All aboard: ‘Polar Express’ and other holiday train rides create magic throughout Colorado

For train buffs and fans of the holiday classic, Colorado offers magical “North Pole” journeys.
Dec. 9, 2022
Photo by Erik Lindgren, courtesy of the Colorado Railroad Museum.
 A young girls smiles as she talks to Santa abord the "Santa Express," a holiday experience on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Photo courtesy of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.
Santa hops aboard the train and visits with each child on the “Santa Express,” a special holiday experience offered on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Photo courtesy of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.

In “The Polar Express,” the classic holiday book and movie, a young boy in pajamas boards a train outside his home and gets to take an over-the-top adventure to the North Pole.

There, Santa picks the boy from a crowd of children and gives him a single silver bell. For children (and rare adults) who truly believe in the magic of the holiday season, the bell makes a pure, beautiful ringing sound.

For those who love Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 Christmas book, fans of the 2004 movie, “The Polar Express,” and others who are train buffs, winter journeys are real steam engines are a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays.

Colorado is home to two official rides on “The Polar Express” while other train routes offer festive holiday train rides with spectacular scenery.

If you want to join in the fun, feel free to wear your pajamas, sip some hot chocolate and board one of Colorado’s holiday train rides.

Here are the details about holiday train rides in Colorado:

Two favorite places for Colorado train aficionados host official experiences with “The Polar Express:” the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Colorado Railroad Museum.

The Polar Express on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Durango, Colorado

For this experience, parents and children board “The Polar Express” (painted just like the train in the book and the movie). The train cars are all lavishly decorated for the holidays. Families depart from the Durango Depot, then enjoy a performance and take a train ride to the “North Pole.” Along the way, chefs serve train passengers hot chocolate and a sweet treat. Then the conductor reads “The Polar Express.” Once at the North Pole, parents and children enjoy a light show set to holiday music. Then Santa and his elves board the train. They visit each train car on the way back to Durango and Santa gives out the first gift of the Christmas season.

A little girl sees Santa coming during her ride on "The Polar Express" on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Photo courtesy of Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
A little girl sees Santa coming during her ride on “The Polar Express” on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Photo by Jerry B. Day, courtesy of Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Passengers are encouraged to wear pajamas (just like the kids in the book). Layers help keep people warm (although the train cars are heated) and the conductor recommends snow boots and coats to keep the riders warm.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has a wheelchair accessible coach and a hydraulic lift that is available upon request and enables people in wheelchairs to join in the fun.

The Durango & Silverton railroad also offers a scenic winter train known as the Cascade Canyon Winter Train. During this journey, passengers venture into snow-cloaked wilderness areas in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, home to several stunning 14,000-foot peaks. The area where the train goes is otherwise inaccessible in the winter. Heated coaches keep travelers warm as they gaze at a winter wonderland outside. Passengers enjoy a one-hour layover in Cascade Canyon, where they can enjoy a fireside lunch or a walk along the Animas River.

Polar Express Train Rides continue through Jan. 1. The Cascade Canyon Winter Train runs through early May. The Durango Depot is located at 479 Main Avenue in Durango, Colorado.

The Cascade Canyon Winter Train. Photo by Anthony D’Amato, courtesy of Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The Polar Express Train Ride at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado

Passengers at the Colorado Railroad Museum begin their journey in a new pavilion built especially for The Polar Express Train Ride. Once the boarding time comes, passengers get to watch a performance followed by a dramatic reading and dramatization of The Polar Express story.

Next, passengers move outside to await the arrival of The Polar Express train, which features vintage railroad coaches pulled by an authentic, coal-burning steam locomotive. The passengers board the train and head to the “North Pole” where Santa and his elves board the train. Once the train returns to the station, children can visit with Santa and each receives a silver bell.

For this ride, just like the one in Durango, children and their parents are encouraged to wear their pajamas.

The museum is a wonderful place to visit year-round and is located at 17155 W. 44th Ave. in Golden, Colorado.

The Santa Express on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Cañon City, Colorado

The Santa Express on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Cañon City, Colorado. Photo courtesy of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.

The Royal Gorge Route bills itself as “Colorado’s most breathtaking rolling restaurant.”

During the holiday season, the route transforms into the Santa Express Train and the Holiday Train. People of all ages can wear cozy pajamas and travel to the “North Pole” deep within the Royal Gorge.

Passengers enjoy holiday music and beautifully decorated train cars during trips that depart several times a day.

On the Santa Express, guests receive hot chocolate and a sweet treat and can order scratch-made meals as well. Once the train is rolling, it heads into the Royal Gorge, one of Colorado’s most spectacular canyons. At the “North Pole,” the train picks up St. Nick and his elves who ride along and greet each child with a special holiday gift.

Passengers who take the train in the evening can enjoy the southern Colorado night sky and a Northern lights laser light show against the craggy cliffs within the canyon.

The Royal Gorge Route also runs a Holiday Train, which leaves daily.

Just like the Santa Express, the Holiday Train travels all the way through the Royal Gorge for a round-trip journey. The only difference is that Santa and his elves don’t make an appearance on this train. The Holiday Train railcars are decorated beautifully to celebrate the season. Guests can stay warm inside the train cars and enjoy lunch. Or they can wander outside any time to experience the open observation car with 360-degree views of the rushing Arkansas River, geological formations within the canyon and historic sites.

The Santa Express Train runs through December 30. The Holiday Train runs through early January. Visit the website or call 719.276.4000 for more information. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad Santa Fe Depot is located at 330 Royal Gorge Blvd, in Cañon City, Colorado.

Santa makes special visits during a “Polar Express” train ride in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.

Georgetown Loop Railroad Winter Holiday Trains, Georgetown, Colorado

The Georgetown Loop Railroad offers two winter options to travel on this historic train through stunning scenery near Georgetown and Silver Plume.

During the day, passengers can hop aboard Santa’s North Pole Adventure. Departures at night take guests to Santa’s Lighted Forest.

The railroad offers various seating options from coach to swanky club cars. All are heated and toasty warm.

Learn more about Colorado scenic train rides in every season.

Trips on Santa’s North Pole Adventure take place through Dec. 24. Santa joins the trip and visits with children as they ride through a magic forest and travel over a 95-foot-tall high bridge. Holiday music and decorations add to the festivities.

Departures at night take passengers to Santa’s Lighted Forest where the forest and station are decorated with more than 300,000 lights.

After Christmas, from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2, visitors can enjoy a Victorian Holiday Celebration on both day and night trains. Come see Ebeneezer Scrooge after he has met with ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Some night-time departures also feature the lighted forest.

Learn more about the Georgetown Loop Railroad and check schedules, ticket prices and availability. In the winter, guests can hop aboard both in Silver Plume and Georgetown. But, during the winter, passengers should go to the Devil’s Gate Depot, 646 Loop Drive in Georgetown, Colorado.

Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad – Leadville, Colorado

Leadville is the highest incorporated city in North America and has a rich history of mining.

The Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad provides great views of the Arkansas River Valley and two of Colorado’s tallest peaks: Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert.

During the winter, the Leadville Railroad offers a Holiday Express adventure. The train is decorated with lights and passengers can enjoy snow-covered vistas from the warmth of the coaches.

The Holiday Express departs at select times and dates through January. The Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad station is located at 326 E. 7th St. in Leadville, Colorado. Learn more online or call 719-486-3936 or 866-386-3936.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.