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3 Activities in Balboa Park for Railfans; San Diego Travel

If you’re a rail fan or you’re heading to San Diego with young, train-obsessed kids in tow, make sure to check out several of the awesome train activities in Balboa Park.

In addition to having some remarkable architecture, the park has several activities that will appeal to train lovers of all ages.

Here are three great activities to do in Balboa Park for rail fans.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

San Diego Model Railroad Museum is one of the best model railroad museums on the West Coast. It includes several massive layouts of various scales, modeled on many of the area’s local and historical railroads.

The museum showcases layouts that are over 30 feet long. To make it easier for young rail fans to peek over and watch the trains go by, there are stools and steps.

One layout is currently under construction, so you can see the process of carving foam, designing figures, laying track, and otherwise building a layout in progress. Permanent exhibitions include layouts of the Southern Pacific at Techachapi Pass, Pacific Desert line, and more.

Another great perk is that the museum charge is around $20 for adults, but kids are free. Even if you’re bringing a larger family there, it makes it easy to introduce your young rail fans to some awesome model railroading. The museum has a small gift store with railroad memorabilia for kids and adults.

Need a place to stay near San Diego? I stayed at the Westin Carlsbad Resort and Spa and highly recommend it. It’s one of the best hotels near LEGOLAND California, if you’re planning to include Legoland in your SoCal visit.

Balboa Park Miniature Railroad

Riding the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad

Right by the entrance to the San Diego Zoo, you’ll find the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad. This is an antique, small gauge train that you can take on a three-and-a-half minute ride through four acres of the park.

The train is powered by diesel. Wait times are usually pretty reasonable. You can ride in cars, and the engine pulls you on a circular route through a small park section. There are big metal sculptures of zoo animals, a tunnel, and other interesting elements around the tracks.

This one will definitely appeal to kids, and something is exciting about riding behind a real engine. It will also appeal to older rail fans, who will appreciate the history of this unique attraction.

I rode on the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad, and it’s a really fun, whimsical experience. It isn’t quite as dramatic as other model railroads like the one in Berkeley in the Bay Area, but it was still a super fun experience.

Train Time at the Fleet Science Center

Interior of the Fleet Science Center

The Fleet Science Center is an awesome science museum right in Balboa Park. It’s mostly oriented toward kids, but it also has a large IMAX theater with a massive dome.

You can see a lot of different science-oriented, educational IMAX films here, but the big draw for rail fans is the film Train Time. This immersive, music-filled show takes viewers on a journey across America, riding with the crew of a freight locomotive.

The film was captured on 70mm film, the largest commercially available format. That means you’ll enjoy eye-popping visuals on the Fleet Center’s 76-foot tall IMAX screen. That’s enough to make any rail fan happy!


There’s so much to do at Balboa Park, but it can be hard to know where to start. If you’re traveling with a kid who loves trains, or an adult rail fan who always wants to see the local train-related options, Balboa Park is paradise.

Check out these rail fan-friendly exhibits and attractions. My son loves trains, and we had a great time exploring that interest on a recent visit to the park.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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