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Holiday celebrations take many forms around the U.S. — baking Christmas cookies, singing Christmas carols, and cruising around neighborhoods to check out their holiday lights are just a few ways we get into the holiday spirit. But if you’re looking for something a little more out-of-the-box, these six holiday train rides help usher in the holiday season with scenic tours through the city or countryside, festive decor, Santa and his elves, and celebratory food and drink. Though some schedules this year have been adjusted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the trains will be back to welcome guests next holiday season — with a generous helping of Christmas cheer.
Grapevine Railways North Pole Express (Grapevine, Texas)
Grapevine revels in its reputation as the Christmas capital of Texas and isn’t shy about pulling out all the stops on their famous North Pole Express train. Adorned in Christmas lights and festive decor, the 1920s Victorian-inspired coaches usher riders back to holidays of yesteryear. As the train makes its way to Santa’s Workshop, nestled in a magical snowy “forest,” passengers are treated to onboard entertainment from Santa and his elves. Upon reaching the North Pole, visitors can wander around Santa’s sanctuary and pose for photo ops. (All trips are booked full this year.)
Santa’s Napa Valley Wine Train (Napa, California)
Winding through California Wine Country in a red vintage train spruced up in holiday garb is a fantastic way to kick off the Christmas season — especially if you love wine. The two-hour roundtrip train ride features freshly baked cookies, drinks (including Napa Valley vintages for adults), sing-a-longs with Santa and his elves, letter-writing to Santa, and a “missing gift” game. The train stops at the North Pole, allowing riders to soak up the twinkling lights encircling Santa’s village and take photos at his workshop. At the end of the tour, kids leave with a small toy bear as a holiday keepsake. (The train is not operating in 2020.)
Alaska Railroads Aurora Train (Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska)
This one requires a bit of a commitment, but you don’t want to skimp out when it comes to Christmas in Alaska. The Aurora Winter Train sets off from Anchorage and travels up to Fairbanks through scenic back-country wilderness. Views of Denali, the Susitna River, and wildlife are among the highlights of the 12-hour trip. En route to Fairbanks — just 20 minutes away from the true North Pole —- riders can enjoy excursions in other towns, including a pie-making class in Talkeetna. Upon arrival in Fairbanks, visitors will find a true holiday treat in the historic Santa Claus House stacked with holiday gifts, North Pole apparel, homemade fudge, and, of course, Santa and his posse of merrymakers.
CTA Holiday Train (Chicago, Illinois)
In November, Chicago Transit Authority chugged into its 29th year of spreading holiday cheer. Every holiday season, the CTA decks out one of their six-car trains in full holiday flair. Twinkling lights, bows, and garlands dress the interior and exterior of each car, while an open air sleigh pulls Santa into each stop. The accompanying elves greet the passengers and serenade spectators with carols.
The holiday train is part of the regular rail service and makes all of its usual stops along the way. It runs seven days a week, so it’s nearly impossible to miss out on this holiday train ride — even if you’re just commuting home from work.
Tennessee Valley Railroad: Nightcaps With Saint Nick (Chattanooga, Tennessee)
Christmas train rides aren’t just for kids anymore. Even grown-ups can enjoy ringing in the holiday season with a festive train ride and a cup of eggnog in Chattanooga. Nightcaps With Saint Nick riders receive two alcoholic beverages with their ticket, and the onboard bar ensures there’s plenty more where that came from. The glammed-up first-class observation car also features live entertainment, with performers sharing stories of Christmases past, singing carols, and serving small plates of nibbles all the way to the North Pole. (The adults-only Nightcaps With Saint Nick trip is canceled this year, but Christmas Dinner and Wine Train trips are running.)
The Christmas Tree Train (Strasburg, Pennsylvania)
Not only does this train ride put you in the holiday spirit, but it also ensures you don’t go home empty-handed. Strasburg Rail Road transports passengers to Leaman’s Place Grove by vintage steam train to pick out their very own Christmas trees. While the trees are loaded into the heritage freight train, guests can warm themselves by the open fire, sip hot cocoa, enjoy Christmas tunes, and bask in the soft glow cast by strings of Edison-style light bulbs. Once back at the station, staff match the trees with their rightful owners and help secure them to guests' vehicles, so you can carry on enjoying the holiday season at home. (The Christmas Tree Train runs through early December, but the family-friendly Santa’s Paradise Express runs through Christmas Eve.)