Roaring steam engines might no longer boast the same allure of days gone by, mostly due to the commercialization of air travel, however, a trip through diverse landscapes on land, with endless, stunning vistas at eye-level is still near impossible to trump.
Flying might take the cake in terms of efficiency, but that's about where its list of advantages comes to an end. You'll never have the opportunity to snap a selfie with a polar bear at 37,000 feet, or catch a glimpse of the mystifying Aurora or the wildlife scattered through the Adirondacks, so at the end of the day, it shouldn't even be a competition. Get your tickets stamped and let's dive into this North American rail adventure!
10 The Skeena Train (Canada)
We’re kicking off our beautiful railroad journey across North America in the most idyllic way possible - with a stunning ride through the glorious Canadian Rockies. Locally dubbed the Rupert Rocket, the Skeena Train transports its passengers through the picturesque Jasper National Park, and then over to Canada’s Pacific coast (or the other way around, of course).
The views aboard the Skeena are truly unrivaled, with sparkling lakes to boot, stunning wilderness, and impressive snow-capped mountains just some of its visual highlights. Canada is a nation overflowing with untouched scenery, and there’s no better way to see it than at eye-level.
9 Amtrak Coast Starlight (USA)
All aboard for our second leg on this picturesque North American rail journey - the 35-hour West Coast Amtrak Coast Starlight. With a route that stretches from sunny Los Angeles, California, up to hipster Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest, the Coast Starlight chugs past cities like Tacoma, Olympia, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, and has been doing so for almost 50 years.
With stunning views that look over the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, and the shimmering, mostly-flat Puget Sound, plus staggering cliffs and mountain ranges jutting into the sky, passengers will be hopeful that they’re cameras are fully charged.
8 The Polar Bear Express (Canada)
From the West Coast of the USA, we’re heading over the border into the poutine-loving, moose-riding land of the Canucks. Over in the northern parts of Ontario, the Polar Bear Express links the tiny coastal towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory which sit on the fringe of Hudson Bay, with the still-pretty-small Cochrane, further south and inland.
What this unique train journey provides that few others do, is a look into First Nations culture, and into a region that is so far off the beaten path that even the majority of Canadians wouldn’t have set foot within 500 kilometers of it. Will you actually see polar bears onboard the Polar Bear Express? Well, there’s only one way to find out.
7 Grand Canyon Railway (USA)
We’re all too familiar with the allure and beauty of the Grand Canyon National Park, so it should come as no surprise that a locomotive journey through its hard is as idyllic as they come.
Blending history with stunning vistas, the Grand Canyon Railway has been welcoming passengers on its 8-hour, 130-mile round trip journey, since way back in 1901. Make sure that the camera batteries are charged, because the conductor will take you past pine forests, the prairie, and of course, the infamous south rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Don’t fret, of course you’ll have a few hours to step outside, stretch the legs, and snap a few (hundred) selfies in the canyon itself.
6 Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (USA)
Following the canyon, we’re off to another ‘Great’ train journey - the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad out east in North Carolina. Passengers have a couple of options to choose from, and won’t be disappointed either way. The first is a 32-mile excursion along the Tuckasegee River, which passes through plenty of green valleys, while the second is a 44-mile trip that chugs along the Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers and past the impressive Nantahala Gorge.
Unlike most of the train cars on this list, Great Smoky Mountain Railroad offers an open-air gondola, so passengers can feel the pleasant breeze as they journey through the lush scenery.
5 VIA Rail: Churchill to Winnipeg (Canada)
We’re headed back up to the Great White North, ultimately in search of one of nature’s most fascinating vistas - the Aurora Borealis (AKA the Northern Lights). Along the two-day journey from Winnipeg up to the cold-as-heck regions of Northern Manitoba, passengers have better than a fair chance of catching a glimpse of the natural phenomenon, as well as unique subarctic wildlife, First Nations culture, and landscapes of unmatched beauty.
The best time of the year to catch the polar bears is between October and November, but the summer months offer chances to see pods of beluga whales, as well as the Midnight Sun.
4 Cass Scenic Railroad (USA)
Nestled in Pocahontas County over in West Virginia, the 11-mile-long Cass Scenic Railroad combines heritage and history with an abundance of impressive, natural vistas. The railway actually has its own state park, which, depending on the season, can dish up stunningly vibrant green hues, or oranges and reds throughout fall.
The train line was initially built back in 1901 as a way to transport timber, but nowadays it’s a tourist attraction in and of itself. Aside from the train ride, visitors can also rent quaint country houses for the night, getting right in tune with the inviting nature which surrounds them.
3 Amtrak Empire Builder (USA)
We’re in it for the long haul on the Empire Builder, with 2,206 miles and 46 hours separating passengers from the journey’s start till its finish. Travelers, be them local or foreign, can climb aboard the Amtrak service in Seattle or Portland, and traverse through Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, before calling it a day in Chicago, Illinois (and the same route reversed, of course).
The Empire Builder departs daily, offering up a number of splendid visuals along the way, including the Mississippi River, Columbia River Gorge, Glacier National Park, and Montana’s Big Sky country. Don’t forget the camera!
2 The Adirondack Train (border-crosser)
After traveling the majority of the way across the US, we’re now on a journey in search of international flavor. The Adirondack is, without a shadow of a doubt, the prettiest way to get from New York City up to the bilingual, culturally-vibrant, city of Montreal, and vice versa.
Over a ride that lasts about 10 hours, passengers can take in stunning forest landscapes at any time of year, but it’s in the fall where the colors really start to pop.
NYC and Montreal also claim to produce some of the world’s best bagels, so why not hop aboard the Adirondack and sample both, one day after the other?
1 Amtrak California Zephyr (USA)
We’re finishing off our railway journey across North America aboard what is perhaps one of the USA’s most revered and famous trains - the California Zephyr. As the name suggests, the train chugs away from the sunny state, from San Francisco Bay in Oakland, California, all the way to Chicago in the Midwest. In total, passengers can expect the journey to take around 51 hours, so make sure that you’ve downloaded some movies and brought a book or two!
Among the countless highlights en route, the Rocky Mountain vistas, the views of Utah’s red rocks, and the scenes of the Sierra Nevadas top the list.