Don’t Miss the Party Train

Modern-day excursions from drinking trains to gourmet meals on wheels.
Modern-day excursions from drinking trains to gourmet meals on wheels.

We know the train was a major player in the settling of the Old West.

We know it’s a romantic and wonderful way to travel—just ask anyone why they like to take the train, and you’ll predictably get a rhapsodic answer about the beauty of the scenery, the friendliness of the fellow passengers, the feeling of being in-the-moment and, best of all, the hypnotic lull of the rails.

But it’s time to admit that riding trains through the West these days can be plain old fun! Party trains, we call them, and they’re everywhere. As though the spectacular scenery most of them traverse isn’t enough, they’ve added everything from soup to nuts to bring people on board to shake, rattle and rail.

These are “tourist trains” that have been lovingly restored and saved by those special people among us who know and understand trains. We thank them every day that they didn’t look at those overgrown ribbons of rails and walk away; that they didn’t see rusted diesels and shabby Pullmans and think, “It’s too bad, but I’ll pass.” No, these train owners have created an entire culture that must be celebrated.

We found fun and imaginative party trains in 17 states, as well as more in Canada, that give an extra reason to ride the rails. We found delicious dinner trains and happy holiday trains; we found rowdy rodeo trains and wild wedding trains; we found ghastly ghost trains and rip-roaring robbery trains; and we found some meant only for adults—drinking trains. Of course, many of these trains offer different excursions during the year, but the ones included here are some that turned us on.

 

Ales on Rails

Take the Great Alaska Beer Train, which gives a new definition to “chug, chug.”

Yes, pardner, this is exactly what it says it is: a great ride on the Alaska Railroad while downing some sudsy hops. Running out of Anchorage every fall, this annual event lets you celebrate Oktoberfest while surrounded by the changing leaves along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. The Great Alaska Brewhouse provides the food and brew as the beauty of fall dances by. This train makes German beer tents seem confined and boring! (800-321-6518 • akrr.com)

As it turns out, Oktoberfest is a good excuse—we mean reason—to answer the train whistle in several states. Nevada’s Northern Railway in Ely, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2006 and was named that same year as a National Historic Landmark, decided to celebrate by adding to its September offerings an Oktoberfest train patterned after the Munich party. Authentic German-style beers from the White Pine Brewing Co. and German food are enjoyed by all as the Adverse diesel climbs on the old high line to McGill.  (866-40STEAM • nnry.com)

In Arizona, the Verde Canyon Railroad out of Clarkdale calls its Oktoberfest train Ales on Rails. The beer keeps flowing during the four-hour ride that goes through the nesting places of bald and golden eagles, Sinagua Indian ruins and a 680-foot tunnel. (800-320-0718 • verdecanyonrr.com)

New Mexico’s Santa Fe Southern offers the High Desert Highball Train on Fridays from May through October. This two-hour night excursion travels southeast and literally stops in its tracks to enjoy the kinds of sunsets that kept Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico all those years.
(888-989-8600 • sfsr.com)

If wine is your beverage of choice, try California’s Napa Valley Wine Train or South Dakota’s Black Hills Central Wine Train.

No one should be surprised that the Napa Valley offers a Wine Train year-round. They tout it as “gourmet dining” matched with appropriate wines during a three-hour, 36-mile round trip on a railroad out of Napa founded in 1864.  It runs daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., with diesel engines pulling Pullman cars. (800-427-4124 • winetrain.com)

South Dakota might seem a little more surprising for a wine train—grain, not grapes, grows in this heartland—but then South Dakota has a long history of doing things its way, as HBO’s Deadwood has shown the world. The Black Hills Central, a vintage steam train, offers fine wines on a 20-mile trip near Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial during September. You can catch the train in Hill City.
(866-FOR-1880 • 1880train.com)

 

Meals on Wheels

Dinner trains have become the hot item for tourist trains through the West, giving rail travelers a real taste of the Old West while their eyes feast on a beautiful countryside. This is a wonderful way to entertain out-of-town guests or to treat your honey to something special—this level of romanticism always earns extra points. (If you need to bring the kids along, they’ll find lots of ways to entertain themselves after dinner so you can have some private time.)

One of our new fantasy trips is to eat our way down the West Coast from one dinner train to the next, and we found you can actually do it. Washington, Oregon and California all offer multiple options and every one of them sounds yummy.

The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train out of Renton offers a luscious dinner—offerings include prime rib and cherry smoke roasted salmon—during a 31⁄2-hour journey along Lake Washington and over historic Wilburton Trestle (102 feet high, 975 feet long). Not only is there a gourmet meal, but the ride includes a 45-minute stop at the Columbia Winery. (800-876-7245 • spiritofwashingtondinnertrain.com)

Another option in the Washington neighborhood is the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad dinner train, leaving out of Chehalis at various times throughout the year. This 18-mile round trip takes you
over the old Milwaukee Road from south Chehalis to Ruth, while you feast on a
four-course meal in a 1920s dining car.
(360-748-9593 • ccrra.com)

In Oregon, the Mount Hood Railroad and Dinner Train out of Hood River offers a four-hour tour from the Columbia Gorge to the foothills of Mount Hood while diners feast on a four-course dinner. (800-872-4661 • mthoodrr.com)  Farther east, the Eagle Cap Excursion Train out of Wallowa takes you through beautiful valleys and canyons while you sup in style. (800-323-7330 • eaglecaptrain.com)

Out of Redmond, Oregon, you can not only dine on the Crooked River Dinner Train but also have “supper with Jesse James” as the train is robbed! (541-548-8630 • crookedriverrailroad.com)

Next stop, California, where we’ll make three dinner reservations. First, with the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train out of McCloud, offering a dining experience like you’d expect from the fine old dining cars of days gone by—linens, fine china, polished silver—in Pullman cars originally built for the Illinois Central Railroad in 1916.  The cars have been restored to the traditional deep “Pullman Green” with gold exterior finish, while their mahogany and brass interiors have been polished to shine. Mount Shasta serves as a gorgeous backdrop as you dine on a four-course, gourmet meal. (800-733-2141 • shastasunset.com)

Traveling south, the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train out of Oakdale offers the next culinary experience. This is the third oldest railroad in North America and is still a working railroad. On weekends, the train offers a 32-mile trip with a three-course dinner. Its open air patio at the end of the train has been voted the region’s best place to steal a kiss! (800-866-1690 • sierrarailroad.com)

By the time we get even farther south to Fillmore, we’re ready for something different and that would be the Fillmore & Western Railway. Its Murder Mystery train is right up our alley.  While we dine on three courses—entrée choices are prime rib or chicken cordon bleu—actors “commit mirth and murder” as we try
to solve the mystery. It’s a fun way to enjoy a meal and spend an evening. They have a full repertoire, with themes such as Night Train to Murder, Mission Implausible and Cirque de Foul Play. (800-773-8724 • fwry.com)

But you don’t have to go all the way West to enjoy dinner trains. Montana has what we consider the best named train—the Charlie Russell Chew Choo train—out of Lewistown that sounds like a real hoot.  It’s a 31⁄2-hour narrated prime rib dinner ride with Western musicians (and probably a masked bandit somewhere along the line), offered from June through September. (800-860-9646 • charlierussellchewchoo.com)

For what’s been touted as “one of the most scenic train rides in the world,” check out the Royal Gorge Railroad dinner train out of Cañon City, Colorado. Imagine eating dinner while you travel through the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River in Colorado’s oldest scenic line, operating since 1879.  The three-hour ride serves delectable meals that feed both the soul and the belly. (888-724-5748 • royalgorgeroute.com)

For a trip back to the 1940s—in food, music and scenery—the Fremont & Elkhorn Valley Railroad in Nebraska is the ticket. This private company uses traditional engines and tracks owned by a non-profit organization to provide an 18-mile trip into the past. Dinner ranges from prime ribs to walleyes, with the train leaving out of Fremont. (402-727-0615 • fremontrailroad.com)

In Kansas, the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad offers “dinner in the diner,” serving various entrées from some of the Midwest’s finest restaurants. The train takes diners through the Smoky Hill River Valley, and it’s so popular, it is often sold out. (888-426-6687 • asvrr.org)

Jumping over to Iowa, we find the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad offers a 21⁄2-hour dinner and dessert train on weekends that takes you through the Des Moines River Valley. Start with tiger shrimp cocktail and after the caesar salad, chose from meat, chicken or fish for dinner while you travel along an 1893 railroad originally built to haul coal. (800-626-0319 • scenic-valleyrr.com)

Your other option in Iowa is the Northwest Iowa Railroad Historical Society that operates out of Spencer. It takes passengers through the lakes, marshes and prairies of the Great Lakes Region on Saturday night dinner trains and Sunday afternoon “picnics on the rails.”   (866-621-9600).

Next time you’re enjoying the Country tunes of Branson, Missouri, check out the Branson Scenic Railway, which offers a dinner train and a 40-mile trip through Ozark foothills and tunnels. (800-2-Train-2 • bransontrain.com)

Or you can be a hero and save the passengers on the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway before the killer strikes again—a fake killer, of course, for this Mystery Dinner train out of Jackson, Missouri. (800-455-RAIL • rosecity.net/trains)

For something different, we were pleased to find a couple of dinner trains offered on Canadian lines, as though we needed an excuse to see the beautiful scenery of our Northern neighbor from the windows of a train.

The Alberta Prairie Railway Excursion offers five- to six-hour trips through parks and prairies in central Alberta while you’re served a roast beef dinner and entertained by on-board talent. (403-742-2811 • absteamtrain.com)

The Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train provides a half-day excursion aboard a 1907 steam train through the Gatineau Hills. Its Sunset Dinner train has won awards for its fine regional cuisine and live musical entertainment. (800-871-7246 • steamtrain.ca)

 

Luck Be a Lady Tonight

As far as we know, Heber Valley Railroad is the only train in the West that offers a Casino Train. Based in Heber City, Utah, steam and diesel engines take riders along the Deer Creek Reservoir as they play Blackjack, Craps and Texas Hold ’em. There’s nothing to lose, but great prizes to win, on this unique excursion offered in March and November. (435-654-5601 • hebervalleyrr.org)

 

Haunted Cabooses

It seems apropos, considering the history of railroading, that ghosts should show up on trains, and indeed, they’ve become a favorite plaything on many lines.  When you think about it, a ghost train can be a lovely ride as leaves are changing during the fall.

The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad out of Elbe, Washington, runs a Ghost Train every October—a 2-hour round trip night train pulled by their steam engines. “Take it if you dare,” they advise, adding a warning that not everybody makes it through the “Coach of Doom and Terror!” (888-STEAM 11 • mrsr.com)

One of the best Halloween events in the U.S., according to USA Today, is the Ghost Train that runs in October on the Roaring Camp Railroads out of Felton, California.  This popular event—often sold out long in advance—takes riders through a “haunted” forest as the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is narrated. (831-335-4484 • roaringcamp.com)

 

Holiday Excursions

The Polar Express was a beloved children’s book long before Tom Hanks made it into a hit Christmas movie and the idea of a train taking children to Santa Claus quickly caught on for many lines.

The Grand Canyon Railway out of Williams, Arizona, has a popular Polar Express train that runs from November through January every year—get your reservation early because they’re often sold out. Children are encouraged to arrive at the antique depot in their pajamas, and they’ll be offered homemade cookies on the way to the “North Pole” where Santa awaits the youngsters. (800-THE-TRAIN • thetrain.com)

In Texas, the Grapevine Vintage Railroad runs the North Pole Express in December between Grapevine and the Fort Worth Stockyards. If you’re lucky, “Puffy,” an 1896 steam locomotive, will be pulling your vintage Victorian cars. (817-410-3123 • gvrr.com)

Idaho’s Thunder Mountain Line Railroad, out of Horseshoe Bend, offers a Christmas train as well as a Christmas tree-cutting train. (877-IDA-RAIL • thundermountainline.com)

For a truly adult celebration of the holidays, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers a New Year’s Eve midnight train that is sure to be a highlight of the season. This historic railroad has been in continuous operation for 125 years, and its coal-fired, steam-powered engines take riders through the San Juan wilderness of Colorado. (877-872-4607 • durangotrain.com)

 

Romance on the Rails

You don’t have to wait for New Year’s for a romantic moonlit train ride. Every September, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad offers a moonlit ride. The train leaves from Antonito, Colorado, at four p.m. for Osier, Colorado, where travelers stop for dinner and then return by the light of the moon along the unspoiled scenery through the San Juan Mountains. (888-CUMBRES • cumbresandtoltec.com)

You’ll find another moonlit special during the summer on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad out of Fish Camp, California. This moonlit ride is combined with a steak barbeque and music, and is one of the nation’s newer tourist trains, founded in 1965. (559-683-7273 • ymsprr.com)

 

Rail & Sail

One of the most unusual ways to experience historic sites is the Rail & Sail combination offered by the White Pass & Yukon Railroad in Alaska. Cruise ships coming into Skagway can hook up with this line built during the Klondike gold rush from 1898-1900. The train ride is a three-hour, 40-mile climb from the tidewater to the Summit of White Pass—2,865 feet through two tunnels, sky-high trestles and along fabulous waterfalls. This line is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and shouldn’t be missed. (800-343-7373 • wpyr.com)

 

Rodeo Express

If you truly want to combine your love of the Old West with your love of trains, we can tell you where you should be on July 21, 2007—aboard the Denver Post Cheyenne Frontier Days Train out of Cheyenne, Wyoming. This trip actually dates back decades; in the Old West, it was a “must” for politicians and businessmen.  But it lapsed for many years until The Denver Post resurrected it in honor of its 100th anniversary. The train was so much fun, it became a Western institution all over again. The trip features a full day of Western excitement, including the “Daddy of ’em all” Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. Warning: Be ready to party like its 1800 all over again. (303-954-1904 • cfdtrain.com)

 

We hope this survey of Party Trains across the West will whet your appetite and inspire you to check with trains near you for all the wonderful events they offer during the year. Because once on board, we’re sure you’ll agree—this is a great way to travel the West.

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