The Most Magnificent Train Rides in America
These train journeys take you through some of the most stunning scenery in the States.
If you're trying to get from point A to point B as ruthlessly fast as possible, you're not taking a train. But for those who subscribe to the adage that the journey is worth more than the destination, trains are still king. It's hard not to be seduced by the old-timey dreaminess of railway travel, watching landscapes gradually unfold just outside your window as you wind through tiny towns and make small-talk with fellow passengers. Like the good old-fashioned American road trip, slow and steady train journeys may very well make a comeback in a post-coronavirus world, and whether you're on a jaunt through the countryside or a mountainous cross-country odyssey, they’re also the easiest way to see some of the most magnificent scenery in the States. Here are 12 of the best rides in the nation.
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.
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Distance: Eight 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 are original locomotives once used to transport lumber to mining camps, now hauling 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. For optimum results, go in October when the fall foliage is at peek amazingness.
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.
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 3,000ft in 20 miles, past glaciers, mountain lakes, and thunderous waterfalls. The signature trip travels the original miners' 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 that traverses massive trusses that are not for those with a fear of heights.
Distance: 27 miles
If you want to take in the beauty of this seaside community without any old-money pretense -- don't worry, you can still rock your Sperrys, nobody's judging -- take a ride on this railroad, through the cranberry bogs, salt marshes, oceanfront trails, and adorable little towns. You can opt for either the sightseeing tour -- complete with informational narration -- or the dinner train with freshly prepared fine dining on board. Both options take you through areas of Cape Cod that can only be seen by train.
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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 and seemingly all of Manitoba. 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.
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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 outfit based out of nearby Bryson City offers two options. The 32-mile 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 take in some of America's greatest wilderness.
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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. 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.
MORE: Hit the road with the best scenic drive in every state
Distance: 1,995 miles
Desert landscapes aren't for everyone, but if you're into grand vistas of red rocks and cacti, this 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. 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: Nine 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.
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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.
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Distance: 358 miles
Getting up close and personal with the Northern Lights should be on everybody's bucket list. And so should 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 means September-May. And if that window doesn't work, you can skip the lights and hit the summertime Denali Star Train.