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Texas State Railroad

Is your crew stuck in the winter doldrums? Shake it off and get out of house! Spring has already begun southeast of DFW in Deep East Texas, and the famous dogwood trees are already opening their gorgeous white blossoms. We know the very best way to see them: chug-chug-chugging through the Piney Woods aboard an antique steam locomotive on the Texas State Railroad.
About a 2-hour drive from DFW, the Texas State Railroad runs through the pretty countryside between the East Texas towns of Rusk and Palestine. It’s a twenty-five-mile stretch of track built in 1881 and owned by the state of Texas, and it isn’t used by any other railroads. Early spring is the perfect time to ride the train because of the cool weather, as most of the train is not air-conditioned.
On the Piney Woods Steam Train Excursion, the railroad runs two trains simultaneously. The trains depart from Palestine and Rusk at 11am, stop at the opposite depot for a 1.5-hour lunch break and return at 3:30pm. To give your kids a special treat, arrive early for the 10:30 tour of the train cab. That’s when they will get to meet the engineer and see the coal and the boiler.
The standard fare is $32 for ages 13 and older, $20 for children ages 2–12. With a standard fare ticket your family may ride in either the open-air cars or the enclosed car, which is not climate controlled. Box lunches can be purchased online when you buy your tickets, for an additional fee, or bring a picnic lunch in a small cooler that will fit under your seat.
Seats are not assigned, so get on board early to claim window seats. If it’s cool weather, pack a blanket to tuck around the kids’ laps.
The premium Lone Star fare gives access to the climate-controlled family car. Tickets are $75 for ages 13 and older and $40 for children ages 2–12 and include a table for four plus lunch and snacks.
The Halfway Option
If you anticipate that a 4.5-hour excursion might be too much for your little ones, call the ticket office to purchase halfway tickets. Halfway trips depart at either 11am or 2pm and last an hour and a half. At the midway point between the stations, your family will change trains and catch a ride back to the depot where you parked your car. For halfway trips, the fare is slightly discounted. Although halfway trips are not mentioned on the TSRR website, they will be offered in the 2014 season.
Elegance in Palestine
Palestine is usually the preferred departure depot for North Texas families because it’s closer to DFW than Rusk. The Palestine train will have lunch layover at the Rusk depot, where there is a beautiful picnic area and a playground overlooking a 15-acre fishing lake.
Add an early Mother’s Day present to your itinerary by treating Mom to a massage at Palestine’s beloved Jamie’s Therapeutic Touch while Dad takes the kids on the train.
After your excursion, treat your family for a brick oven pizza at Switch, where the mozzarella and pizza dough are made fresh daily. If you’re planning an overnight stay, make reservations for dinner and accommodations at Sabor a Pasión, a country house, bistro and vineyard nestled on 25 acres. The owner, a five-star chef from Australia, is willing to prepare meals for children with special dietary needs. The guesthouse includes a two-bedroom suite for families, and offers a wheelchair accessible guestroom.
When the dogwoods bloom, Palestine hosts the Texas Dogwood Trails Celebration. Be forewarned: Even though Palestine is small town, you can expect crowded restaurants during the Dogwood Trails.
Rustic Charm (and Budget-Friendly) in Rusk
If you want to avoid the Dogwood Trails crowds in Palestine, drive about a half hour further to catch the train in Rusk. For dinner, try the inexpensive – but oh-so-good – fried catfish haven, KT Seafood Grill. This popular joint is “under the radar,” and sometimes even GPS can’t find it. It’s located at 655 N. Main Street (the corner of Hwy 62 and Hwy 84) or call 903/683-5721 for directions.
Continue the adventure in Rusk with an overnight stay at the Bean’s Creek Ranch Bed and Breakfast, a 135-acre haven with a loyal clientele of families that return every year. Kids and dogs stay free. For less than the price of many budget hotels, your kids can see longhorns, swim, fish, hike, and cook s’mores over a real campfire.
A surprise before heading home
If you do stay overnight, surprise the kids on the way home with an afternoon detour to the Cherokee Trace Drive-Thru Wildlife Park, only about a 30-minute drive from either train depot. The tour usually lasts two and a half hours. Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for kids 3–12. After all, nothing can top a springtime train ride through the forest … except maybe hand-feeding zebras and giraffes.
Published February 2014