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Rails to the Past: Exploring the Western Pacific Railroad Museum

We found stunning historic locomotives and retro railcars at this remote museum in Northern California. Here's a look around.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read
A Southern Pacific Rotary MW208 snowplow and EMD FP7 locomotive.

The Western Pacific Railroad Museum is home to numerous well-preserved trains.

Geoff Morrison/CNET

Northeast of Sacramento, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, lies Portola. It's a small town in an area of tiny towns, notable for one thing: It's the crew change site for the Western Pacific Railroad, now known as the Union Pacific. The huge railyard is incongruous here among the hills, pines and firs. 

Adjacent to the railyard, aging locomotives, boxcars, and cabooses sit like forgotten toys of a giant trainspotter. Once powerful and remarkable machines, they now rest quietly in a retirement of cold winters and high altitude. For a few days a week, during just a few months of every year, you can explore these well-worn machines. This is the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, a unique and impressive collection and easily one of the best museums of its type in the country.

My favorite part of the visit? Unlike most museums, I was able to climb in and around just about everything. So, of course, I did exactly that. Here's how it all looks.

Huge Historic Locomotives and More at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum

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I'm on the California Zephyr, watching America roll by 

It's a clear day when I finally arrive at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum. I had set out that morning from the coast, cutting across the state after marveling at the giant redwoods. The drive, curving through several national forests, is one I highly recommend. 

The museum lies at the end of a short, unpaved road on the edge of town. While there are several locomotives and cabooses arrayed on either side of the entrance path, my eyes naturally drift to the enormous EMD DD40X. It's an absolute monster, proudly dressed in Union Pacific livery, the only operator of the type. These "Centennials" are the most powerful diesel locomotives of their kind, and this one in particular was the last built. 

A side view of an EMD DD40X locomotive in Union Pacific livery.

Nearly 100 feet long, and sporting 6,600 horsepower, the EMD DD40X is a behemoth.

Geoff Morrison/CNET

Inside the museum's only shed is a restoration shop, museum shop and several coaches. One of the latter you can explore, and it's quite the step back in time. While there are a few "modern" amenities like a 40-year-old stereo system, the rest is largely untouched since its years of service in the middle of the last century. Some of it dates back to when the coach was first built, over 100 years ago.

Exploring outside more, I find several original California Zephyr coaches. The museum is hoping to acquire and restore more of these, since Western Pacific operated the line for most of its service life. 

An EMD GP20 locomotive in Western Pacific orange and white livery.

This is the first GP20 built by EMD. It still runs.

Geoff Morrison/CNET

Most railroad museums feature and maintain far older, steam locomotives. The WPRM is restoring one of their own, but predominantly what you find here are the hulking diesels of the mid-20th century. This is my favorite era, before jet travel but after the age of steam. 

The farther you explore from the train shed, the more time has had its way with the machines. Faded colors and the slow procession of rust start to dominate. These older, or less important vehicles are still a significant part of the history of the railroad, but with limited funds not everything can be preserved. At least not to the pristine extent of many of the locomotives at the museum.

It's the California Zephyr, the Union Pacific Queen

An orange and silver and gray diesel locomotive.

An EMD FP7 locomotive that pulled the California Zephyr through the west for 20 years in the last century.

Geoff Morrison/CNET

Most train museums, in the US at least, feature far older locomotives than those of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum. Sure, they might have a few diesels, but that's rarely the focus. Seeing so many here, especially so many important vehicles from one company's history, is a treat. Being able to explore so many of them, inside and out, makes the WPRM definitely worth the trip. 

However, it's tricky to find the time for that trip. The museum is closed in the winter, which isn't surprising given the altitude and climate. During the months the museum is open, it's typically just open Thursday through Sunday. There are train rides on most weekends though. And while I didn't get a chance to do it, the museum is well known in trainspotting circles for its Run A Locomotive program, where you get to drive an actual locomotive (under supervision, of course). 

If Northern California isn't on your travel schedule right now, check out the gallery above for a closer look in and around many of these historic and impressive trains.

As well as covering audio and display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more.

Also check out Budget Travel for Dummies, his travel book, and his bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube