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It’s always fun to explore California, especially since Fresno is right in the center of everything. As a state we pretty much have it all, from oceans to mountains to choo choo trains. That’s right, trains.
If you’re looking for a fun (and educational) day trip, head north to Sacramento and check out the California State Railroad Museum. It’s just a few hours away and, if you want to relax, you can even take an actual train to get there (click here to purchase tickets to Sacramento from Amtrak).
100,000 square feet of fun for all ages
Located in the Old Sacramento State Historic Park, the train museum holds over 20 restored locomotives and cars, and covers over 100,000 square feet of room. There are three levels, friendly docents, and even a children’s play area with small trains for little hands to drive on tracks.
Recently I took a trip to see the big trains with my kids. Although the museum is fun for all ages, you might need an exit strategy if you take a 3-year-old. On the third level is a model train exhibit and a wooden train play area with train tables galore. We stood there, turning on and off miniature trains, for hours. Or maybe it just felt like hours. When it was time to leave, I had to promise my kid ice cream to escape without tears. Happily there is plenty of ice cream right outside the door of the train museum—but more on that later.
When you first walk into the museum you have no idea what huge behemoths are waiting for you. The first train you see when you turn a corner is overwhelming. The displays around them testify to the role they played in California’s history (not to mention the rest of the world). Given their size, it’s easy to see how these giant machines helped make California what it is today.
You can learn about the Transcontinental Railroad, the way railroads were built and the human effort behind it, and even how people traveled by train (look for the menu on a passenger car exhibit if you want to see how our eating habits have changed since the golden days of railroad travel). There’s even a theater on the second level that plays a 20-minute documentary, “Evidence of a Dream,” that explores the railroad’s role in developing California.
The railroad museum is always packed full of experts and enthusiasts. Some people are really, really into trains. The docents are always friendly and knowledgable. You could spend hours talking to them.
Maybe I feel a thrill at the train museum because my ancestors worked the rails in Bakersfield. Or maybe it’s the building itself. Dramatic lighting, exposed brick, and even a train turntable create an experience that’s a mix between a museum and an actual train station. It feels like these old giants could start running again at any moment with a few tons of coal and some extra track.
One of the best parts of the museum are the cars and engines you can walk though. There are passenger cars, mail cars (pictured below), and even a locomotive you can climb aboard. Details have been preserved, like the labels on the mail car’s shelves and an old can of Campbell’s soup in the eating area. It’s like stepping back in time. However, you can also head to the second floor for a taste of railway future. There’s a bullet train exhibit complete with a simulator that allows you to “drive” a super fast train.
More to explore outside the museum
All in all, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon. And when you’ve gotten your fill of railroad fun you can simply step outside for a relaxing snack by the Sacramento River. Old Town Sacramento is right next to the Railroad Museum. There are souvenir shops and eating establishments galore. You can grab lunch right on the river at popular places like Joe’s Crab Shack, get fancy at The Firehouse (in an actual old firehouse), or enjoy selecting your own sugary snacks from wooden barrels at Candy Heaven. There’s a lot to choose from. We chose ice cream cones and ate them on the boardwalk. Horse-drawn carriages rode by from time to time. It was a great way to end a train-filled day… however, if you’re still in the mood for railway excitement, there’s an excursion train you can take!
The excursion train begins taking passengers in April, and features a 45-minute ride along the Sacramento River on either a diesel or steam locomotive. The rides are on weekends only, and you can find more information and buy tickets here. If you want to head to the California State Railroad Museum, it’s open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for kids over five years. Children under five are free (and they will LOVE it).
Father’s Day event
Finally, if you’re looking for something fun to do for Father’s Day, the Railroad Museum is hosting an event this weekend. The BIG Weekend of Small Trains will feature model trains galore. The toy trains will be set up in the roundhouse right next to the large locomotives that weigh over 40 tons. It’s worth the trip just to see that juxtaposition of size. The event is free with admission to the museum. For more information, call (916) 323-9280.
Have you been to the California State Railroad Museum? What was your favorite exhibit? Drop your tips and stories in the comments below.