The Most Scenic Train Rides in the United States

Traveling by train offers a unique way to experience the diverse and scenic landscapes of the United States. The best train rides in the U.S. promise breathtaking views, whether you’re crossing the Rocky Mountains, winding through the vineyards of Napa Valley, or marveling at the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon. These journeys provide a relaxing and nostalgic alternative to the hustle and bustle of air travel or the stress of driving.

Many of these train trips include routes that are otherwise inaccessible, making them a special way to see pristine and untouched parts of the country. For instance, the Mount Washington Cog Railway provides stunning views as it ascends the tallest peak in the Northeast, while the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado takes passengers deep into the heart of the Rockies.

From coast to coast, there are numerous rail adventures that cater to different tastes and preferences. Whether it’s the historic charm of the East Coast’s Amtrak routes or the rugged beauty of the Pacific coastlines, these train rides offer an unparalleled way to see the country.

The Allure of Train Travel in America

Train travel in the United States offers a unique experience for travelers, combining breathtaking scenery, historical journeys, and a touch of romantic charm.  Train journeys evoke a sense of nostalgia and romance, unlike any other form of travel. Sitting in a cozy train car, watching the world pass by at a leisurely pace, creates a relaxing atmosphere.

Couples often choose train travel for its intimate setting, perfect for quiet conversations. Families find it a pleasant way to bond without the stress of driving. The sound of the train on the tracks, the gentle motion, and the ability to move around freely all contribute to the romantic allure.

Scenic Beauty and Diverse Landscapes

America’s vast and varied landscapes can be truly appreciated from a train. The United States boasts scenic routes that pass through mountains, forests, deserts, and coastlines.

The Coast Starlight, running from Santa Barbara to San Francisco, offers views of the Pacific Ocean and lush valleys. The Napa Valley Wine Train travels through California’s famous wine region, providing picturesque vineyard scenes.

These routes highlight America’s natural wonders, from the Rocky Mountains to the rolling plains.

A Journey Through History and Culture

Train travel in the U.S. often comes with a rich historical and cultural background. The routes themselves, some dating back to the 19th century, tell stories of America’s development.

The Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania, for example, has been operating since 1832 and offers a glimpse into the past. Trains like the Sunset Limited, which spans the country from New Orleans to Los Angeles, pass through cities with deep cultural heritage.

Travelers experience firsthand the historical significance and cultural diversity of the regions they traverse. This adds an educational aspect to the adventure, enriching the journey beyond mere transportation.

Premier Train Rides of the West Coast

Embark on some of the most scenic train rides in the United States. These routes offer breathtaking views of the West Coast, spectacular mountains, and historic landmarks. Each journey promises a unique travel experience.

Coast Starlight: Seattle to Los Angeles

Long-Haul Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

The Coast Starlight route stretches from Seattle to Los Angeles, passing through the stunning landscapes of the West Coast. The train travels through California, offering views of the San Francisco Bay Area, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara.

This route is famous for its ocean views, lush forests, and mountain scenes. Passengers can enjoy the Observation Car, which provides panoramic views. Onboard, there is also a Dining Car and a Parlour Car with comfortable seating and snacks. This makes traveling both enjoyable and scenic.

California Zephyr: Emeryville to Chicago

The California Zephyr runs from Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay Area to Chicago, crossing the Sierra Nevada and the rest of the American Southwest. Though it eventually reaches the Midwest, the part through California is stunning.

Passengers experience dramatic changes in scenery, from coastal areas to rugged mountains. Key highlights include the crossing of the Rocky Mountains and passing through vast desert landscapes. The train is known for its picturesque views and comfortable amenities, making it one of the most popular long-distance train rides.

Grand Canyon Railway: Williams to South Rim

Grand Canyon Railroad

Starting in Williams, the Grand Canyon Railway takes passengers to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This historic and scenic route offers a unique way to reach one of the most iconic natural landmarks in the United States.

The train ride covers 65 miles through the beautiful landscapes of the American Southwest. Passengers can enjoy open-air cars during certain seasons, which provide an even better view of the surroundings. The railway also offers entertainment and narrated tours, adding to the journey’s charm.

Iconic Train Excursions of the Mountain West

Experience the breathtaking beauty and rich history of the Mountain West with these iconic train rides. They offer stunning vistas, rich cultural landmarks, and the chance to witness unique American landscapes.

Empire Builder: Chicago to the Pacific Northwest

Empire Builder starts in Chicago and traverses through some of the most scenic parts of the country. This train journey takes passengers through Wisconsin, across the Mississippi River, and into the rolling hills and plains of Minnesota and North Dakota. It highlights the vast stretches of Big Sky Country in Montana, offering stunning views of Glacier National Park. The train continues across the Rocky Mountains and into the Cascade Range, ultimately arriving in the vibrant cities of Portland and Seattle. Along the way, travelers can enjoy comfortable seating, dining cars, and observation lounges that make the journey both relaxing and captivating.

Rocky Mountaineer’s Rockies to the Red Rocks

Stretching from Denver, Colorado to Moab, Utah, the Rocky Mountaineer’s Rockies to the Red Rocks route captures the heart of the Mountain West. This daytime journey offers panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains, red rock formations, and dramatic canyons.

Starting in Denver, the train climbs through rugged mountain landscapes, passing historic mining towns and Colorado River views. Highlights include the Gross Reservoir Dam and the winding path through Ruby Canyon. The experience is enhanced by glass-domed coaches, gourmet meals, and informative commentary. This route is perfect for those who want to witness the diverse and dramatic natural beauty of this region.

The East Coast’s Enchanting Railways

The East Coast of the USA offers some of the most captivating train journeys, providing scenic routes through historic cities, mountains, and beautiful landscapes. Here are three must-experience railways that showcase the region’s charm.

The Adirondack: New York City to Montreal

Scenic Railroad

The Adirondack railway connects New York City with Montreal, offering a stunning journey through the Northeast. This route is known for its scenic views of the Hudson River Valley, the Adirondack Mountains, and Lake Champlain.

Passengers can experience the season’s changes, from vibrant fall foliage to lush summer greenery. This railway provides an ideal way to see both urban and natural landscapes, making it a favorite among travelers.

Mount Washington Cog Railway: New Hampshire

The Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire is a historic train that travels to the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. Operating since 1869, this railway is famous for its steep climbs and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

Riders can enjoy a unique experience as the locomotive pushes the train up steep gradients. At the top, panoramic views of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean await.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad: North Carolina

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in North Carolina offers scenic journeys through the Nantahala Gorge and the beautiful Smoky Mountains. This railway features several themed excursions, including a popular fall foliage tour.

Passengers can immerse themselves in the region’s rich history and natural beauty. The trip offers picturesque views of forests, rivers, and waterfalls, making it a perfect adventure for nature lovers and history buffs alike.

Unique Train Experiences

Experience the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the United States through unique train rides. These journeys offer more than just scenic views; they immerse travelers in local history, nature, and luxury.

Napa Valley Wine Train: California’s Wine Country

The Napa Valley Wine Train provides a luxurious journey through one of the world’s most famous wine regions. Starting in downtown Napa and travelling to St. Helena, passengers enjoy stunning vineyard views.

The train features restored vintage cars and offers wine tasting experiences paired with gourmet meals. The food reflects local culinary traditions and is often sourced from nearby farms. The journey can last from 3 to 6 hours, giving ample time to savor both the scenery and the flavors.

Cass Scenic Railroad: Back Through Time in West Virginia

Cass Scenic Railroad

Step back in time on the Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia. This rail line uses steam-driven locomotives from the early 20th century. Passengers can travel through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.

The route includes picturesque landscapes and stops at historic locations. One highlight is Bald Knob, the third highest point in the state. Rides vary in length but typically provide a full day of adventure. This trip offers a glimpse into life during the Wild West era.

Alaska Railroad: Anchorage to Fairbanks

Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad offers a breathtaking journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks. This scenic ride showcases Alaska’s diverse landscapes. Passengers see glaciers, wildlife, and mountain ranges.

The route covers about 350 miles and can take up to 12 hours. Popular attractions include Denali National Park and the Northern Lights during winter months. Services on the train include knowledgeable guides who share insights about the region’s natural history and culture.

Experience these unique train rides for a memorable and immersive adventure in various beautiful corners of the United States.

The Amenities on Board

Train rides across the United States offer a unique travel experience, combining the beauty of landscapes with comfortable amenities. In particular, dining and sleeping arrangements stand out.

Dining with a View

One highlight of many scenic train rides is the dining car. Passengers can enjoy hearty meals while gazing at stunning views. From the rugged beauty of the Grand Canyon to the serene pine forests where bald eagles soar, the dining car provides an ever-changing backdrop.

Meals are often served on tables near large windows, making it easy to enjoy the surroundings as you dine. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner usually include a variety of options, catering to different tastes and dietary needs. Whether it’s a casual sandwich or a full-course meal, there’s something for everyone.

Some trains also feature snack bars or lounges for more informal dining options. These spaces offer a relaxed atmosphere where passengers can enjoy light refreshments while taking in the scenery.

Accommodations on the Move

For those seeking comfort, roomettes and larger sleeping cabins are available. A roomette offers a cozy space for one or two passengers, complete with seats that convert into beds. Each roomette typically has large windows providing ample views of passing wildlife and landscapes.

For greater comfort, larger cabins with private bathrooms and shower facilities are available. These accommodations make long journeys more enjoyable, allowing passengers to rest comfortably as they travel.

Leisurely exploring the train is also an option, with observation cars often available. These cars have larger windows and additional seating, offering passengers panoramic views of the journey’s highlights without leaving the train.

Planning Your Train Ride

When planning a train ride in the United States, consider the best times to travel and the cost and ticketing information. These key factors can significantly enhance your journey, making it more enjoyable and stress-free.

Best Times to Travel

The best times to travel by train in the United States are usually spring and fall. During these seasons, the weather is mild and the scenery is stunning with blooming flowers or colorful leaves.

Summer can be a great time for train travel too, especially if you enjoy long daylight hours and warmer weather. However, be prepared for more crowded trains and popular routes being sold out well in advance.

Winter presents a unique opportunity for scenic train rides through snow-covered landscapes. For those who love winter activities, this could be a magical experience. Always check for weather-related disruptions which can affect travel plans.

Key Scenic Routes:

  • Amtrak Cascades (Pacific Northwest)
  • Amtrak Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle)
  • Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (North Carolina)

Cost and Ticketing Information

Train travel costs vary widely based on the route, time of year, and class of service. Amtrak offers various passes, including the USA Rail Pass, which allows for multiple segments within a 30-day period.

Tickets can generally be booked online through the Amtrak website or via travel agencies. It’s advisable to book tickets in advance, especially for popular routes and during peak seasons. Early booking often results in lower fares.

Estimated Cost Examples:

  • Amtrak Southwest Chief: Chicago to Los Angeles – Starting at $136
  • Napa Valley Wine Train: $150-$350 for a scenic ride with meal

Discounts are often available for seniors, military personnel, students, and children. Rail passes can also be cost-effective for long-distance travelers. By carefully considering the best times to travel and understanding the cost and ticketing, passengers can plan a memorable and scenic train ride experience in the United States.