Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s greatest attractions. Located right next to downtown San Diego and the airport, Balboa Park is best known for the San Diego Zoo. However, it is also home to many great museums. One of the smaller museums is the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. While it may be small in relative size it is the largest museum of its kind in the world. This is our guide to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
We have been going to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum for many years and have noted that it is always expanding and changing. Currently it is at 28,000 square feet and it is more impressive than ever. I will note that depending on your level of interest, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum can be done in an hour or two. This is perfect to visit in conjunction with the many other attractions in the area.
The museum is located downstairs from the San Diego History Center and Museum of Photographic Arts in the Casa de Balboa building. Note the museum is closed on Mondays.
Entry to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is $11.50 for adults 18 and over. Students and Youth 6 to 14 are $6. Seniors are $9. On the 1st Tuesday of every month, San Diego County residents get in free. You can often find a discount coupon on Passport San Diego.
If you are in San Diego for 3 or more days you may want to consider a Go San Diego Card which includes the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. The Go San Diego Card allows visitors access to up to 40 attractions for either 1,2,3,5 or 7 days. This is not a cheap option and we generally recommend it for 3 days or more where it is $209 adults/$189 children age 3 to 12.
A 7-day pass is a very good value at $299/$269. The 3-day or more passes include admission to the very big attractions like SeaWorld and Legoland. If you do get a Go San Diego Card it is very possible to do the San Diego Zoo and several Balboa Park museums in a single day.
The Go San Diego Card option we recommend to visitors just in town for a day or two is the build your own pass. With the build your own pass you add 2 or more attractions to the pass and save 20% off the gate price for each attraction.
If you are a resident, or frequent visitor to San Diego, you might consider a membership option. Annual membership to the Model Railroad Museum is $35 for an individual and one child, $50 for a family of 2 adults and up to 4 children.
As our children have started to enter their tween and teenage years we have upgraded to the Balboa Explorer Park Pass. At $229 a year for 2 adults and 4 children this gets you into 16 Balboa Park museums.
Visitors to San Diego can look into getting a 7-day Balboa Park Explorer Park Pass for $57 adults, $30 children age 3 to 12. This pass allows for unlimited admission to all museums for 7-days. This is a much better deal than a one-day pass which is $46 adults/$27 children and only allows access to 5 museums (you get to pick the museums).
You can definitely learn a great deal about model trains and trains in general here. Children of course, mainly love to watch the trains in action. However, this is serious stuff and they make an effort to replicate famous railroads of Southern California.
They are generally at least 5 major exhibits on display, usually with one or more in the process of construction. You almost always see them at work on the exhibits. This is a museum that seems to change every time we come.
The big exhibits include:
The Cabrillo Southwestern O Scale Layout
O Scale means 1/48 actual size. The Cabrillo layout is 2,700 square feet and 120 feet long. The actual route is from San Diego to Sacramento. The model is a composite of highlights along the route. This is unlike other layouts that try and model a full actual area. The focus is on California as it looked circa 1955.
San Diego & Arizona Eastern HO Scale Layout
HO Scale means 1/87 actual size. The trains and track are much smaller than with O Scale so more area can be modeled. This layout is 4,500 square feet and 142 feet long. Starting in downtown San Diego at the Santa Fe Union Station, this route runs to El Centro in the desert of Imperial Valley. Once again this is a composite with highlights from downtown San Diego, the desert and El Centro. It also represents California in the 1950s.
Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi Pass HO Scale Layout
This two-level project has been in development for years. The goal has been to create a scale model of the Tehachapi Loop in Kern County. This loop helps connect Bakersfield to the Mojave Desert. Everything in this layout operates to scale, including the actual time of operation and the speed of the trains.
Pacific Desert Line N Scale layout
N scale means 1/160 actual size. This models a train line that was planned but never built. The 1500 square foot exhibit features several San Diego attractions from downtown San Diego, up to the Carlsbad Flower Fields.
Toy Train Gallery
This exhibit features O scale Lionel Toy Trains. My son calls this the loud and crazy area. While the rest of the museum is fairly sedate and realistic, this is all about letting the imagination run wild.
Centennial Railway Garden
This solar-powered exhibit was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Balboa Park in 2015. It is an outdoor representation of early Balboa Park. Obviously, this is great because you can see many of these buildings right outside the museum.
Like all the museums in Balboa Park, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum has great educational programs. This include school programs, summer camps and workshops. There is a small gift shop and a research library. To get the most out of this museum I always like to read a little railroad history before I go so I can better appreciate the exhibits.