Ever dream of going back to the Golden Age of travel? You travel cross country on the most innovative engineering in your own private carriage, white-gloved staff at your beck and call. Outside, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and tiny western towns disappear in a cloud of smoke from the engine.
Okay, maybe we can’t quite go back to the glory days, but that means we aren’t under any threat of masked train robbers, either. We can, however, still take leisurely train journeys across America’s legendary landscapes. If you have the time, it can be one of the best ways to see the country, on one of Amtrak’s long-distance routes (and with witty names like California Zephyr and Empire Builder, how can you resist?) or on a scenic heritage train that will transport you back to the time when railroads were the greatest explorers.
A journey by train is unique because it is truly about the journey and not the destination. When you fly, you’re in a hurry to get through airport security and get to your seat, where you’ll spend any length of time in a cramped, dry cabin and by the time you do land, you’re just thankful to dash out the doors of the airport and drink in the fresh air. Driving isn’t much better—your legs get cramped and you’re too busy focusing on the road to enjoy your surroundings. And when you’re tired of both, you pack your trunk and hop on one of these 20 scenic routes through America.
20 Empire Builder - Conquer Seattle Via Chicago
You’ll feel like an explorer on this route operating from Chicago to Seattle or Portland. Covering part of the Lewis and Clark trail, the route takes you through seven states to Seattle, from plains to snowy mountains, and carving right through national parks.
After the train departs, it crosses the Mississippi River and creeps toward the West. The endless plains of North Dakota slowly rise up around the train and become the open, rugged landscape of Montana and Idaho. Finally, the colours blend into green as you reach the Pacific Northwest, where you either finish the route to Seattle or change to travel on to Portland.
19 Strasburg Rail Road- America's Most Historic Railway
Pennsylvania’s Strasburg Rail Road is America’s oldest operating railroad, chugging along since the 1830s. The route is only 4.5 miles today but takes passengers back in time on its old-fashioned steam engines on a trip through Pennsylvania’s Amish country.
The carriages are decorated to resemble traditional Victorian train cars, and passengers have the opportunity to book into the First-Class Parlour, and First-Class Lounge. For the most immersive Victorian novel experience, you can reserve a seat for the dinner show, the Crime Mystery Dinner Train. Passengers take part in the show, so don’t miss any clues!
18 Coast Starlight- Running The Length Of The West Coast
Another of Amtrak’s famously long-distance routes, the Coast Starlight hugs the edge of the continent, at times peering into the Pacific. The train runs the length of the US West Coast from Seattle to Los Angeles, and you’ll see the landscape dramatically change from north to south. Forests become valleys, and ice-capped mountains evolve into craggy desert peaks.
You’ll want to hop off the train to get even closer to the wild landscape or vibrant cities at least once during the trains 35-hour journey but stay on and you’ll have a taste of all the West Coast has to offer.
17 Pikes Peak Cog Railway- Views Worth The Intense Elevation
Pikes Peak Cog Railway is the highest railroad in America, climbing over 14,000 feet to Pikes Peak Summit, with spectacular views of the Colorado Rockies. The railway has been in operation since 1891 and has remained a popular tourist activity in Colorado Springs since.
The mountain itself boasts the tallest summit in the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and though hiking it is popular, if that sounds a bit advanced for you, the railway might just be a better option for reaching the top of the world.
The railway is closed for renovations for the 2018 season and is expected to remain closed until 2020.
16 Cass Scenic Railroad- A Heritage Railroad With Its Own State Park
This railroad and state park duo recreate history by fashioning an authentic lumber town alongside its traditional train. The town features the Company Store, an old-fashioned general store complete with museum and restaurant alongside the station.
The railroad itself takes passengers to Bald Knob, the highest point of Back Allegheny Mountain on track first laid in 1901. The route cuts through an ocean of trees, vibrant green in summer and a rainbow in autumn.
The best part is that you can rent authentic company houses in the state park overnight and forget that automobiles have taken over the popularity of train travel.
15 Southwest Chief - This Trip Out West Will Leave You Feeling Like A Chief
Another of Amtrak’s routes linking Chicago with the west, the setting of the Southwest Chief is reminiscent of old cowboy movies and Kokopelli art.
You’ll pass the iconic red rock, desert, and pueblo of Arizona and New Mexico. See the landscape change past the Mississippi, to rolling plains and the dry western rock formations. The train weaves through a long stretch of the Colorado Plateau in the southwest corner of the States, and from this you’ll understand where the route gets its name.
Enjoy the best views from the Sightseer Lounge car, where you might just spend the entire two-day trip.
14 Arkansas And Missouri Railroad - Chugging Through The Ozarks
Though the Arkansas and Missouri railroad isn’t famous for transporting passengers, it does offer day trips for visitors to take in the scenery of the Ozark Boston Mountains—low, forested mountains that are beautiful year-round.
The passenger trains run day-long trips from Springdale to Van Buren, AR and half day trips from Van Buren to Winslow. The former includes a layover in quaint, historic Van Buren for those visiting only with the train route.
If you take the train as a tour to see the Ozarks, definitely reserve a spot in the dome car, where you can see the mountains swell overhead.
13 Grand Canyon Railway - Travel To The Grand Canyon In Luxury
The Grand Canyon Railway is the ultimate way to travel to the Grand Canyon in style. From the adults-only Luxury Parlour car to the economical Coach car, the train’s attendants will keep you cosy until you arrive at the park. And for extra hype, musicians and cowboys roam the train keeping your spirits up for the 65-mile journey.
Although the train only brings you to the south rim of the park, and not the Grand Canyon itself, you will see some wide-open Arizona desert, and if you’re lucky, some of the area’s local wildlife.
12 Mount Hood Railroad- Revel In Oregon's Natural Majesty
Revel in the symmetrically conical Mount Hood on your round-trip train service from the Hood River Valley. The train takes you to the base of Mount Hood, where you can see anything from soft pink blossoms to fiery-coloured leaves depending on the season. Whenever you choose to go, you’ll pass forests and vineyards until you reach the mighty mountain.
The trip includes a train robbery re-enactment and a special Christmas themed train for the holiday season. There is a stop in Parkdale at the base of Mount Hood where passengers can wander or relax and have a picnic in the shade of the mountain.
11 Cumbres And Toltec Scenic Railroad- Experience The Underrated Southern Rocky Mountains
When you picture the Rocky Mountains, does a picture of dense, rough mountains draped in snow come to mind? Or do you think of sandy coloured rock summits, heavy with foliage and desert fauna? Take a trip along the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and you’ll find that the latter can be just as intense as the stereotypical heart of Colorado Rockies.
This track hugs the border of New Mexico and Colorado and passengers are escorted onto a vintage steam locomotive for the best experience. The rail crosses mountain passes not accessible by car, allowing passengers views of some of the most hidden corners of this part of the Rockies.
10 The Adirondack Train- The Prettiest Way To Get From NYC To Montreal
While New England to Montreal makes for a pretty cool road trip, why not upgrade and roll through the north-eastern corner of the US into Canada’s French-speaking province.
The best time to take the Adirondack train might be autumn, when the forests are a vibrant array of gold, red, and orange. The ride is 10 hours total, a perfect combination for passengers who want to take a long-distance train without committing to sleeping overnight in the cars.
Your destination will either consist of a rare corner of North America reminiscent of Europe, or the electrifying avenues of New York City.
9 Napa Valley Wine Train- California Or Tuscany?
Need a romantic date idea or a girls’ weekend away? The Napa Valley Wine Train takes the dusty old concept of a dinner date and freshens it up—by putting you on a train through the picturesque wine growing region in central California.
Every car on this train is first class, ensuring the most comfortable trip. The kitchen has its very own car where chefs prepare meals fresh for each tour. Passengers can choose from lunch or dinner tours or go all out for a half or full day tour of the area’s wineries.
8 Cape Cod Central Railroad- Sights Only Accessible By Rail
As if Cape Cod wasn’t already one of the most ideal vacation spots, now you can choose to explore it by rail, which takes you past sights only reachable via rail. The rail company runs many routes, including brunch, lunch, and dinner trains and sightseeing excursion trips.
Watch the gentle seaside landscape gently roll by as you chug along at a leisurely pace. The famous Cape Cod Canal is a highlight of the tours, as is the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, which you cross with the Canal Excursion route.
7 Sunset Limited- Featuring All Colors Of A Southern Sunset
You’ll be chasing sunsets from New Orleans to Los Angeles aboard the Sunset Limited. Race across the Louisiana Bayou and through the widest stretch of southern Texas, through the desert and finally, to the Pacific Coast. The train flirts with the border of Mexico as it weaves west in its attempt to find the smoothest, quickest track.
From the deep south to the far southwest, you’ll notice a change in culture with almost every stop, keeping you interested during the full two-day journey. If you want to see the southern United States, the Sunset Limited is the way to do it.
6 California Zephyr- On Every Cross Country Traveler's Bucket List
Combining the best of north and south, Amtrak’s California Zephyr carves straight through the heart of the US from Chicago to San Francisco. Streamlining through the Plains, the Zephyr gives passengers unparalleled views of the Rocky Mountains via Denver, and journeyers see the mountains melt into the deserts of Utah and Nevada. Finally, the Sierra Nevadas grow and your surroundings are lush again as you enter California and arrive at Emeryville.
The Zephyr’s route is often described as one of the best in America, and it’s no surprise due to the diversity of landscape and extraordinary scenery the train passes.
5 Durango And Silverton Railroad- Colorado's Most Picturesque Tour
This historic line has been running since 1882, and though it was first intended to carry silver and gold, passengers have been riding since its initial run. Passengers can ride round trip on the line from Durango to the historic mining town of Silverton, secluded in a valley in the San Juan Mountains.
The route takes you up, around, and down mountains, narrowly creeping along the edge where the view is both dizzying and breath-taking. There’s no shortage of forest, river, mountain, and waterfall photo-ops on this route, so book the glass ceiling cabin if you want the best vistas!
4 New River Train- Highlighting The Best Of West Virginia's History
West Virginia’s New River Train runs during the autumn season when the colours are at their brightest. Glide along the New River in vintage train carriages from Huntington to Hinton, WV.
The day-long trip gets passengers close to the New River Gorge, a natural wonder you’d likely expect to see in the west rather than the east. When the train arrives in Hinton, passengers have time during the layover to check out the Railroad Days Festival, rounding out your day on the tracks. On the return to Huntington, you’ll have a second chance to savour any of the sights and colours you missed on the trip in.
3 Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic- See Alaska's Coast By Way Of Train
The best way to see all the majesty Alaska has to offer is either by sea or rail. With the Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic, you can (almost) do both. The train runs from Anchorage to the seaside town of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. Tracks for this train diverge from major roads where you’ll see spectacular waterfalls, glaciers, and wildlife.
The train journey itself is relatively short, so you’ll have the whole day to explore Seward. Here, you can take a cruise around Resurrection Bay or go on to explore Kenai Fjords National Park.
2 Cascades- More Than Just A Mountain Range
Amtrak’s Cascades route is a short, regional service operating in the Pacific Northwest, running from Eugene, OR to Vancouver, BC. Whether you take the whole route or just a section of it, you’ll be amazed by the dark shades of green in this temperate rainforest.
The rails wind through the Columbia River Gorge and past waterfalls and mountains, taking you to your destination with more fantastic views than those on the highway. Immerse yourself in the area further with the local dishes offered by the onboard dining service and wake up with a cup of Seattle’s world-famous coffee.
1 Great Smoky Mountains Railroad- Perfect For Nature And History Lovers
Experience North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains among the smoke of your train’s engine. Thankfully you won’t literally be inhaling heavy gasoline smoke, because the engines run by this company are steam engines.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers two scenic excursions—the Nantahala Gorge and the Tuckasegee River. The Nantahala Gorge excursion takes you on an immersive Appalachian experience past rivers and lakes and to the serene Gorge, where a layover allows for exploring the area. Experience the Carolina countryside with the Tuckasegee trip, and wander the charming streets of Dillsboro during your layover.