For more than three decades, train lovers have been heading to rural southwestern Wake County to ride the rails.
At New Hope Valley Railway in tiny Bonsal, visitors can take in the model garden railroad, featuring kid-favorite Thomas the Tank Engine; explore antique railcars; and take a 40-minute ride in an open-air car through the region. For train-loving kids, especially, the visit can be a unique weekend activity or, even, birthday party venue.
I've written about this spot before in my weekly Weekend Plans post and during the fall and winter when the railway offers popular Halloween and Santa trains. But it's worth a new look as the railway is working toward making improvements and adding more programs to its annual offerings, including an upcoming Civil War Train battle reenactment and Brew 'n' Choo evenings for adults.
New Hope Valley Railway has grown by leaps and bounds from the early years when public rides were more sporadic to today when popular holiday rides can draw thousands. It's rustic here. The non-profit railroad is run by an all volunteer staff, mostly guys who love trains.
There's no fancy landscaping or even a bathroom. There are port-a-potties and a sink for washing hands. The group is in the midst of a fundraising campaign now to raise money for a septic tank and to build bathrooms on site, which New Hope volunteers tell me is among the most requested improvement at the railway.
The railway, which started 50 years ago at East Carolina University, originally was a place for train lovers to get their fix.
"It was just a bunch of guys who loved trains," past president Mike MacLean said. "It was kind of a big train set."
But as the non-profit grew and, eventually moved to Bonsal, the group took on a more public face. Its mission is to "act as a custodian of the history and heritage of North Carolina railroads, maintaining this knowledge for the education and enlightenment of the future," according to its website.
When I took my five-year-old this spring, she was as excited about the model garden railroad as the ride on the actual train. She chased after the small trains, which sit near the depot, pushing buttons to make them move. The open-air train ride took us through forests, over a trestle bridge and past a pond, houses and roads. A conductor came through, pointing out things to look at and telling us a bit about the train we were in.
There's no bathroom on the train so you'll need to be prepared before you go. And it's open-air, so be ready for heat in the summer and cold in the winter.
The railway, which has steam and diesel engines, offers general ride days from April to November. The Track or Treat Halloween Express runs for two days in October and are designed for all ages (though the evening rides once the sun sets can be spooky). The Santa Train runs for two weekends in December and has been known to sell out. A caboose is available for birthday party rentals.
Returning this year are the railway's Brew 'n' Choo events. The next is Aug. 29. The fundraising events designed for adults feature craft beer, local wine, craft-beer inspired food offerings, music, a bonfire and train excursions.
This month, the railway will feature a Civil War train battle where dozens will reenact the war's last official battle, called the Battle of Morrisville, which took place about 15 miles from the railway. The event is June 27 and June 28. Ticketholders will get to board the train, interact with soldiers, who will take over the railroad for the event, according to a press release. Some of the action will happen onboard the train. Tickets are $25. There will be six reenactment times on June 27 and four on June 28.
"There will be cannons, calvary, horses, the whole thing," said Chris Tilley, the current president.
Other events include an ice cream social in July and a pizza party in September.
For now, volunteers, who can be as young as 16, are gearing up for the Civil War event and continuing to make improvements to the railway and its trains.
"We all get together and we all have a great time," Tilley said.
More information, a full schedule and tickets can be found at New Hope Valley Railway's website.