Traveling with Santa and the elves on Portland’s Holiday Express

Featured image: The Holiday Express awaits another journey on the Oregon Pacific Railroad in Portland (photo by Cheryl Landes)

The chilly air on this Saturday morning after Thanksgiving isn’t stopping anyone from their morning walks and jogs along the paved trails in the Oak Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Portland. Ducks enjoy an early swim in the pond on the south end of the refuge while two blue herons fly overhead. The herons land and disappear in the thick grasses between the pond and the Oregon Pacific Railroad track, where a holiday journey is about to begin.

Across the street from the track, inside the boarding tent at the Oaks Station, excited children ask questions while their parents and grandparents wait to pick up tickets from the Will Call table.

“What are we doing?”

“Can I have some hot chocolate?”

“When can we get on the train?”

“Where’s Santa?”

“When will I see Santa?”

The questions continue while the adults usher the children to the boarding area and reassure them that they’ll board “soon” and see Santa “soon.” Fortunately, none of the youngsters asked how soon “soon” is.

They didn’t wait long. A few minutes later, the conductor greets the crowd. He asks the kids, “What do we say when we get ready to board the train?”

“All aboard!”

“That’s right!” he said. “All abooooarrrrd!”

Some children cheer.

We board the train in a center car, with a giant pile of gifts next to a Christmas tree on one wall. Santa’s helpers, all wearing red hats, greet us and direct us to cars with seats. There are two cargo cars in the middle of the train, a dining car at the end, and three passenger cars behind the locomotive steam engine. All of the cars were built in the 1930s and 1940s.

The gifts at the entrance to the train (photo by Cheryl Landes)

The steam engine, SP 4449, is the only surviving example of the Southern Pacific’s GS-4 class of steam locomotives. Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio, built SP 4449 in May 1941, and it was restored in the 1970s.

Soon we hear the mournful whistle and the steam spraying from the engine. The giant clouds of steam float from the top and sides of the locomotive.

And we’re off!

For the next 45 minutes, we ride round-trip from Oaks Park Station through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge to the Springwater Trail gateway. The wildlife refuge is on the east shore of the Willamette River near downtown Portland, and a paved trail parallels the railroad track along the river. The conductor said that he often sees deer in the refuge, but today, I spotted only ducks, blue herons, and one seagull.

Cyclists pass the Holiday Express on the Oak Bottom Wildlife Refuge trail. (photo by Cheryl Landes)

While we enjoy the ride and views, Santa strolls through the train, greets the passengers, poses for pictures, and hands out candy canes. His elves follow with extra candy in case he runs out.

Santa on the Holiday Express (photo by Cheryl Landes)

The Holiday Express runs weekends from the Friday after Thanksgiving until the third Sunday in December. Trips depart from the Oaks Station at 7806 SE Oaks Park Way, east of the Sellwood Bridge. The station is located across the street from Oaks Amusement Park and Skating Rink.

Get directions and public transportation information.

Reservations are required, because tickets sell out fast. Arrive at least 20 minutes early to pick up tickets at Will Call and board the train.

View train schedule and buy tickets.

Parking is free, and restrooms are available. Oaks Station also has a gift shop and a refreshment counter that sells hot chocolate, coffee, and chips. Each beverage purchase includes a free cookie. The gift shop accepts credit cards, but the refreshment counter is cash only.

Merry Christmas from the Holiday Express! (photo by Cheryl Landes)

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