The 20 Best Scenic Train Rides in The United States
You may think taking a train somewhere means far more time to get there than you’d like to spend. However, a train ride through the scenic country can often help calm you before you reach your destination. You’ll find serenity when you are moving through idyllic scenery. Throughout the United States, you’ll find fantastic places you might otherwise miss if you took a non-stop flight from point a to point b. Yet, if you have an extra couple of days, heading out on a train is much more fun. Seeing the country by rail provides a unique glimpse into North America. Some of these trips go through National landmarks; others give you a fantastic view of cities and lakes. Nonetheless, they all are beautiful views you get to enjoy for several hours or several days. If you get a chance, these are the 20 best scenic train rides in the United States.
20. Amtrack City of New Orleans
This train travels from Chicago to New Orleans with a stop in Memphis, an excellent option for music lovers. The route starts at Chicago’s Union Station and winds through the Mississippi Delta. On your way, you’ll see not only bayous but also many historic towns. It’s approximately a nineteen-hour journey, but many accommodations include sightseer longers, showers, and Superline accommodations.
19. Alaska Denali Star
If you want to travel the highest peak in North America by rail, take a trip on this railroad. Throughout your journey, you’ll also have a breathtaking view of Denali National park. The train has glass dome ceilings, giving you a complete view. There are a few different route options. You can board the train in Wasilla and get off in Talkeetna. However, you’ll miss Denali National Park. You can also go all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska. Many people choose to make the trip in several days since it can be a long journey. Besides, there are so many things to see on your way.
18. Cape Cod Central Railroad
Many times people think about Hyannis, Massachusetts, only to think about the Kennedy legacy. However, there is a natural beauty as well. The route is short, twenty-seven miles. Yet, it goes through some of New England’s most scenic coastline. While on the train, some of the sights you’ll see include cranberry bogs, salt marshes, oceanfront trails, and many historical towns. If you choose to take this trip, there are two options. Cape Cod Central Railroad offers a narrated ride or a nighttime dinner rain. To enjoy this train ride, board in Hyannis, Massachusetts, at the Buzzards Bay Depot.
17. Empire Builder
Two of the United States’ most famous explorers were Lewis and Clark. The Empire Builder traces their route. It’s a forty-six-hour journey starting in Chicago, Illinois, and ending in Seattle, Washington. During the trip, you’ll go to several mountain ranges and a tunnel through the Cascade Mountains, a journey for people who enjoy being on a train since it’s over 2,000 miles long.
16. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
If you choose this train, you’ll not only be traveling by rail but going back in time if you board this train in Durango, Colorado. Since the train passes through an old mining town Silverton, Colorado, the company kept it authentic, coal-fired, and steam-powered. The tracks date back to the silver mining days and have remained operational since 1882. Much like today, people who wanted to trace the miner’s route could board the train in Durango. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour trip through the Animas river and snakes around mountain ranges. You may feel a bit uneasy since the mountains are only inches away from the windows. Nonetheless, the steam whistle will take you back to a simpler time.
15. Strasburg Railroad
Pennsylvania is known for several things; steel mills, Philadelphia, and a large Amish population. The trip from Strasburg is nine miles, but it’s a pretty trek where you’ll see an area used to transport supplies in bygone days. One of the most storied ages of train travel was the Gilded Age, and the trains re restored to that era. If you have little ones, Strasburg Railroad is a great option because the ride is brief and gives you a taste of beautiful scenery without feeling like a never ending journey.
14. Verde Canyon Railroad
According to Planet Ware, the route to Verde Canyon from Sedona, Arizona, takes three and a half hours. You can choose to sit in coach, first-class, or even a caboose if you have a larger group. If you want to get fresh air along the way, there is an open-air viewing car. Additionally, you have the option to take a guided tour or take in the scenery. If you take this trip, another fun thing to do explores the Native American Sinagua cliff dwellings and the old mining sites. You may even see bald eagles and antelope.
13. Lake Shore Limited
Instead of going through mountains and winding around oceans, you might prefer lakes and cities. For this ride, you’ll start in Chicago, Illinois, and going through Albany, New York, before choosing to continue to Boston, Massachusetts, or New York City. During the train ride, you’ll see Lake Michigan, the Mohawk River, the Eerie Canal, and Fingerlakes, as well as several large cities and college towns. The Boston trip is slightly longer than the trip to New York, each taking around twenty hours.
12. Cass Scenic Railroad
If you want something more historical, this may be a great option. It’s also a short ride you can do as a day trip if you’re visiting West Virginia. You’ll board old locomotives used for transporting lumber to mining camps. The ride ends at Whittaker Station, a restored logging camp. The best time to take this trip is during the fall to see the changing leaves. This train ride offers an impressive view of Bald Knob, the third-highest point in West Virginia.
11. Aurora Winter Train
If you want to see the Northern Lights and haven’t yet, you might consider taking this train ride. The route is from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Not only can you see the Northern Lights but also a beautiful Anchorage skyline. During the train ride, you’ll go through breathtaking mountains that may give you pause since they’re so steep as you go over bridges. The train only runs in winter, but in Alaska, that’s September through May.
10. Amtrak Adirondack
The best time to travel this route is during the fall. After all, you’ll see the changing leaves in Upstate New York and along the Hudson River Valley. It’s a ten to twelve-hour journey through the Hudson River and Lake Champlain. You’ll get a little of everything on this trip, a view of Gilded Age mansions and dense forests, starting at Penn Station and ending at Gare Centrale Station in Montreal, Canada. If you choose, you can stop at Poughkeepsie, Saratoga Springs, White Hall, or Ticonderoga.
9. Maple Leaf along the Hudson River
This train runs from Toronto, Canada, to New York City. If you decide to take this route, you’ll need to bring your passport along. One of the station stops is Niagra Falls, even though you can’t see it from the train. Additional stops between Toronto and New York City include Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. While taking this ride, you’ll see not only beautiful views of the Hudson River Valley but also sparkling urban skylines.
8. Pacific Surfline
Consider this train if you want to see all the Pacific Coastline’s splendor. It follows the Pacific Coast Highway from San Luis Obispo, California, to San Diego, California but gives you a different view. The train even offers places to store your surfboard or bike if you want to get off at a stop along the way and play in the waves. The entire journey is 350 miles and takes eight and a half hours each way.
7. California Zephyr
If you want to make a more extended trip and enjoy history, you might consider a train ride that winds the total path pioneers took when they journeyed to the Wild West. The entire route is from Chicago, Illinois, to Emery, California. Yet, the best scenery is from Denver, Colorado. Once you leave, you’ll go through the Rocky Mountains, the red rocks of Utah. Additionally, you’ll see Ruby Canyon, the Sierras, and the infamous Donner Pass. Finally, you’ll finish in San Francisco, once a popular location for gold miners.
6. Sunset Limited
According to Thrillist, if you choose this route from New Orleans, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California, you will be treated to some fantastic views of red rocks and cacti. Some consider it the most scenic train ride in the country. During this 1,995 mile journey, you’ll go through West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. If you choose to go during peak season, tour guides travel with you to talk about the scenery as you pass.
5. Great Smokey Mountains Railroad
Starting in Bryson City, North Carolina, you can choose two different travel options, a thirty-two-mile ride around the Tuskegee River or a forty-four-mile ride through the Nantahala Gorge along the Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers. If you go the Tuskegee route, you’ll see several old bridges and the historic town of Dillsboro, where you’ll make a stop long enough to explore. The Nantahala route is all about the scenery going over Fontana Lake and through the gorge.
4. The Cascades
This train ride is about 200 miles and goes between Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest is known for being lush and green, undoubtedly because of substantial rainfall. On this ride, you’ll go through thick evergreen forests which block the I-5 freeway. It’s beautiful to Seattle, but once you leave the city, you’ll begin to see some of the most impressive sites, including the Olympic Mountains.
3. Coast Starlight
This is another long train ride lasting thirty-five hours and going 1,377 miles. According to Scenic States, You go through most of the prettiest cities on the West Coast, where you’ll see Cascade Mountain view as well as Mount Shasta and Klamath Falls. The route runs from Seattle, Washington, and ends in Los Angeles, California. Along the way, you can stop in Portland, Oregon, Sacramento, California, and Santa Barbara, California. Since it’s a long journey, there are sleeping cars available.
2. White Pass & Yukon Route
It’s a 120 miles round trip and best for thrill-seekers. You’ll start your journey in Skagway, Alaska, and travel a route through many places with vertical cliffs, built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush. There are three different trips from Skagway. The most popular one takes you along the original miner’s route ending in Carcross Yukon. Along the way, you’ll stop at places like a restored station house located in Lake Bennet.
1. Grand Canyon Railway
Aside from hiking and other activities you can choose in the Grand Canyon, you may want to consider a train ride. You’ll depart from Williams, Arizona, about sixty-five miles south of Grand Canyon. As you move towards it, you’ll go through pine forests in Arizona before heading into the high desert and Native American reservations full of elk, bald eagles, and condors. Additionally, you’ll see the San Francisco peaks, the highest point before the south rim of the Canyon.
Anna Funder Stsiland once said, “I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: For this moment, I know where I am going.” Much like her quote, traveling by train means you have time for respite. Even though you may shy away from train travel because it seems long and unnecessary since airplanes will get you where you’re going in a fraction of the time yet, taking one of these scenic train rides may make your arrival all the nicer. So, next time you take a trip, perhaps you consider a train ride.