San Diego Model Railroad Museum is the only accredited model railroad museum in the country. This unique attraction has five permanent exhibits that display scale models of working locomotives, tracks, equipment, realistic scenery, and more in miniature representations of real California railroads.
A different railroad club or local model train expert operates each of these permanent exhibits:
- The Tehachapi Pass
- The Cabrilla Southwestern and San Diego & Arizona Eastern
- The Centennial Railway Garden
- Pacific Desert Lines
- The Toy Train Gallery
Plus, you’ll see a rotating exhibit that may feature items from the museum’s collection or other aspects of model railroading and American rail history.
You’ll find the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park, one of the best places to visit in San Diego, where there are 16 other museums, multiple gardens, and the San Diego Zoo. Look for the Casa de Balboa building on El Prado — the Museum of Photographic Arts and Museum of San Diego History are here, too.
Here are some highlights of the museum:
- Running trains: The Toy Train Gallery has running toy trains on a 3 rail O gauge track, rated one of the best ten layouts by Classic Toy Trains magazine in 2012.
- Enormous dioramas: Roughly 1500 square feet, you can see a replica of the Pacific Desert Lines layout in the original 1855 route that was never built. It’s 1/160th scale and shows off not just the trains but the stunning California landscape.
- Landscapes and scenery: There are many train route replicas you can see, including the Cabrillo Southwestern and San Diego & Arizona Eastern, and the Tehachapi Pass. These displays feature the trains but also go into exquisite detail about the local landscapes.
- Details in the layout and decorations: Each model precisely replicates the route the train took and also includes minute details on the trains themselves.
- History and education: Each display goes into the history of the rail line, keeping the history of the area and the trains alive.
Top 5 Things To Know About the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Of course, the museum is a no-brainer if you or your family adores traveling by train. However, before you head there, we have a couple of tips for what to know about the San Diego Model Railroad Museum before you go.
Hours and Admission
San Diego Model Railroad Museum tickets are priced as follows:
- Adults: $13.50
- Seniors, Military, and Students (ages 12-17 and 18+ with a valid student ID): $9
- Children ages 12 and younger: Free (they still require a free kids’ ticket)
If you’re a resident of San Diego County, you and your family can visit for free every first Tuesday of the month.
Two Sightseeing Pass Choices
Bundle admission to San Diego Model Railroad Museum (SDMRM) with other attractions across San Diego or just in Balboa Park.
Go San Diego Pass
Both the All-Inclusive and Explorer sightseeing passes include SDMRM and over 50 other San Diego attractions.
Use promo code GOSDO5LJM for 5% off. Stacks on top of sale prices.
Balboa Park Explorer Pass
This pass includes 16 participating Balboa Park Museums.
Choose one of three pass options that include a Parkwide Pass good for seven consecutive days, an Annual Pass (best for residents), or a Limited Pass that includes any four participating venues good for one day.
You can visit the museum Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Although the museum has permanent exhibits, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum will often host a traveling or temporary exhibit.
These exhibits change throughout the year, but past exhibits have focused on certain aspects of trains, such as the hobby of building model trains and the various passenger cars throughout history.
You can check the exhibit list to see what the temporary exhibit will be during your visit.
Library and Gift Shop
Once you’ve explored the exhibits, you can head to the library for more information or the gift shop to buy souvenirs.
The San Diego Model Railroad Museum has a small but expanding library. We’re talking over 10,000 books, magazines, maps, catalogs, and much more covering railroading in America, emphasizing the Southwest and Southern California.
There is also an online library and book donation page should you like to contribute to the collection. As the museum tries to preserve the art of model train building, they are also working towards a digital archive.
Workshops, Summer Camps & Educational Resources
If you are a local, take advantage of more than just the free Tuesday ticket price. The San Diego Model Rail Road Museum also offers a school workshop for middle schools and high schools. The workshop focuses on grade-appropriate learning and review games and the history of the railroad industry.
You can also enroll your kids in summer camps available through the museum. These camps meet at the museum and go through the basics of train building. They delve into the history of the trains in the area and explore the dioramas further.
Don’t forget to check out their educational resources, as these printables are fun for visiting families, too.
Other Things To Do in the Balboa Park Area
Depending on your level of interest, plan to spend an hour or so at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. However, you can plan an entire day at Balboa Park.
Seventeen museums, including the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, make up Balboa Park. Once you’ve looked at your fill of train cars, you can head to another museum, grab lunch at one of our favorite Balboa Park restaurants, browse the gardens, or even pop into the Zoo. Either way, there is plenty to do nearby.
Why We Love the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is definitely one of the Park’s hidden gems. Of course, young train enthusiasts and collectors will get the most enjoyment out of this museum. However, visit even if your kids don’t rave about trains. If you have one of the sightseeing passes that I recommend, there’s no reason not to pop in.
The museum is also special because you can adapt the information to any age. A toddler might simply enjoy watching the trains go by in the dioramas. An older kid can do some research and learn about the history of a specific train or the hobby of building model railroads. Adults may appreciate the clever way of blending STEAM topics, the history of California railroads, and fun together in a unique museum experience.
Again, one of the best parts is the attention to detail. Moving model trains whiz through beautifully painted landscapes on historically accurate train routes — in both indoor and outdoor settings.
Next time you are in Balboa Park, stop by the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. The experience is more than worth the price of admission.