By Alexia Wulff
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads in America served as the main method of transport. And as cities grew and settlers moved westward, railroads played a key role in the growth and expansion of the U.S. Many rail companies are reviving the industry with themed journeys and renovated luxurious cabins. So if you’re yearning to ride a track once traveled by our nation’s pioneers – from mountain-traversing tracks to spiraling tunnels – these 10 rail experiences are sure to be the most memorable in America.
Grand Canyon Railway: Williams to the Grand Canyon, Arizona
This route has been transporting riders to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on and off since its completion in 1901. The restored cars are modeled after the Old West – cowboy musicians, reenactments, and mock shootouts – and offer seats for all types of travelers: coach, first-class, observation dome, or luxury parlor. It takes just eight hours round-trip, including a four-hour stopover at the canyon; riders can also opt for an overnight stay. As for what’s outside the window? Expect to see changing landscapes along the journey, from prairies to desert lands.
Coastal Classic: Anchorage to Seward, Alaska
Alaska is renowned for its wild landscapes and spectacular scenery. Aboard the Coastal Classic, passengers will gain a unique view of the Kenai Mountains as the train travels through portions inaccessible to vehicles. Expect to see roaming moose and bears, colossal glaciers, and towering snow-capped peaks before reaching the final destination in the quaint seaside town of Seward. A great option for a day trip – it only takes 4.5 hours one way – travelers will have plenty to do once reaching their stop, such as adventure tours to Kenai Fjords National Park.
Southwest Chief: Los Angeles to Chicago
For discovering all that is the Great American West, Southwest Chief is the ticket. This lengthy trip (at 40 hours one way) travels across eight states, through wheat fields and vast painted deserts, past red rock canyons and historic adobe buildings, and along rolling hills of juniper and pine. And with a route that steers from the highway, the scenery is unmatched. Want to see the Grand Canyon on the way? Not a problem – travelers have the option to connect to the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams.
California Zephyr: Chicago to Emeryville, California
California Zephyr is said to be one of the most beautiful train rides in all of North America. And with a route that covers such a vast display of remarkable terrain – the Rocky and Sierra Mountain Ranges, the Continental Divide, and the Moffat Tunnel – it’s hard to disagree. The trip takes just over 51 hours to complete, running from Chicago to Emeryville, California daily, with Thruway Bus Service to San Francisco and Oakland. And if you’re in the mood to splurge, there are luxurious rooms available in the Superliner Sleeping Cars.
Cass Scenic Railroad: Cass to Bald Knob, Virginia
Step back in time aboard the Cass Scenic Railroad. Built in 1909 to haul lumber to Cass – an old mill town that remains relatively unchanged – this short rail line takes travelers through the mountains of West Virginia, stopping at Whittaker Station before heading to Bald Knob, the third highest point in the state at 4,700 feet (1432.5 meters). Many of the open-air carriages are refurbished logging flat-cars, driven by a smoke-billowing vintage locomotive as it switchbacks through the wilderness. Visitors in Cass can visit the company store and museum, or stay the night at a restored company house.
Napa Valley Wine Train, California
Aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, a restored vintage rail car fit with antique décor and furnishings, travelers can take in the awe-inspiring scenery of rolling vineyards along this three-hour tour through the heart of Napa Valley. Choose from a themed dining journey – Murder Mystery or Romance on the Rails – or opt for one of the wine tours, which includes an exclusive tour of a local winery, tastings, and a meal prepared by the acclaimed chefs on board. The train also hosts special events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas tours, full moon trips, and sunset journeys.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad: Durango to Silverton, Colorado
This heritage rail has been making trips from Durango to Silverton since 1882. The line was originally built to carry silver and gold from the San Juan Mountains; today, passengers can ride along the restored vintage steam locomotive as it climbs 3,000 feet (914.4 meters) in elevation to 9,307-foot-high (2836.7-meter-high) Silverton, deep within the Colorado mountains. Travelers can expect to see rows of untouched pines, towering mountain peaks, and the curved Animas River rushing below – a view unreachable from the highway. Because the train moves at a leisurely pace, it takes about three and a half hours to reach its final destination.
Coast Starlight: Seattle to Los Angeles
A drive from Seattle to Los Angeles is undoubtedly a memorable experience. On the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s most popular long-distance route, passengers not only pass through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and Portland but also through the snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range, along the shores of the Pacific, and through verdant forests – a set of views you won’t get from the highway. The trip takes about 36 hours to complete, with sleeping and dining accommodations up for grabs. And if travelers want to continue south, connect to the Pacific Surfliner at Union Station in Los Angeles.
Empire Builder: Chicago to Portland/Seattle
Following portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Empire Builder passes through some of America’s greatest scenery – the Mississippi River, North Dakota plains, Montana‘s Big Sky Country, and Glacier National Park – before stopping in Spokane, a connector for those switching to Seattle. En route to Portland, the rail travels through the Columbia River Gorge with stunning views of Beacon Rock and Mount Hood. This one is 46 hours long, but not to worry – there are plenty of chances to get out and stretch your legs.
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad: Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado
The Cumbres & Toltec line was built in 1880 as part of an extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, the tracks transporting precious silver from Colorado’s silver mining district. The longest and highest steam railroad in America, this track runs from New Mexico through the San Juan Mountains to Antonito, Colorado, with steep drop-offs as high as 10,000 feet (3048 meters). The trip takes just over six hours one way, including a stopover in Osier, Colorado. For those visiting in the fall, opt for a seat in the open-air gondolas. But keep in mind that the train only operates from Memorial Day through October.