Photo credit: not mine - I stole it from the Niles Canyon Railway Facebook page. The experience is every bit as magical as this picture makes it look.
Back in October or early November I randomly picked up a "Bay Area Parent" magazine that was lying around at Clara's gymnastics gym and noticed an article about Christmas trains in the Bay Area. The reviews for the Niles Canyon Train of Lights sounded really good so when I got home I checked availability and was able to snag tickets on a 4:30 p.m. departure from the Fremont station even though most of them were already sold out. Unfortunately, Paul wasn't able to get off work early enough to join us (we plan to book earlier next year so we can do a Saturday instead of a Friday so we don't run into the same problem), but the girls and I had a wonderful time. It was seriously the most amazing, fun, immersive holiday experience I have had in ages. Each car has been renovated and is from a different era. They are all decked out in garlands and lights on the inside and there are lights and décor on the outside of the train as well. One car was probably from the 50's or 60's, the car we were in was probably from the early 1900's, some are outdoor cars with benches to sit on (you have to arrive early if you go with general seating like we did in order to make sure you get a seat on an indoor car, which is important since it can get really chilly).
Once we snagged our seats, we just left jackets and our backpack (with a picnic dinner) to reserve our spots and explored the train. Even when the train is moving the passengers are allowed to walk between the cars. There is a dining car where you can purchase hot chocolate or cookies or other snacks and there are tables and chairs set up to eat at. And I guess there are two special cars that you can pay extra to ride in where they have glass ceilings for better views and dinner is served, etc. Lots of people came in large family groups and you can tell that it is a tradition for many people to go together each year. Somebody in our car brought a mandolin and played carols the whole time, which was wonderful.
Walking through these narrow hallways and squeezing pass other passengers on the vintage cars made me feel like I had been transported back in time. I kept having visions of the train scenes from the movie "White Christmas" (my seasonal favorite) where they sing the song "Snow" and it made me a little giddy. The girls seemed to enjoy the atmosphere as well, especially on the first part of the ride when it was still light enough to have a nice view of the beautiful canyon we were going through and the bridges and creeks we crossed over. On the way back it was dark and they couldn't see, so they started getting a little more antsy, but overall they did great.
Santa Claus even paid a visit to each car, which was magical. He had plenty of time to visit with passengers and the girls were excited to see him again (we took pictures with him earlier in the week, so they had already "met" him once already). Sorry for the blurry pics but the train was moving and it was getting dark and I only brought my iPhone.
The conductors were all dressed up, too, and they were the sweetest old men who I think volunteer at the railroad (the Christmas train is their biggest fundraiser each year). They were very formal about helping people on and off the train and punching tickets and all. I asked to take a picture with one of them and he kindly obliged. Isn't he the cutest? Rose wanted his hat.
I seriously cannot say enough good about the Train of Lights and am already looking forward to going again next year with Paul and the girls (and any other friends who want to join us!).