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11 Scenic Train Rides In California That Are RIDICULOUSLY Beautiful

California has some of the most beautiful scenery in the entire country.

And one of the best ways to enjoy that scenery is aboard a train!

Luckily, California has many different scenic train rides to choose from.

The only problem?

It’s hard to know which is best!

That’s why, in this guide, we’ve done all the hard work for you and come up with the ultimate list of the best train rides in California.

Some take you through towering redwood forests and others go deep into the mountains.

There’s a ton of variety but the one thing they ALL share in common is the beautiful views!

Let’s get started…

1. Pacific Surfliner

The Pacific Surfliner train ride is a beautiful 351-mile journey that takes you from San Luis Obispo in central California to San Diego in the south. 

Along the way, you’ll get to see stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, especially between Los Angeles and San Diego, where the train runs right along the SoCal coastline. 

It’s truly breathtaking!

The route also passes through other major cities like Santa Barbara where you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of its famous pier and beaches. 

The Pacific Surfliner is actually one of Amtrak’s busiest routes in the entire United States! This really shows how much people love this scenic trip. 

If you ride the entire length, it takes roughly 5 hours and 45 minutes.

Whilst aboard the train, you’ll witness California’s diverse landscapes from the Mediterranean-style scenery of Santa Barbara to the sandy beaches in the south.

It’s also really easy to sit back and relax as this train is known for its comfortable seats and large windows.

At certain times of the year, you might even be able spot migrating whales in the ocean from your seat!

2. Coast Starlight

The Coast Starlight train stretches from Seattle, Washington, all the way down to Los Angeles, California. The entire route takes 35 hours.

While it travels through several states, its path through California is arguably the most scenic as it offers incredible views of the Pacific coast, especially near Santa Barbara. 

This train takes riders through the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, down through the scenic valleys of California and along the beautiful coastline. It’s mesmerizing.

You’ll even pass through the dramatic snow-capped mountains of the Cascade Range.

The Coast Starlight is particularly known for its observation cars which have large windows that are perfect for taking in the stunning landscapes. 

A highlight of the trip is witnessing the towering Mount Shasta along the way. This 4,321m volcano is truly a sight to behold.

The train also passes by the San Francisco Bay Area and offers views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge from a distance. 

You’ll also travel through the famous wine country of California which provides a glimpse of the vineyard-filled landscapes. 

The Coast Starlight isn’t just about the views though, it also has a rich and interesting history.

This train has actually served as a vital link between the north and south of the West Coast since 1971. 

Onboard, you’ll find multiple options for private rooms if you plan on staying overnight and dining. 

3. Santa Cruz Beach Train

The Santa Cruz Beach Train is a fun and unique train ride that takes passengers from the historic Roaring Camp in Felton, all the way to the sunny Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. 

It takes approximately 1 hour each way.

This special train journey takes you through the towering redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains which offers a shaded escape before reaching the sunny coastline. 

Along the way, the train even crosses several old wooden bridges and trestles that were originally built in 1909! This really makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. 

The train chugs along the same routes that were once used to transport lumber out of the mountains over a hundred years ago. It’s pretty historic!

In fact, the Santa Cruz Beach Train actually operates on one of the oldest and most historic rail lines in the whole of California. It originally opened back in 1875.

You’ll also get the chance to catch glimpses of wildlife and native plants as you make your way through the forest. 

Once the train descends from the mountains, it arrives at the vibrant Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk which is famous for its amusement park that sits right on the beach. 

You can choose from open-air or enclosed passenger cars, depending on the season.

Please note that this train is seasonal and does stop running at certain times of year. Check the current schedule here.

4. Napa Valley Wine Train

The Napa Valley Wine Train is a unique experience that takes you on a journey through the beautiful Napa Valley in California which is famous for its wine production. 

This train ride starts in the historic town of Napa and travels north to St. Helena, winding through the heart of the wine country. It’s a 36-mile round trip.

Along the way, you’ll be treated to stunning views of vineyards stretching out on both sides with the rolling hills of Napa Valley in the background. 

The train itself is a collection of vintage rail cars that have been restored to their early 20th-century elegance. It makes you feel like you’re traveling back in time. 

A fun fact about the Napa Valley Wine Train is that it runs on tracks that were originally built in the 1860s to bring guests to the hot springs of Calistoga. 

While on board, you can even enjoy gourmet meals that are prepared in the train’s own kitchen. The dishes are designed to complement the local wines. 

Speaking of wine, the train also offers tastings of some of the world’s best wines. They’re all sourced directly from the Napa Valley vineyards you pass by!

The journey not only showcases the scenic beauty of the region but also aims to educate passengers about the history of winemaking in Napa Valley. 

You’ll learn so many things you didn’t know before!

For those interested in more than just the ride, there are stops along the way where passengers can disembark for winery tours and tastings. 

5. Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is a historic steam train that takes passengers on a scenic journey through the Sierra National Forest.

It’s located just 10 minutes from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. 

This exciting ride starts and ends at the historic Sugar Pine Railroad station and lasts around an hour. You’ll be able to learn about the area’s rich logging history.

As the train chugs along the tracks, you’ll be treated to beautiful views of towering pine trees and rugged mountain landscapes. It’s one of the most scenic train rides in California.

One of the coolest things about this train is that it runs on a narrow gauge railway which was commonly used for logging trains in the early 1900s. 

Along the way, the knowledgeable guides will share tons of fun facts and stories about the loggers who worked in these mountains and the history of the railroad itself. 

It’s all super interesting stuff!

The journey takes you past sites where giant logs were once hauled down the mountain, giving you a glimpse into the past. 

Plus, the steam engines that pull the train are historic themselves. Some date back over a century and have been lovingly restored. 

For something even more unique, the railroad also offers moonlight rides that include a campfire and storytelling under the stars. They also have a gold panning activity!

Please note that this train is seasonal and only runs from April through to November. Check the current schedule here.

6. Skunk Train

The Skunk Train is a famous train ride in California that takes passengers through the heart of the redwood forests. 

The train offers several different routes but most begin at either Fort Bragg, on the Mendocino coast, or Willits. Most rides last between 1 and 2 hours.

This train got its unique name from the original gas-powered motorcars it used which actually smelled like skunks! 

As the train moves along the tracks, you’ll be surrounded by ancient redwoods. These are actually some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world. 

The journey also takes you across wooden trestle bridges and through tunnels carved out of the mountain. It offers a glimpse into the impressive engineering feats of the early 1900s. 

Along the way, the conductors will share stories and fun facts about the train’s history and the surrounding forest. 

One interesting point is that the railroad was originally built for logging and played a crucial role in the development of the area. It actually began running back in 1885!

Now, the Skunk Train offers a variety of experiences including railbike rides where guests can actually pedal along the tracks on specially designed bikes. 

7. River Fox Train

The River Fox Train is an exciting adventure on rails that takes place in the heart of California, near Sacramento. 

This train journey starts and ends in West Sacramento, taking passengers along the scenic Sacramento River. The entire length is around 10-miles.

As it travels, you’ll be able to enjoy beautiful views of the river, lush farmland and the rolling countryside. It’s truly stunning.

The train ride offers a variety of themed journeys. Choose from murder mystery, beer and wine-tasting rides, and more.

For kids and families, there are special events like the Great Train Robbery and the Magical Christmas Train which bring stories to life with interactive entertainment. 

The train operates on tracks that have been a part of California’s railroad history for over a century.

Along the way, you might even catch glimpses of local wildlife, like birds and deer. Keep your eyes peeled!

The River Fox Train also passes through several historic areas which give a peek into the past of the region’s towns and industries. 

8. California Zephyr

The California Zephyr is an amazing train ride that takes passengers on a journey across the United States.

It runs all the way from Chicago to Emeryville in California, which is located just outside of San Francisco. 

If you rode the entire length, it would take approximately 51 hours (one-way) so you’ll definitely want to set aside a couple of days for this epic train ride!

During its journey through California, the train offers stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountains which are especially breathtaking. 

You’ll also be able to watch as the landscape changes from the high desert plains in Nevada to the lush, green slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. 

One of the highlights of the trip is crossing the Donner Pass which is famous for its history and spectacular scenery as well as crossing through the heart of the Rockies.

The train also travels through tunnels and over bridges which gives you a close-up look at the rugged terrain and natural beauty of the area. 

The California Zephyr is known for its comfortable observation cars which have large windows that are perfect for sightseeing. 

There are also private rooms available if you’ll be staying overnight.

You’ll also be able to learn about the history of the railroad and the regions you pass through, thanks to informative talks by the train staff. 

This train route is one of the most scenic in North America and offers views that can’t be seen from the highway. It’s bucket-list worthy, that’s for sure!

The journey through California ends in Emeryville but travelers can easily reach San Francisco and other Bay Area cities by bus or ferry.

9. Redwood Forest Steam Train

The Redwood Forest Steam Train is a magical journey that takes you through the towering redwood forests of California. 

This adventure starts and ends at the Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton, near the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It lasts approximately 75 minutes.

As the steam train chugs along, you’ll be surrounded by ancient redwoods which are some of the tallest trees in the world. 

The journey feels like stepping back in time, as the train is powered by a real steam engine, just like the ones used over a hundred years ago. 

In fact, their oldest steam engine dates back to 1890!

Along the way, the train conductor shares tons of fun facts and stories about the forest and the history of the railroad. 

This train ride is not just about the trees though, it also offers breathtaking views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the chance to see local wildlife. 

The track winds through the forest, over trestle bridges and through a tunnel carved out of the mountain. It even takes you up to the summit of Bear Mountain!

The Roaring Camp Railroads were originally built to transport lumber out of the mountains.

Today, the train ride is a way for people to learn about and appreciate the beauty of the redwood forest. 

10. Niles Canyon Railway

The Niles Canyon Railway is a special train ride that takes you on a trip through the beautiful Niles Canyon in California. 

This journey starts and ends in Sunol. It takes around 1 hour and 20 minutes round trip.

As the train moves along the track, you’ll get to see the stunning scenery of the canyon including its green hills and the flowing Alameda Creek. 

This area is not just pretty, it’s also full of history!

The railway follows a part of the original Transcontinental Railroad which was actually the first rail line that connected the east coast to the west coast of the United States. 

During the ride, you’ll get to learn about the history of the railway and the region through stories told by the train’s crew. 

The train itself is made up of historic cars and locomotives that have been carefully restored to their former glory. They’re a sight to behold.

Riding the Niles Canyon Railway gives you a sense of what travel was like in the past. 

In addition to regular rides, the railway also offers special themed trips throughout the year.

Please note that this train is seasonal and only runs from April through to November. Check the current schedule here.

11. Amtrak Capitol Corridor

The Amtrak Capitol Corridor is a popular 168-mile train ride that connects Northern California cities from San Jose to Auburn. 

This train journey starts in the busy tech hub of San Jose and ends in the historic city of Auburn, traveling through beautiful landscapes and important cities along the way. 

The Capitol Corridor passes through the state’s capital, Sacramento, where you’ll get the chance to learn about California’s rich history. 

The route also offers views of the San Francisco Bay Area. You’ll be treated to glimpses of the water and cityscapes. 

The Capitol Corridor is not just used for long trips, it’s actually also used by daily commuters going to work or school. 

Along the way, you’ll get to see the rolling hills of Northern California and the lush farmland of the Central Valley. 

The Capitol Corridor does make stops in key cities, including Oakland and Berkeley, so feel free to hop off whenever you like to enjoy some attractions and activities. 

This train service is a great way for travelers to explore multiple cities without the stress of driving!

Sophie Davis

Born and raised in the Bay area of California, Sophie is a California native. She joined our team in 2023 to create travel guides on California.

Learn more about the Traveller's Elixir Team.

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