch farm country in Lancaster County, and in homage to the Amish tradition of celebrating Christmas mostly with a succession of lavish dinners, Friday night Christmas Feast Trains feature honey-glazed ham, slow-cooked turkey, gingerbread cookies, and eggnog. Holiday excursions also include Santa Trains, the Night Before Christmas Train, and a Christmas Tree Train—with a stop to load your chosen tree onto a flatcar. [Read more about the best train trips in the world.]
The Santa Train: Napa Valley, California
No whines are heard from kids aboard the elegant Napa Valley Wine Train when it’s transformed into the Santa Train. They’re too busy playing games and belting out carols with Santa and his costumed crew. As they wash down fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies with hot cocoa, mom and dad sip cabernets and champagnes. The vineyard valley drifts by through the windows of 1915 Pullman cars and a vista dome car. Thanksgiving Dinner and New Year’s Eve Dinner trains are also Wine Train excursions.
The Ski Train: Colorado
The Ski Train is a joyride even for non-skiers. The double-decker ride connects Denver’s 1914 Beaux-Arts station with the Winter Park ski area. One minute you’re in downtown Denver’s stunning Beaux-Arts Union Station and two hours later you’re stepping off the train, 100 feet from a Winter Park ski lift. And oh what a ride in between, opening with views of the Flatirons as you chug above Boulder, then more vistas while snaking into the Rockies before crossing beneath the Continental Divide in a six-mile-long tunnel. Trains run on January 4 to March 31 on the weekends.
Amtrak California Zephyr: Chicago to San Francisco
Long-distance train trippers adore the Zephyr in any season, but winter adds the appeal of sugary snow outside the window as you roar over the Rockies and Sierras—and in between, Utah’s Red Rock Country. Departing daily all winter from both Chicago and San Francisco, the 51-hour odyssey offers hotel-level service in a bedroom or suite with a private bathroom and shower. Or, break up the trip with stops to sleep (and ski) in Denver or Salt Lake City.
Holiday Trains: Arkansas and Missouri
A & M train rides aboard antique parlor and coach cars encompass an array of 10 different holiday-themed excursions in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri. These range from one-hour Santa trains to three-hour evening pajama trains—and even a Christmas parade train in early December with a two-hour stopover to watch holiday floats light up the night. The railroad also runs three-hour scenic rides into the Boston Mountains (part of the Ozarks) and on trestles across the Arkansas River Basin.
Canyon & Christmas trains: Arizona
“Snowbirds” who escape the Midwest chill in December by flocking to Arizona nonetheless pine for memories of a Christmas away from the desert. No worries. With a short drive from Phoenix to Clarkdale (near Sedona), they will see pinion pines and red rock buttes while hugging the Verde River on the four-hour Verde Canyon train in indoor and open-air cars. It operates all year. Instead of 40 miles, passengers on Verde’s brand-new Christmas Train only go four miles to the “North Pole” on 16 weekend dates in December. Santa’s Workshop and an ugly sweater factory are among a dozen holiday sights kids see.
Nightcaps with St. Nick: Tennessee
Why should kids have all the fun? This adults-only ride departs Chattanooga on four weekend nights in December. Passengers are each served two drinks—an eggnog brandy alexander and peppermint schnapps hot chocolate should deliver a holiday punch—plus dessert plates. All that sugar revs up passengers for onboard caroling led by costumed entertainers. The railroad also hosts a Christmas dinner train, three different Santa trains, and an eight-hour scenic train that tours the forests straddling the Tennessee-Georgia border.
Christmas Tree Train: Colorado
You can grab a pre-cut tree at the corner lot as usual—or take a memorable five-hour steam train into the Rockies aboard the D&S Christmas Tree Train to pick out a white fir (up to 20 feet tall) in San Juan National Forest. From there it’s loaded into a boxcar for transport back to Durango—and you’ll make Santa’s “nice” list because cutting these trees will reduce wildfire damage, according to the Forest Service. The ride along the Animas River through remote wilderness is dreamlike and can also be experienced daily on Cascade Canyon Excursions.
Bob Cooper, a San Francisco-based travel and outdoors writer, is a past contributor to National Geographic Traveler magazine.