Want to make your little train lovers shake with excitement? Take them on one of these rail adventures, starting with the Northwest Railway Museum, a restored train depot in Snoqualmie. Visit the museum, free to visit and open seven days a week, and go on a 75-minute excursion on weekends and holidays.
Special events at the Railway Museum include the hugely popular Day Out With Thomas, July 14–23 this year (tickets are going fast!), where the “real” Thomas the Tank Engine drops in for a visit, and the annual Santa Train featuring the big guy in red (tickets go on sale in August).
Getting there: Regular trains can be boarded in either Snoqualmie or North Bend, both roughly 40 minutes from Seattle.
Ride and cost: Train excursions last 2 hours and depart multiple times each weekend. Round-trip tickets start at $20 for adults; $10 for ages 2–12; and kids under 2 are free. Day Out With Thomas and other special event tickets are pricier.
To visit nearby: The towns of Snoqualmie and North Bend both have small, central business districts. A fun time to visit Snoqualmie and ride the trains is during Railroad Days, August 18–20, 2017.
Photo credit: Oran Viriyinc
For a train adventure a bit farther afield — and back in history — the Mt. Rainier Railroad in Elbe runs its vintage steam trains on weekend excursions all summer and through the fall. Its connected logging museum is home to the most comprehensive collection of steam logging locomotives in the country.
Getting there: Elbe is about a 1.75-hour drive from Seattle.
Ride and cost: The train departs a few times per day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for the two-hour, 14-mile round trip experience, including a short stop at Mineral Lake where riders can get off to look around. Purchase tickets online, in advance, for a specific excursion time. Fares for youth and adults are $24–$44 in summer; kids ages 4 and under ride free. First class seats cost more and parking is $4. Prices vary for special excursions and fall-season train rides.
To visit nearby: Try Scaleburgers if you need some lunch while in Elbe — call ahead to confirm it’s open at 360-569-2247 — and admire the collection of cabooses across the street while you eat.
If mini-trains are your tyke’s speed, head to South Kitsap Regional Park in Port Orchard, where Kitsap Live Steamers offer rides for free aboard scale mini-trains on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, through October and weather permitting. The trains function exactly like real steam engines and are operated by Kitsap Live Steamers club members. Find the train depot near the Jackson Avenue playfields.
Getting there: Port Orchard is about a 1.5-hour drive from Seattle via the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or it can be reached by taking the ferry from downtown Seattle to Bremerton, followed by a 15-minute drive.
Ride and cost: Rides are offered regularly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. the second and fourth Saturdays of the month through October; check the online calnedar before heading out. Rides are free; donations are appreciated.
Photo: Cheryl McInnes/Kitsap Live Steamers
For another super-fun mini-train ride, head east to the historic railroad town of Skykomish on scenic Highway 2. This town on the river is working to restore its vintage train depot and revive its position as an important railroad waypoint. The mini tracks wend their way around the old train yard; hop aboard one of the mini-trains on weekends this summer. Volunteers running the trains are friendly and helpful.
The Annual J.J. Hill Train Festival takes place in Skykomish on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.
Getting there: Skykomish is about a 1.5-hour drive northeast of Seattle.
Ride and cost: Rides are given on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer. Rides are free; donations are appreciated.
To visit nearby: There are great hikes accessible along Highway 2 and Skykomish is on the way to Leavenworth, Washington’s hot spot for Bavarian fun.
This railroad's excursions take passengers back in time with the chance to ride in an open-top car, pulled through pastoral farmland by a steam locomotive.
In addition to regular excursions on weekends, there's a popular dinner train, plus kid-friendly special events for holidays, including the Polar Express train ride. Steam train excursions travel round-trip to the outposts of Milburn or Ruth. Book ahead online for a specific departure time and destination.
Getting there: Chehalis is about a 1.75-hour drive south of Seattle on I-5.
Rides and cost: Train excursions depart select weekend days through September; round trips take 1.25 hours. Adult tickets cost $14–$17, children and seniors are $11–$16 and ages 3 and under ride free. Dinner trains and other special events cost more.
For those planning a road trip to the Great White North, consider a stop at the this terrific train park in Squamish, British Columbia, north of Vancouver and on the way to Whistler. This expansive park features a roundhouse, many engines and rail cars in various states of restoration, and a mini-train on which volunteers offer rides. In addition, this park hosts two weekends of Day Out With Thomas, in case you can’t make the local one, though dates have passed for this year.
Getting there: Squamish is about a 3.5-hour drive north from Seattle, an hour beyond Vancouver and on the way to Whistler. Plan accordingly to cross the U.S.-Canada border.
Rides and cost: The Heritage Park is open daily from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. in summer; mini train rides are offered 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Admission is $20–$25 for adults, $8–$15 for kids, under age 2 free; or or $70 per family of up to two adults and three children (prices in Canadian dollars and do not include tax). Tip: Enjoy 50% off admission prices through August 2017 thanks to Canada's 150th anniversary.
To visit nearby: Vancouver, Whistler and stunning Howe Sound.
On to urban adventures! Start with the world-famous Seattle Center Monorail and hop on for a ride to Westlake Center. Kids will get a kick out of riding above the city streets; be sure to tell them that “monorail” means the train runs on one big rail, not two, and was considered the space-age future of transportation when it was built back in 1962.
Getting there: Catch the Monorail at the Seattle Center Armory building. Pay parking can be found on the street or in garages or lots nearby, or bus it to Seattle Center to add another transport element to your journey.
Ride and cost: The Monorail runs daily between Seattle Center and Westlake Center, every 10 minutes, and one-way fares are $2.25 for adults; $1 for ages 5–12; and kids 4 and under ride free. Cash only and buy your tickets at the booth.
To visit nearby: Seattle Center is loaded with family attractions, including The Children’s Museum, which has regular Monorail-related activities and is located on the lower level of the Armory. Or ride the lift up the Space Needle for another iconic Seattle experience.
Photo credit: Megan Ching
Hit the urban rails and explore one of Seattle’s glossiest neighborhoods by taking the South Lake Union Streetcar between the SLU neighborhood and Westlake Center. (Ride the Monorail, too, for double the fun!) Streetcars sport bright colors and a nifty chime that kids can appreciate.
The more recently-opened First Hill Streetcar connects Capitol Hill, First Hill, the International District and Pioneer Square for even more in-city adventures. Extended streetcar lines are in the works.
Getting there: Parking is tough in all the urban neighborhoods served by the Streetcar lines. Find a spot in a pay lot or on-street metered space, or walk or bus from deeper in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Ride and cost: The Streetcars on both lines run about every 10–20 minutes, early ‘til late, six days a week; on Sundays they operate with slightly shortened hours. Buy tickets on the platform or on board, or use your ORCA card or valid Metro bus transfer. Adult tickets cost $2.25; ages 6–18 $1.50; and kids 5 and under ride free.
To visit nearby: At Lake Union Park, visit MOHAI, check out the park's pond (sail a pond boat on the weekend), wave at the float planes and boats, or stroll over to the Center for Wooden Boats, where you sign up for free boat rides on Sundays. In the International District, find ideas for fun in this guide (note that some activities are seasonal).
Photo credit: Curtis Cronin/flickr
With a little more time, you and your crew can cover some serious ground riding the Sounder from Seattle's King Street Station to Kent. Explore the shops at Kent Station for a few minutes or a couple of hours, then hop the train back. (Note: if you and your crew are early risers, catch the train from any point south and make a day trip to Seattle. Return trains depart Seattle all afternoon.)
Getting there: Bus it or ride the Streetcar to Pioneer Square, or use your best street-parking tricks — and be sure to avoid days with sporting events or concerts.
Ride and cost: Southbound Sounder trains depart King Street Station weekdays at 3:12, 3:42 and 4:12 p.m., and arrive in Kent 19 minutes later. Have an ice cream cone and a look around, then be back at the platform ready for the 5:02 or 5:32 p.m. northbound trains for the return trip. Adult fares each way are $4; $3 for ages 6–18; and kids ages 5 and under ride free. Buy tickets with cash or card at the platform vending machine, or use your ORCA card.
To visit nearby: Enjoy a treat at Cold Stone Creamery or Cow Chip Cookies or visit any of Kent Station’s eateries and shops.
Photo credit: Atomic Taco/flickr
Seattle's light rail now connects the University of Washington to the north with the Angle Lake station, just south of Sea-Tac Airport, with 14 stops along the way. This train presents opportunities to design your own adventure. Traveling from points south, riders could enjoy an outing to the International District (fun things to see at Uwajimaya and parades like the one at left if you time your visit right), the Central Library (three blocks from University Street Station), or other downtown-area adventures.
Or, from downtown, head south to Columbia City for window shopping and treats, or ride all the way to Sea-Tac for airplane viewing.
Getting there: Parking near light rail stations is very limited; you will likely need to park in a pay lot or bus it to a station.
Ride and cost: Trains run daily, every 15 minutes or more often at peak times. Adult fares are $2.25–$3.25, depending on route; ages 6–18 pay $1.50 for any route; ages 5 and under ride free. Purchase tickets with cash or card prior to boarding the train, or use your ORCA card.
Link Tacoma: Tacoma is ripe for Link adventures as well. Park for free at the Tacoma Dome Station and take the Tacoma Link Light Rail for free to destinations in downtown (see more in Washington State History Museum section).
Photo credit: Wonderlane/flickr
For a bird’s-eye view of a whole train system, check out the expansive model railroad set-up at Tacoma's the Washington State History Museum. Members of a model train club have built, and continue to work on, this impressive display, showcasing a 1950s-era Northwest railroad network.
Getting there: The museum is located in downtown Tacoma, about 45 minutes from Seattle. Pay parking can be found in the museum’s lot, in nearby lots or on the street.
Cost: The museum is open 10 a.m.–5 p.m., daily except Monday; admission is $12 for adults; $8 for kids ages 6–17; and kids ages 5 and under are free.
To visit nearby: Within walking distance of the history museum (or a short ride on Tacoma's Link — double trains!), you can hit the Museum of Glass (or just the stunning, glass-art pedestrian bridge) and the pay-what-you-will Children's Museum of Tacoma. Tacoma has tons more to offer within a short drive, including Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, located in Point Defiance Park. Tip: check out impressive, historic Stadium High School, just north of the downtown area.
Photo by Steve Carter
And sometimes the easiest thing to do is just to go train-spotting, which is easy to, um, engineer, considering that freight trains, the Sounder and Amtrak run right by some of the best parks in Puget Sound. Try some of these hot spots:
Balmer train yard in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood: There’s always something to see at 20th Ave. W. and Thorndyke Ave. W. on the Magnolia side of Interbay; if you’re lucky you might see airplane fuselage parts on passing train cars.
Carkeek Park, in North Seattle: Hang out on the bridge between the playground and the beach for some prime train-gawking, and then take advantage of Carkeek's many other attractions, including a nature playground with a view (salmon slide!), trails, an apple orchard and beach that’s perfect for low-tide exploration.
Golden Gardens in Northwest Seattle: This huge beach park has great train-watching, boat-watching, plus a pirate-themed playground and a wetland trails near the beach (to add some turtle-spotting to your train-spotting).
Edmonds: Trains + ferries + beaches + playground + good restaurants with more train-watching opportunities equals a perfect morning or afternoon any time of the year.
Costco parking lot, south Seattle: Okay, this isn't exactly a destination, but if you want to combine your monthly warehouse haul with some train-spotting to keep the kids happy, the Costco on Fourth Avenue South in Seattle is a great pick. Just don't count on efficiency.
Photo credit: Cria Cow/flickr
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012 and updated in June 2017.