In October of 2015, we woke the boys up early and surprised them with a drive to the local Amtrak station where we boarded a train, about 40 miles from home.
Our boys had recently become train obsessed and we wanted to celebrate their interest while feeding their curiosity. When we had a free Saturday to visit a large, interactive museum full of trains just a few hours North, we jumped at the opportunity to go explore.
To date, this has been one of their favorite day trips. They talk about it often. So often, in fact, that we should probably start planning another visit. But first, we invite you to come along with us in this flash from the past as we explore the California State Railroad Museum.
The boys thought that we were simply taking a train ride – which would have been a blast in its own right – but we had a whole day of fun surprises planned for them. Haircuts not included. Look at those long golden locks of hair!
Though we tend to be rather spontaneous with day trips, our youngest son was still in foster care (we didn’t have our daughter yet) so this adventure required a little planning and permission from social workers to leave the county – a rule that later became more relaxed as we got closer to the finalization of his adoption. We speculate that the court realized that we don’t stay still for long, and our family was creating quite a bit of paperwork for them with our almost weekly requests to skip town.
Another foster care rule that we had to strictly adhere to was this one: No pictures on the internet. Foster parents get pretty creative with this. We find ways to share our family adventures and special moments without exposing faces. If you follow a foster care family online, you’re likely familiar with the back of a child’s head or have seen a digital sticker over their face. That was how we shared this adventure in real-time but now that our son is adopted (Spring of 2016), it is pretty exciting to revisit this trip and share the moments, sans sticker face.
Attraction: California State Railroad Museum
Location: Sacramento, California
Date: October, 2015
Admission: The admission fee for each adult was $12 (according to their website, this is still true). Children ages 5 and under are free and in October 2015, we fit that criteria. Score! If you are taking older children, the cost of admission is still very reasonable at $6.
Food: After a few hours of exploring the museum, which is located in Old Town Sacramento near the water, we took a horse drawn carriage tour around town to scope out restaurants. We ended up eating on the water at Joe’s Crab Shack.
Highlights: We enjoyed every square foot of this museum! From locomotives and dining cars to refrigerated cars and mail cars, there was so much to explore. The majority of the trains were open for us to climb on and walk through.
The staff was incredibly helpful! They took time to give each of our boys special attention, making sure to answer their questions and give them the opportunity to get hands-on. It was like stepping back in time. What a treat it was to learn this way!
You can read all about the exhibits on the museum’s website.
Call Amtrak to get a deal. Though waiting until the last minute to purchase tickets might not be a risk you want to take, we did find that the price dropped a bit 24 hours before departure. That’s when we called to inquire about deals, and were able to use our AAA membership to get a discount. You never know what kind of cash you can save if you don’t ask. We recommend calling Amtrak’s customer service line to explore all discount options before making your purchase.
If you take the Amtrak, be prepared to transfer to a bus (or two!). We recommend paying close attention to the website when you buy your tickets. If you call to make your purchase, be sure to ask about transfers. Plan ahead of time and prepare yourself for a little bit of chaos when transferring to a bus. There are a lot of people making transfers, and a lot of buses in a row. It is loud, busy and a little bit confusing with multiple lines of people melting into each other. Your ticket will have the bus number on it, and each bus should have a number posted in their window. If you keep your cool, and don’t allow the pushy crowd to fluster you, it’s a simple transfer.
Pack a small bag to carry. Jason wears a backpack everywhere we go and in it is an emergency kit, a stash of snacks and a change of bottoms for each child, just in case. Even if your children have outgrown having accidents, like ours have, you’d be surprised how many times they sit in gum or mud or who knows what. It’s also nice to have a backpack to shove sweaters into, in case the weather turns and your chilly babies turn into sweaty, stinky humans who need to ventilate. It happens.
Take a bag of goodies for the train ride. In addition to a small backpack to carry throughout the day, we recommend taking a duffel bag on the train. Shove some blankets into it, along with small toys and snacks. We didn’t want to pay for breakfast on the train so we packed food, which worked out great. Don’t worry – you can take one personal item like a duffel bag onto the train without incurring a cost and you don’t have to lug your bag around with you all day. When you arrive at the train station in Old Town Sacramento, there is a luggage check counter. You can leave your bag at the counter, secured and safe for the day, for a small fee (our memory is fuzzy, but it was no more than $10). Don’t forget to pick it up before you board your train to go home!
Plan for extras. To get the most out of your visit, buy your Amtrak tickets on opposite ends of the day. Arrive early and leave late. This will allow plenty of time to explore Old Town Sacramento, take a walk near the water, or ride in a horse-drawn carriage like we did. We recommend setting a budget for the day, and taking some of that money in cash form for small treats like ice cream and tips for street performers. We enjoyed performances on nearly every corner. The puppeteer was a fan favorite.
Get back to the train station early. We left just enough time to walk from the museum back to the train station. It’s about a mile walk, with a busy road to cross. What we didn’t plan for was the long walk to our train. We thought that we would board in the same area where our bus dropped us off but we were wrong. It was quite the trek from the train depot to the tracks, with a decent incline at one point in the walk. Our boys were pretty worn out after a day of walking around the town and museum, so we were slow moving. Halfway there, we realized that we forgot to pick up our bag from the depot. Don’t make our mistakes! Plan ahead, set alarms on your phone to remind you to stop by baggage check, and give yourself some extra time to get to your train. We did notice that there were a few golf carts shuttling people to the train, but we missed our opportunity to hop onto one. Learn from our mistakes!
Eat on the train ride home. We packed enough food and snacks to cover breakfast and the occasional hunger pain, but we didn’t pack enough food for dinner. We had a late lunch, and planned to eat hot dogs in the train’s cafe cart. It was such a special treat! Though the hot dogs weren’t cheap, they were more affordable than our lunch at the restaurant was, and nothing could beat that view! As the sun was setting, we sat upstairs in a train car, in seats that faced large windows. The children gasped each time they saw the top of orange trees, or spotted a squirrel or a tractor. We live in a rural area, but their view of our county is usually much closer to the ground. To see above it all, while enjoying a meal, was quite the experience!
WE WANT YOU TO GO!
We had such an incredible time at the museum! If you are in California, or will be visiting soon, we hope that you plan a visit to see the big, impressive trains. Though driving to the museum is totally doable (spoiler alert – we drove there in 2014!), we found that taking the Amtrak added a magical touch to the entire day and as a bonus, we didn’t have to drive home! It was quite the luxury to be passengers on the train after a long day of fun. Jason and I were exhausted, as were the kids, and it was wonderful to sit together and chat, play card games and nap instead of driving and trying to stay focused on traffic.
Have you been to the California State Railroad Museum? Do you have hacks and tips to share? Please let us know in the comments! And if you haven’t been, but plan to go, let us know about that too! Maybe we’ll arrange for a meetup!