Trains are to Christmas what chocolate bunnies are to Easter. They're a symbol of a simpler time -- when we looked at the holidays with childlike wonder. But not since "The Polar Express" hit the theaters has there been such strong interest in holiday train rides.
There are at least a half-dozen trains you can catch for a magical trip back in time this month. One of the most popular is the Train of Lights, which was started by Niles Canyon railroad enthusiasts more than two decades ago. Folks in Sunol saw the vintage trains merrily making their way through the canyon and started flagging them down for a ride. Now, hundreds of people pile on the Train of Lights when it runs on designated days through December. What a sight!
The holiday train is nearly a quarter-mile long and glittering with thousands of twinkling lights. Families board the vintage cars with children in tow, holding steaming cups of hot chocolate. Inside, Santa makes the rounds from one car to another, posing with youngsters and punctuating the air with his signature "Ho, ho, ho." Trains run from both Niles and Sunol every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $17 to $ 40 per seat and are available at www.ncry.org.
Further south, the Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train brightens the streets of this popular beach town on weekends through Dec. 23. The Roaring Camp Railroad's vintage excursion cars are decked out in baubles and boughs for this one-hour trip through town -- with a brief stop at the North Pole to let Santa and Mrs. Claus hop aboard. The train features live entertainment and caroling along with free hot chocolate and cider. Tickets are $20-26 per seat and available at www.roaringcamp.com.
Young pajama-clad passengers are welcome on the Sacramento River Christmas Train, a two-hour ride out of Woodland with live entertainment for the kids. This year, they're bringing the story "Morgan and the Magical Christmas Train" to life with live characters, including elves and a teddy bear. Tickets are $30-40 and available at www.sacramentorivertrain.com.
Don't forget these other popular holiday train rides:
Sierra Railroad Christmas Train, Oakdale: $29 to $36 through Dec. 23. Tickets available at www.sierrarailroad.com.
Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Trains: $20 to $25 through Dec. 20. Tickets available at www.winetrains.com.
Skunk Train Christmas Train from Fort Bragg and Willits: $24 to $34 through Dec. 23. Tickets available at www.skunktrain.com.