The West’s Best Polar Express Trips

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It is already magical when you have the opportunity to travel aboard one of the West’s historic rails with steam locomotives tracing some of the nation’s most beautiful scenic valleys and mountain ridges.  Combine such a journey with a holiday tradition that makes little ones wide-eyed and you have pure holiday magic.

Just hop aboard an iconic train for a ride to the “North Pole.” The children’s book, “Polar Express,” beautifully illustrated and written by Chris Van Allsburg, was published in 1985—fast becoming a staple for Christmas Eve reading with millions of families as they tuck in their little ones before Santa’s arrival. In fact, the story’s magic was upped in 2004 when the wonder and beauty was transformed into a hit movie starring Tom Hanks.

The popularity of the family train experiences have prompted more and more offerings—so much so that Rail Events, licensed by Warner Brothers, has put Polar Express rides into motion all over the nation.The trips may vary depending on the locale, but all share activities such as the reading of the book while enjoying hot chocolate and snacks, carols and dancing—and, yes, a huge dose of magic.

However, even better than reading the book or watching the movie is to become a real part of the magic while experiencing some of America’s most treasured railroads. The endearing story of a boy’s journey by train to the North Pole to rediscover his belief in Santa is played out in “real life” on a multitude of historic trains all over the country each holiday. Not only is the unique journey an endearing family tradition, it is a great way for many of the not-for-profit vintage rails to raise money for preservation efforts.

So, wrap your little ones in their warmest jammies and head to one of these top Polar Express train experiences in the West. The unforgettable journey will renew your belief in magic—maybe even Santa—and season your celebrations with the perfect dash of wonder and nostalgia.

The Grand Canyon Railway

Soak in the moonlit wilderness beauty of the Grand Canyon with this ride on the historic Grand Canyon Railway that travels the high desert plateau from the train depot in Williams, Arizona to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—or is it the North Pole? Offering selected trips through early January, riders are treated to a 90-minute journey to the “North Pole,” complete with a reading of “The Polar Express” while sipping their hot chocolate and munching on chocolate chip cookies during the nighttime experience. Expect playful elves and lots of singing and dancing on the journey to the Grand Canyon North Pole. Upon arrival at Santa’s Village, Santa makes his way through the vintage rail cars, leaving presents for each little and“big” kid on board.

The Fillmore & Western

To make this a lasting experience, the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is also offering a “PolarExpress Package” for those who want to layover or stay the night in Williams, Arizona—a booming basecamp for exploration on historic Route 66. The package includes an overnight stay, Polar Express train travel from Williams to the “North Pole” and both dinner and breakfast at the Railway’s Grand Depot Café.

This nostalgic holiday journey is set against the scenic Topa Topa Mountains and the Sespe Wilderness area in eastern Ventura County, California.  The Heritage Valley is a relatively new name for an area made up of three petite, historical agricultural towns that dot citrus grove-lined Route 126. Fillmore, Santa Paula and Piru are linked today by the restored cars of the vintage Fillmore & Western Railway, winding through the area’s citrus-scape and taking rail riders on memorable holiday excursions.

Whether it is the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree or enjoying afavorite holiday tale, the Fillmore & Western has some fun on board during the holiday season. The Sugar Plum Express &Tree Holiday Train, running weekends, takes passengers from its Fillmore station to Santa Paula with a stop at the Christmas Tree Farm to select and cut a hand-selected tree.  Once guests have chosen their trees, they are netted, bundled and placed on board. 

Not a part of the licensed Polar Express experience, the railway offers the “North Pole Express” in the evening now through Christmas Eve.  Children are encouraged to arrive dressed in their pajamas and bring along a favorite stuffed bear as elves read the book,“The Polar Express.”  The story, which involves picking up Santa at the North Pole, is re-enacted on the train as the passengers of all ages find Santa in the area’s “North Pole”—a citrus grove illuminated by flares. Santa joins the train for the voyage home, along with cookies and chocolate milk, backed by carolers.

Durango & Silverton

Another Western take on The Polar Express is offered by the Durango& Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad  in Colorado, winding through spectacular canyons in the remote wilderness of the San Juan National Forest. The coal-fired, steam locomotive runs on the same tracks that miners, cowboys and settlers of the Old West traversed when it was founded in 1882. The historic train has been in continuous operation for more than 130 years, traveling along the scenic Animas River from Durango to Silverton.

The Polar Express leaves the station now through January 3, as the railroad’s premier event. The possibility of snowfall during this night-time ride lends an extra magical touch to the already awe-inspiring scenery. Guests watch the story played out through the chefs, hobo, conductor and Billy, then savor hot chocolate and treats served by personal chefs. At the “North Pole” Santa hops on board to visit each of the train cars adorned in holiday lights. All kids receive a special gift from Santa. You can up the magic by purchasing official Polar Express pajamas for the entire family to wear on the journey online.

Courtesy photos

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