Oakdale, California Sierra Dinner Train


sierra railroad photos


Sierra Railroad Dinner Train
Barbara Steinberg

Oakdale, Calif.―It was great to get up this morning and hop into the car and drive. Drive with a purpose. A destination. Only 80 miles. Knowing that there would be great scenery, wine, food, and friendly faces at the end of the trail and all of this on the historic Sierra Railroad and the inaugural journey of their latest railroad asset: The McCloud #18 steam engine. Score! Big TIME!!!

I love trains. But to be chauffeured by this massive engine -- steam puffing from its stack...and the shrill of the whistle. Whew...I still get shivers thinking about it. And when I say "shrill" I mean S-H-R-I-L-L...SHRILL! The engine's whistle went full blast as we stood by waiting for photo-ops of the train passing. My eardrums were ringing for a long time. But it was well worth it! For the first time in fifty years, a steam engine is providing regular passenger service the San Joaquin Valley.

This is not my first time as a passenger on the Sierra Railroad. Each time is thrilling. Each time is different. This time of year, the hills outside of Oakdale -- home of SR -- are golden. The scenery is always stunning. Small herds of cows munch quietly as we pass. Sometimes they bolt and gallop away -- maybe these cows are new in the neighborhood. Horses with manes blowing in the wind. Vineyards. Orchards. A pair of romancing red-tail hawks -- all of this seen from our rail-car windows.

There are locals parked by the railroad crossings -- they wave as we chug along. The train moves slowly -- a lumbering giant, but no one seems to mind. We chit and chat as we sip glasses of Petite Sirah from Silkwood Wines in Modesto. It's positively luscious. Silkwood is a boutique winery producing fewer than 10,000 cases a year in the heart of the Central Valley. They don't have a tasting room but you can order these deep, dark reds from their Web site. One of my favorite moments was someone's lonely glass sitting on the ground as we waited for another photo-op. Have no fear. This wayward glass of wine made it safely back on-board!!!

We make a couple of stops along the way. One at Fogarty Road -- a wonderfully, long and narrow country road. Edged by barb-wire fences and seeming to stretch forever into the distance of open fields and blue skies. Just any road you say. I say, "Not!" This road was featured in the opening scene of "48 Hours." Much of this landscape...and the famous Sierra Railroad...has seen more than it's share of movie lore. Check their Web site for a partial list of movies, commercials, and TV spots. www.sierrarailroad.com/dinnertrain/aboutus-inthemovies.html. Everything from "Little House on the Prairie" and the Food Network to Mitsubishi and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven."

Oh, a little more about this new muscle machine at the Sierra Railroad. The McCloud River Railroad #18 is a 2-8-2 Baldwin steam locomotive that was built in 1914. The engine worked on the McCloud & Yreka Western Railroads hauling lumber and more recently serving as a major draw for tourists. The Virginia & Truckee Restoration Commission bought the engine to run on their new $50 million tourist train in Nevada. The Commission chose Sierra to operate the future railroad. Since the track won’t be completed until 2010, the Commission agreed to let Sierra use the #18 until the V&T is operational.

What a dream! Some people collect model trains. But for Chris Hart and his brother, Mike, it's way beyond the model phase. They not only own the Sierra Railroad, but the Sacramento River Train in Woodland and the Skunk Train up on the North Coast at Fort Bragg and Willits. What's next? You won't find their hobby circling the living room.

It seems almost sinful to say, "You can't tell, but I am actually working." And this wasn't the end of my day. I managed miles and miles of back-country roads as I made my way back to Sacramento. The drive included the "Cowboy Capitol," world-famous bratwurst and locally-crafted chocolates. But that's another story.



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Sierra Railroad Dinner Train Info:
Call: (800) 866-1690
Sierra Railroad Dinner Train
330 South Sierra Ave.  Oakdale, CA 95361
Local: (209) 848-2100

Train Station Hours:
Monday—Saturday  8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sunday  8 a.m. to 5 p.m.