“The Polar Express” is a favorite Christmas film for a lot of families, and you have the chance to experience winter rail adventures in real life. During the holidays, several companies offer winter train rides in Michigan to celebrate the season. The trains include a variety of entertainment while you enjoy the scenery. After the rides, there are many other things that you can do nearby too. Here’s everything you need to know about these Polar Express train rides in Michigan that we love and other attractions in each area.
Santa Train at Coopersville & Marne Railway
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Coopersville & Marne Railway runs the Santa Train every weekend. This polar express ride is one of the best winter train rides in Michigan. The journey starts in downtown Coopersville on a vintage train for which some of the cars are about a century old. Following Interstate 96, the train crosses a girder bridge, several creeks, and a road bridge on the way to Marne.
The round trip takes about 90 minutes, including time for the locomotive to uncouple from the train and then couple to the other end for the return trip. Throughout the ride, a princess will read Christmas stories, and the kids will have the chance to meet Santa Claus. In fact, special seats are reserved in each decorated car for him and his elves. On top of that, every child gets a present.
About the Railway Company
The Coopersville & Marne Railway is a historic, all-volunteer railroad that operates vintage locomotives from the 1950s and passenger cars from the 1920s. It has been offering train rides since 1990, and all volunteers have to complete an industry-approved training program before they can work as locomotive engineers, brakemen, or conductors. Many other volunteers are craftsmen who maintain the track and vintage equipment.
Things to Do Around Coopersville and Marne
If you’re looking for more holiday things to do in the area, attend the annual Metro Health Christmas & Holiday Traditions event in Grand Rapids. From the end of November through the beginning of January, the event features visits from Santa, carolers, 46 international displays and trees, rooftop reindeer, and more than 300,000 Christmas lights. The Railway Garden exhibition combines a garden design with miniature buildings and model trains and trolleys.
Honoring rural life and farming, the Coopersville Farm Museum & Event Center is a nonprofit organization with regularly scheduled events and exhibits. Around mid-December, it hosts a Christmas Fair with crafts, last-minute gifts, and special guests. It’s the perfect place to finish your Christmas shopping.
If you want to learn about the railroad and Coopersville history, check out the Coopersville Area Historical Society & Museum. Although donations are welcome, there’s no fee to tour the museum during regular business hours. The charming brick building used to be a substation and depot for the Grand Rapids, Grand Haven & Muskegon Railway. It was turned into a museum in 1987 and is said to be one of the best-preserved buildings of its kind in Michigan. Along with railroad and interurban train exhibits, it contains military, clothing, household, and business exhibits.
For some outdoor fun, the Bur Oak Landing in Coopersville offers off-trail hiking and fishing. You can take your dog as long as you clean up after it. Your dog can roam free in Open Space Lands, but you need to keep it under control and have a leash with you just in case.
At Eastmanville Farm in Coopersville, you can explore hiking and equestrian trails. Dogs are also allowed here, but they must remain on a leash.
To enjoy some sports activities, go to Coopersville Sports Complex at Veteran’s Park. It has baseball, softball and soccer fields. There’s an archery range, horseshoe pits, basketball hoops, and a multipurpose skating rink as well.
At Western Greens Golf Course in Marne, you can play a round of golf in a picturesque Michigan setting. The course has 18 holes for all skill levels, a practice green, and a large driving range.
Little River Railroad’s Christmas/Holiday Express
One of the most overlooked winter train rides in Michigan is the Christmas/Holiday Express run by Little River Railroad. These polar express adventures are only available on a few select days in December and only on small trains, which makes the trips more pleasant.
Each Christmas/Holiday Express ride starts in Coldwater and stops in Quincy for a 30-minute layover. During the layover, you can get off the train to watch the locomotive uncouple and then couple with the other end of the train to return to Coldwater. The entire ride lasts for about 45 to 60 minutes. On the train, kids can visit with Santa Claus. Plus, everyone gets a Christmas tour of the depot and complimentary treats.
About the Railroad Company
As a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization, the Little River Railroad is committed to restoring and operating historic railway equipment. For its Michigan winter train rides, it mainly pulls the trains with Locomotive No. 1. Although it doesn’t know exactly when the steam engine was built, it does know that the equipment is more than 100 years old.
Things to Do in Coldwater and Quincy
In December, the Village of Quincy and the Quincy Chamber of Commerce host the Quincy Lights and Holiday Market. Elementary school carolers often sing before Santa arrives in the evening. All of downtown is full of holiday activities for all ages, and the Quincy Historical Museum stays open with extended hours.
Christmas Tree Picking
To get your Christmas tree for the season, go to Loveberry’s Tree Farm in Quincy. A wide array of trees are available, such as Douglas fir, Korean fir, blue spruce, and white pine. The farm opens the day after Thanksgiving and doesn’t close until just before Christmas.
There’s tons of holiday cheer here, including horse-drawn wagons and an event for roasting chestnuts. You can grab a cup of coffee, hot chocolate, or mulled cider, and warm up by the bonfire or cabin fireplace. On a couple of weekends during the holidays, Santa Claus visits to get children’s Christmas wishes. Additionally, you can take a tour of the farm.
Established in 1920, the Coldwater Golf Course is the most historic golfing spot in Branch County. It offers scenic holes along the Morrison Lake shoreline, through tall trees, and over rolling hills. As a result, every round is a challenge. There’s a Joe’s Pro Shop on the property if you need any gear or equipment.
For a different taste of American culture, visit Amish Country Bakery in Quincy, which has a health department-certified kitchen. It’s open until Christmas and offers some of the best treats in the region. Everything is handmade, including fresh breads, candies, pies, and canned fruits and vegetables. You can take some fresh flowers and produce home with you too.
Holiday Magic at Crossroads Village & Huckleberry Railroad
Another great place for winter train rides in Michigan is Crossroads Village & Huckleberry Railroad in Flint. The holiday trains are available during the Holiday Magic event, which is held on select dates from late November through late December.
Each adventure on the authentic, coal-fired Baldwin steam train lasts for about 40 minutes. From the Village, the narrow-gauge railroad runs along the Mott Lake shoreline and historic Pere Marquette roadbed before returning to the Village. There are 11 original and replica wooden cars and a classic red caboose. In addition to Michigan winter train rides, the Holiday Magic event includes seasonal music and a lot of Christmas lights.
About the Village and Railroad
Compared to the other train destinations on our list, Crossroads Village is one of a kind. Established in 1976, it’s a living history museum with 34 buildings, many of which were built in the 19th century and have since been restored.
The Huckleberry Railroad is part of the Village and was named as such for running so slow that a person could hop off the train, pick huckleberries and hop back on. Stretching from Flint to Fostoria, it has been used since 1857. The railroad’s Locomotive No. 464 was originally built in 1903, while Locomotive No. 152 was originally built in 1920. Both have undergone restorations.
Things to Do in Crossroads Village and Flint
Since Crossroads Village is a destination on its own, there are many things to do there. Here’s a list of things to check out:
- Attica Hotel for candies and collectibles.
- Blacksmith Shop for handcrafted treasures.
- Master’s Cider Mill for a taste of freshly pressed apples.
- General Store for Michigan-made products.
- Colwell Opera House for magic shows and plays.
- Train Station Gift Shop for souvenirs.
- Village Park for amusement rides.
Among the amusement rides are the Charles W. Parker Superior Wheel, a 45-foot Ferris wheel that was built in 1910, and the Charles W. Parker Carousel that was built in 1912 in Leavenworth, Kansas. There are pony carts, Mott Lake Flyer miniature trains, and Venetian swings as well.
Art and History Museums
Flint Michigan is home to several attractions that focus on art culture and history. The Flint Institute of Arts is Michigan’s second-largest art museum, and more than 150,000 people visit every year. Since the early 20th century, the museum has been collecting, protecting, and presenting important artifacts and art from around the world. The entire collection exceeds 8,500 items.
At the Whaley Historic House Museum, you can tour the historic home of innovator Robert Whaley. After purchasing the Flint home in 1885, he renovated it into a classic Victorian house. The historic rooms are staged with artifacts that tell the history of the prominent Whaley and McFarlan families and the city.
For a more scientific lesson, stop by the Longway Planetarium. It features astronomy demonstrations, science and laser rock shows, and more under a 60-foot dome. Each show lasts for about 45 minutes. The planetarium holds camps and classes throughout the year also.
An Iconic Falls
One of the most scenic spots in mid-Michigan is where the Flint River turns into Mott Lake. At this site in Flint, Stepping Stone Falls has trails for biking, running, and walking. The park also has picnic tables and places to go fishing. At night, beautiful multicolored lights glow in the falls.
However, Flint is well known for having the largest county park system in Michigan, so there are about 11,000 acres of woods, trails, and water for you to explore. A few other parks that we like to visit are the For-Mar Nature Preserve & Arboretum, Bluebell Beach, and Riverbank Park.
Pere Marquette, aka The Polar Express
The train in the movie The Polar Express is based on the Pere Marquette 1225, a restored steam locomotive built in the 1940s located in Owosso, Michigan. The blueprint and sound effects from live recordings of the train in motion went into the film’s animation.
You can take the train from Owosso to cities along the Great Lakes Central Railroad, all the way up to Cadillac, Michigan, as part of the North Pole Express Experience. The locomotive is one of the few remaining operable steam engines of its size, having been replaced predominantly by more efficient diesel engines.
P.S. There’s no coincidence that the train’s road number is the same date as Christmas, 12/25.
There’s More to Do Than Winter Train Rides in Michigan
Aside from Michigan winter train rides, there are a ton of other things to do in the winter in Michigan. There are also lots of great family-friendly winter vacation destinations in Michigan. And if you’re looking for amazing train tours and rides in Michigan during other seasons, we’ve got those, too, including several Michigan fall color train tours!
Do you have family winter holiday traditions like taking a Polar Express train ride in Michigan? Tell us about them in the comments below!