Taking the train can be a wonderful way to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. Railways can also be a way to connect with another era, too. Across the country, there are a variety of rail journeys you can take—some provide a blast from the past and historical context while others offer an opportunity to experience travel in another way long before cars were such a fundamental part of our lives. Sometimes the best part about a train adventure is getting off the beaten path and being able to see a place in another way. Oftentimes, vistas and vantage points are only available from a railcar, providing incentive to hop aboard and experience a region in a leisurely way.
Editor’s note: Save these ideas for when it’s safe to travel again, and always follow all COVID-19 restrictions, rules and safety regulations both at your destination and upon returning home.
Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona
Trip length: 2 hrs, 15 min
Hop on the restored Grand Canyon Railway, which replicates the important journey from the town of Williams to the Grand Canyon. Travelers board at the Williams Depot and experience 65 miles of beautiful desert terrain, traveling from prairie to pine with an abundance of photo opportunities with different views. The voyage ends in the middle of the National Park in the historical Grand Canyon Depot.
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, Skagway, Alaska
Travel length: 2.5 hours
The historic narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railway in Skagway, Alaska is an incredible feat of engineering. The first tracks were built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush and you may wonder how they managed to build along sheer cliffs. Chugging along this route reaches almost 3,000 feet in elevation offering vistas of waterfalls, lakes and snow-covered mountains, gorges, and glaciers and traveling through several tunnels. There are three distinct excursions to choose from, all departing from Skagway.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina
Trip length: 4-4.5 hours
For anyone who wants to experience the Great Smoky Mountains, taking the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is one of the most delightful and easy ways to see this mountain range. There are two different trips you can take. One is a 32-mile Tuckasegee River excursion that is more centered on the history where passengers will see fertile verdant valleys and many important bridges or opt for the 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion offering vistas of the Nantahala and Tennessee Rivers that leads to the gorge and is more focused on nature.
Amtrak’s Adirondack, New York City, NY to Montreal, Canada
Trip Length: 10 hours
With daily departures leaving New York City’s Penn Station in the early morning, hopping aboard Amtrak’s Adirondack route will bring you to Montreal just in time for dinner. You’ll have vistas of the Hudson River with plenty of well-kept mansions along the riverbank, vineyards, forests, as well as quaint towns. Spend time in the observation car for better views, especially when you’re near the Adirondack mountains.
Alaska Denali Star, Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska
Trip length: 12 hours
During the summer, the Alaska Railroad ferries passengers from Anchorage to Fairbanks daily on this 356 mile track. Travel from one city to the other on a scenic and relaxing passage while you take in Alaska’s Southcentral and Interior landscape. This journey is a popular way to reach Denali National Park, too. On a clear day, you’ll want to spend more time in the observation deck to take in the backcountry, the Indian River and vistas from a 296-foot bridge of Hurricane Gulch.
Coastal Starlight, Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington
Trip length: 35 hours
The Coastal Starlight is an opportunity to enjoy the West Coast in all its splendor from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest. Departing from Los Angeles three days a week, the route offers travelers an opportunity to see incredible views of the Pacific coast that are often only available aboard as it passes through Santa Barbara, the Central Coast, and whisks past the San Francisco Bay Area as it continues north through beautiful forests, valleys and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains before arriving in Seattle.
Empire Builder, Chicago, Illinois to Seattle, Washington
Trip length: 46 hours
This scenic train ride departs three times a week from Chicago. Chugging alongside the Mississippi River and jagged mountain ranges, there are plenty of photo opportunities as you glide by Glacier National Park in Montana. Once you reach the Pacific Northwest, this ride passes along sections of Lewis and Clark’s expedition before arriving at its final destination—Portland. If you want to be well-rested when you arrive, consider booking a sleeper car so you can get enough shut eye—after looking out at the starry night sky.
California Zephyr, Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California
Trip length: 51 hours, 20 min
Amtrak’s California Zephyr debuted in 1949 and since then has given passengers the chance to adventure across the heart of America and the Continental Divide. The route begins in Chicago and ends in the San Francisco Bay Area in the city of Emeryville, California. Spend time in the observation car to experience the magic of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas blanketed in snow and gorgeous views of Utah’s well-known red rocks before passing through Nevada and arriving in SF.
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