9 Train Routes in the U.S. You Can't Ignore
9 Train Routes in the U.S. You Can't Ignore

Next time you’re planning to take a vacation, why not invest a bit more time and make the journey part of the adventure? Ditch the airport in favor of traveling by rail and you’ll be surprised at just how much more you’ll see. Here are nine train routes in the U.S. you just can’t ignore.

Pacific Surfliner

Del Mar Coastline

If you don’t relish overnighting on the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle, how about boarding the 8½ hour, 350-mile Pacific Surfliner instead? Hop on in San Luis Obispo in the morning and you could be in San Diego by mid-afternoon, but it's far better to stop off a little on the way. The tracks hug the shoreline for a significant part of the train’s route, so think about whether you want to enjoy ocean views or cityscapes before reserving your seat. Highlights along the way include Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano and, of course, the City of Angels.

White Pass and Yukon Route

Alaska White Pass And Yukon Route Railroad Train

In the 21st century, would we attempt something as costly and time-consuming as building a railway through the harsh environment found in Alaska and the Yukon? Fortunately for today’s rail enthusiasts, the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s spurred engineers on through impossibly challenging terrain and the most savage of winters, and now you can embark on a short seasonal trip from the port town of Skagway. As the train retraces the original route to White Pass Summit, passengers enjoy the sight of glaciers, gorges, and waterfalls with names like Dead Horse Gulch and Inspiration Point from their vintage carriages.

Grand Canyon Railway

Grand Canyon, USA

In 1901, the Grand Canyon Railway began carrying passengers through Arizona's wonder of the world. Cowboys and musicians entertain guests in restored locomotive cars as you wind through prairies, deserts, and pine forests. This round trip departs from Williams, Arizona, around 65 miles south of the Grand Canyon, and is shorter at 2 hours and 15 minutes. You can easily make a day trip of it or extend the experience and stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Despite its length, this railway also offers different classes of service depending on your budget and personal preferences. It also offers different “time period” cars that will transport you to a different decade in the canyon.

We recommend the observation dome for those interested in getting the full effect of the landscape. This car features a full glass enclosure perched above the other cars and serves drinks and snacks to boot. The luxury parlor is another great option if the train experience is as interesting to you as the views — enjoy the back deck for some fresh air and cozy lounge seating for optimum relaxation.  

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Scenic Sunrise Landscape at Oconaluftee

Where do you start when there’s so much to see in the Great Smoky Mountains? A couple of different rail trips from Bryson City might just provide the answer. Its most popular departures utilize steam locomotive #1702, including the Tuckasegee River excursion – which opens up the countryside en-route to charming Dillsboro – while the Nantahala Gorge excursion follows the Tennessee and Nantahala river valleys across Fontana Lake and through the gorge. These scenic routes take around four hours apiece, making the perfect day trip whichever you choose.

Maple Leaf

Niagara falls between United States of America and Canada.

It’s a nine-hour ride from New York’s Penn Station to the tumbling cascades of Niagara, but the Maple Leaf's route is one of the most scenic in the country. After winding its way along the pretty Hudson Valley, it’ll pass through the state capital of Albany and the delightfully named Schenectady before the train turns west towards the gorges of the Finger Lakes region. The train hugs the border from Buffalo to drop its passengers at Niagara Falls, New York, leaving the train to cross into Canada and on to Toronto, as its name implies.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

Credit: bon9/Shutterstock

This 35-hour ride travels between Seattle and Los Angeles. Traversing down the coast opens with the dramatic, snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Mountains and, as the land flattens, bountiful forests and sprawling seas present themselves through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Sightseer Lounge Car. This two-day trek is mercifully taken on the country's only sleeper train complete with the luxuries you'd expect on the Orient Express, including free food, champagne room service, private bathrooms, and a daily turn-down service. Enjoy three-course meals and in the confined spaces (where the WiFi is spotty and the cell service is spottier), strike up conversations with other travelers.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Credit: Tita77/Shutterstock

The 1879 Gold Rush birthed the necessity for industrial transportation capable of hauling mounds of precious metal out of California — giving us the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. It didn’t take long for passengers to spread word that gold wasn’t the only precious thing about this railway; spectacular views of Colorado’s luscious peaks and rivers ensured that the train stayed in operation long after the gold veins ran dry. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge route features steep drop-offs that are so impressive, they've served as muses to multiple artists, including C.W. Mcall, who dedicated an entire song to the Silverton.

Pick up a round-trip ticket for a day of adventure. The 3.5-hour trek to Silverton winds across the river five times before dropping you off to explore the town itself. Grab some lunch and roam around before re-boarding and enjoy a relaxing trip back to Durango.

Cape Cod Central Railroad

Credit: Lil' Digital Shop/Shutterstock

The luxurious Cape Cod railway offers stunning coastal views and posh upgrade packages. Salt marshes, sand dunes, and woodlands are just a few of The Cape’s natural wonders that a trip in this cranberry-colored car offers. If you’re especially interested in the area’s ecosystem, purchase a ticket on the ecology car for a truly educational experience. If fine dining is your thing, opt for the platinum class dining car, where a five-course meal is served in a vintage car. Or, if you prefer unadulterated views of the passing landscape, the diamond class excursion car is for you, with its panoramic windows in an elevated car.

Amtrak Empire Builder

Credit: Loco Steve/Flickr

Following the old trail of Lewis and Clark, the Empire Builder is a 46-hour journey through the heart of the Midwest. As you depart Chicago, take in the gorgeous amber waves of grain, tunnels, deserts, and jagged cliffs. Like the Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder is run by Amtrak and offers sleeper cars, making the trip infinitely more comfortable. Seeing Minneapolis glow beneath the night sky is a glittering juxtaposition to the mountains of Glacier National Park, both of which are sure to enchant you. Make the ride your own by heading on to Portland or Seattle for an urban ending to the Big Sky Montana leg of your journey, and be sure to send us some photos.


Julia Hammond
"Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes."

Kylie Myers

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