The Most Magnificent Train Rides in America
These train journeys take you through some of the most stunning scenery in the States.
Just as the great American road trip has made a comeback over the past few years (thanks, pandemic and #vanlife!), train journeys are finally getting the love and attention they deserve. Rail travel in the U.S. isn’t bullet speed like Asia, but the point of these trips is exactly the opposite. Sure, you'll end up in great destinations like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but the towns and parks you'll (slowly) cruise through along the way are the true highlights.
Whether you want a shorter jaunt through the mountains, a cross-country trip through deserts, or simply plan to hop on board for a luxurious dinner with a view, here are some of the most scenic train rides throughout the country that are every bit as romantic as something like the Orient Express—but at a much more realistic price point.
Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska
Distance: 358 miles
Getting up close and personal with the Northern Lights should be on everybody's bucket list—and so should be doing it in style. This Alaska Railroad train allows you to roam freely about the cars as you wind through a greatest hits of Alaska's beauty, from metropolitan Anchorage, through vertigo-inducing mountain passes, over expansive bridges, and into the heart of the wilderness, where you're prone to seeing celestial light dancing in the sky and reflecting off the snow. Feel free to stop off for a hike into Denali or just ride it out for 12 hours. The catch is, the route only runs in the winter. The bonus is that “winter” here runs from September through May. And if that window doesn't work, you can skip the lights and hit the summertime Denali Star Train.
Salt Lake City, Utah to Yellowstone National Park
Distance: 360 miles round-trip
The natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park is even more impressive in winter. This five-day trip begins and ends in Salt Lake City, Utah, and takes you through untouched winter wilderness where geysers and steam vents spew vapor into the icy air. With virtually no other tourists around, you’ll get to witness nature in its primordial glory and spot wildlife surviving the elements, like the wolves of Lamar Valley.
Denver to Winter Park Resort, Colorado
Distance: 67 Miles
Colorado is beautiful any time of year, but it’s particularly breathtaking when decked out in all its winter finery. Amtrak’s Winter Park Express brings you from Denver’s 1914 Beaux-Arts station through majestic, snowy Colorado—along the state’s famed Flatirons mountains, through the Rockies, and across the Continental Divide via the 6-mile-long Moffat Tunnel—to the Winter Park Resort, one of the country’s top ski areas. While it’s nicknamed the “ski train,” the vistas alone are worth the trip even if you’re not planning to hit the slopes. The double-decker train cars offer maximum comfort, and an upper-level Sightseeing Lounge provides the perfect vantage point to take in the magnificent panoramas.
Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California
Distance: 2,438 miles
If you want to do the entire route and retrace the trail pioneers took when settling the American West, the 50-plus-hour ride is a great way to appreciate not doing this in a covered wagon. The main event starts in Denver, where the train journeys through the towering Rocky Mountains, into the red rocks of Utah, through Ruby Canyon, the Sierras, Donner Pass, and, finally, San Francisco Bay. It's the best way to take in the grandeur of the West short of renting an RV.
Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia
Distance: 156 miles
Naming the train “Cascades” sets the bar pretty high as far as scenery goes, but this ride through America's Pacific Northwest does not disappoint. The trek from Eugene to Seattle is a long trip through evergreen forests, which expertly hide the dense masses on the I-5 corridor. Once you reach Seattle, though, the real fun starts. The train travels along Puget Sound, and, on a clear day, passengers on the western-facing side get a front-row view of the Olympic Mountains. It's a four-hour moving postcard that'll have you researching real estate on the in-train Wi-Fi.
Anchorage to Grandview, Alaska
Distance: 356 Miles
Another of Alaska Railroads’ stunning routes is the Glacial Discovery, which brings you through a countryside only accessible by train to the ends of the earth, where you can admire the majesty of arctic glaciers. Depart from Anchorage and travel through Girdwood and Portage, where travelers can stop off at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center for some bear spotting. Or go on to Whittler, where a connection for a glacier coastal cruise is possible. Then the train heads onwards to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, where the stunning Spencer Lake and Glacier await at the end of a short trail. But the best is yet to come, as the train makes its way along the Placer River Valley, approaching the Bartlett Glacier and Trail Glacier.
Cass, West Virginia
Distance: 8 miles
John Denver once called West Virginia "almost heaven," and it's hard to argue with the guy who foresaw cannabis legalization in Colorado decades in advance (that's what “Rocky Mountain High” was about, right?). The scenery here is nothing short of spectacular, and this quick jaunt is the best way to soak it up. These original locomotives once used to transport lumber to mining camps now haul passengers up a four-mile, 11%-grade slope with sweeping views of the mountains below. At the top of the ride is Whittaker Station, a restored logging camp. Aim to visit in October, when the fall foliage is at its best for leaf peeping.
Hyannis to Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts
Distance: 27 miles
Take in the beauty of this seaside community with a ride on this railroad through cranberry bogs, salt marshes, oceanfront trails, and adorable little towns. You can opt for either the narrated sightseeing tour or the dinner train, where you’ll be served a gourmet, five-course meal at a white linen-clad table in traditional rail fashion. Both options take you through areas of Cape Cod that can only be seen by train.
Distance: 130 miles round trip
The Grand Canyon is one of those American landmarks that is easily ruined should you find yourself stuck in traffic behind 30 tour buses. To skip the hassle entirely, hop on this train departing from Williams, about 65 miles south. It starts in the dense pine forests of Northern Arizona before settling into an expansive plateau of high desert, speeding past Native American reservations, elk, bald eagles, and condors. You'll go through the San Francisco Peaks and near the highest point in the state before arriving at the majestic south rim. And while you might encounter crowds there, after such a peaceful ride you probably won't mind.
Bryson City, North Carolina
Distance: 32 or 44 miles
It's tough to take in all of the Great Smoky Mountains in just one train ride, which is why this outfitter based out of nearby Bryson City offers two options. The 32-mile, four-hour Tuckasegee River Excursion takes passengers through lush green valleys and over historic bridges into the quaint town of Dillsboro for an hour-and-a-half stop. The 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion journeys along the Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers, over Fontana Lake, and into the gorge. It's more scenery and less history than its counterpart, but both are equally excellent ways to experience some of America's greatest wilderness.
Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington
Distance: 1,377 miles
Driving up the Pacific coast is about as classic as American road trips can get. That said, if you're the lucky one behind the wheel, it's hard (and, ya know, dangerous) to really take in the sights, which come fast and frequently around every extremely tight bend in the road. But the 35-hour trip on the Coast Starlight hits all the highlights: the dramatic cliffs along the PCH, Mount Shasta, the San Francisco Bay, Oregon's Cascade mountains, Mount Rainier, and Puget Sound.
New Orleans, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California
Distance: 1,995 miles
If you're into grand vistas of red rocks and cacti, this desert-heavy itinerary might be the most scenic train route in America. It starts off in Louisiana bayou country then chugs through the expansive Southwestern deserts of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona over the course of 48 hours. During peak season, national park guides are on board to explain the history and geography of the region, and you're welcome to step off at Big Bend or Saguaro National Parks if you want a closer look.
Distance: 9 miles
The oldest rail line on this list is a quick trip through Amish Country, with expansive countryside and rolling hills in the distance. It was once used to transport goods from the industrial heart of Pennsylvania to the coast before being restored in the 1960s as a passenger train. The first-class and president's trains are outfitted to look like Gilded Age luxury, and though the ride to Plymouth is brief, it's a worthwhile, family-friendly excursion.
Chicago, Illinois to Seattle, Washington
Distance: 2,206 miles
To see the Great Plains in all their splendor—and spend the most scenic eight hours of your life crossing Glacier National Park—get yourself on the Empire Builder. This 46-hour ride traverses through Lewis and Clark's expedition route; Whitefish, Montana; a couple of mountain ranges; and a seven-mile tunnel cut through the Cascade mountains. It's a long trip for sure, but if you spend your time in the observation lounge, it might be the best ride of your life.
Distance: 120 miles round trip
As you cruise along the side of frighteningly sheer cliff-drops on this narrow-gauge railway, you can't help but wonder who in their right mind actually built this thing during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. The train departs from Skagway on three different excursions, all of which take you up 3,000 feet in 20 miles, past glaciers, mountain lakes, and thunderous waterfalls. The signature trip travels the original miner supply route to Carcross, Yukon, and stops at a restored station house in Lake Bennett. Or, you can take the train past Bridal Veil Falls and Dead Horse Gulch to White Pass Summit, a 40-mile round-trip journey that traverses massive trusses that are not for those with a fear of heights.