The phrase is “planes, trains and automobiles.” But sometimes it feels like we forget all about the train altogether, favoring a car’s convenience or the speed of a flight. But trains are a great way to travel: You’ll never hit traffic and it’s much less hassle than you find at the airport. And best of all, certain American train routes bring you much closer to this country’s natural beauty, history and wonder than a car or plane ever could.
Take a look at some of the most scenic train rides in the U.S. below. Book a ticket, then sit back and watch it all roll by.
1. Cape Cod Central Railroad
Route: Ride east from Bourne to Hyannis, Massachusetts
Duration: 2 hours
This coastal excursions run on approximately 27 miles of track from May through October. Traveling from the Cape to the Cape Cod Canal, you can expect to see sand dunes, woodlands, cranberry bogs and salt marshes along the way.
2. Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express
Route: North from New York City to Rutland, Vermont
Duration: 5 hours, 30 minutes
This daily route is named for Ethan Allen, the revolutionary war patriot who settled in Vermont. Upstate New York and Vermont both host vast wildernesses, skiing territories, lakes and mountain landscapes. See all of it go by from the first few stops in the Hudson Valley, up through the Catskills, Albany and Saratoga Springs. Stop along the way or ride all the way to the end ― Rutland, Vermont is the state’s second largest city and home to charming B&B’s and inns and several summer festivals.
3. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight
Route: Ride north from Los Angeles through Portland to Seattle
Duration: 35 hours
The Coast Starlight is easily one of the most beautiful train rides in North America. Ride along stretches of the Pacific ocean, up through San Francisco and past lush forests and snow-covered Mount Shasta. This train runs every day.
4. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner
Route: San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego
Duration: 5 hours, 45 minutes
Cruise along the Southern California coast as you travel south from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. Amtrak says that to be any closer to the water, you’d need to be on a surfboard. Jump off the train when it stops in Anaheim for a fun day at Disneyland. The train is easy to catch, with multiple departures a day.
5. Napa Valley Wine Train
Route: Napa Valley to St. Helena and back
Duration: 3 hours
Ride 36 miles roundtrip through pure California wine country beauty in antique Pullman cars. The route itself is more than 150 years old, and you’ll see some of the most expensive and well-known agricultural real estate in the U.S. The trip will also help you get a better understanding of why the geography and climate of Napa make it so conducive to cultivating vineyards. The journey is guided, and riders can choose between wine tours, dining tours or special day packages such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day tours. The train runs throughout the year.
6. Grand Canyon Railway
Route: Williams, Arizona north to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park
Duration: 2 hours, 15 minutes each way
There’s just nothing quite like the Grand Canyon, and seeing it by train means you’ll likely see even more of it. Watch plant life change as you leave Flagstaff behind and keep your eyes peeled for elk, mountain lions, mule deer and ravens flying overhead. The train runs daily. Train crew members provide stories, history, music and entertainment along the way.
7. Royal Gorge Railroad
Route: Roundtrip from Canon City, Colorado, through the Royal Gorge
Duration: 2-2.5 hours
Take in the breathtaking scenery of Colorado’s Royal Gorge on a short guided tour. The area is steeped in American history, including when steel miners descended on the land in the 1870s. Tours include food, drink and storytelling, providing context to the scenery that’ll take the experience to the next level.
8. Alaska’s Coastal Classic Train
Route: Anchorage to Seward, Alaska
Duration: 4 hours
To see the Alaskan wilderness up close while you travel, go by train instead of car. You’ll spot bald eagles, beluga whales, glacial backdrops and alpine meadows as the train passes through the Kenai Mountains, which are rich with wildlife. Trains run every day.
9. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Route: Bryson City to Nantahala Gorge, North Carolina
Duration: 3.5 hours to a full day, depending on the excursion
There is significant beauty to be seen and fun to be had on this route, which makes long stops along the Nantahala River and in Dillsboro, a small historic town. Jump aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to see the Carolina mountains and more than 125 varieties of trees and plant life. Country inns, lodges, historic sites and quaint shops line this route along the Great Smoky Mountains National Park region. Trains run throughout year, but schedules vary by season.
10. Amtrak’s California Zephyr
Route: Cross-country from Chicago through Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno to San Francisco
Duration: 51 hours, 20 minutes
People who dream of driving cross country but don’t actually want to drive should consider the California Zephyr. Scenic highlights include the Rocky Mountains, Nebraska plains, Sierra Nevadas, Moffat Tunnel, Colorado’s Gore, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, Truckee River and the San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait. The train runs every day.
11. Amtrak’s Empire Builder
Route: Chicago through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho to either Portland or Seattle
Duration: 46 hours
History buffs and fans of the Wild West will get a kick out of this speedy train which travels daily along the Pacific Northwest and much of the Lewis And Clark trail. Expect views of true American splendor: Vast North Dakota plains, Big Sky country in Montana and incredible views of the Mississippi River.
There’s so much to see, isn’t there?
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