The Most Scenic Train Rides Across America
From a three-hour wine train across Napa to a week-long coast-to-coast adventure to remember, here's how to answer the siren call of the railways of America.
There’s something magical about riding trains and experiencing the mountains, prairies, deserts, even the big cities, from the comfort of a railcar. It’s no wonder Americans have a love affair with train travel.
Whether you have a few hours or more than a week, you can explore much of the United States by train. Here are a few of our top picks to help you respond to the siren call of the rails.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Vino lovers, explore Napa’s wine region in a new way by getting your ticket punched aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train. As the historic Pullman train car pulls away from the station, sit back with a glass of sparkling wine and take in the delightful vineyard views. A three- to four-course lunch or dinner is then served inside luxury railcars. This 36-mile round-trip train ride takes guests across wine country, from Napa to St. Helena, past wineries such as Grgich Hills and Cakebread. If you want something a little fancier, book one of the most luxurious train rides around the world.
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
If a craft brew is more your beverage of choice, try the “Ales on Rails” train rides through Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio with the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Learn about and sample five different beers from local breweries, like Thirsty Dog and Hoppin’ Frog. Even better, dive into tasty hors d’oeuvres as you ride the rails across the scenic countryside.
Royal Gorge Route Railroad
Experience the scenic wonders of the Colorado Rockies as you make your way along the Royal Gorge Route Railroad near Colorado Springs. Book a seat in the Vista Dome car for unparalleled mountain views and stay for lunch to enjoy on-board meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients, like grass-fed buffalo burgers and basil chicken panini. No box lunch train car fare here. Look for a tailor-made microbrew created by a local brewer, the Royal Gorge Route Rouge.
Echo Canyon River Expeditions
Make it a day by pairing a train ride on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad with a rafting adventure along the Arkansas River with Echo Canyon River Expeditions. Their popular Raft and Rail package starts with a two-hour morning train ride, then finishes up in the afternoon with a mild family float or more adventurous white water rafting through Bighorn Sheep Canyon.
Grand Canyon Railway
Another train to check out is the Grand Canyon Railway. Departing daily from the historic train depot in Williams, Arizona, this two-hour train ride to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers guests a unique way to explore the canyon, take loads of pictures and eat lunch before the return to Williams. Several getaway packages combine a day-long train adventure with meals at the Grand Depot Café in Williams and a night or two at the historic Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Try out these bucket list ideas for each state.
Discover America with Amtrak Vacations, which offers multiple one and two week rail adventures. They’re perfect for travelers eager to satisfy their desire to travel by train and also explore our national parks. One popular six-day package takes guests from Chicago to Glacier National Park in Montana, and includes a boat cruise in Two Medicine Valley and an incredibly scenic ride along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Train lovers may want to make a side trip from Glacier National Park to the Izaak Walton Inn in nearby Essex, Montana, if only to see the authentic caboose cabins that once traveled the Great Northern Railway. There’s even a locomotive that has been turned into a luxury suite.
Another option is a week-long train travel adventure on the Alaska Railroad, which offers a number of ways to explore Alaska by rail in both summer and winter. Book the Deluxe Alaska Sampler for a summertime journey across Alaska with stops for an iceberg float, a dog sled ride, a cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park and a narrated exploration of Denali National Park. If you’re traveling cross-country, be sure to visit the best free tourist attraction in each state.
Vacations by Rail
If you’d rather not map out a cross-country rail trip on your own or with help, look to Vacations by Rail. Their Classic Coast to Coast by Rail itinerary takes travelers from New York City to San Francisco in six days, and includes sightseeing tours, hotel stays and even meals at several stops along the way. Get your camera ready as you pass the Rockies and Sierra Nevada Mountains.
If you go cross-country…
While a non-stop cross-country train trip can take as few as three days, you’ll want to make stops along the journey to take in the cities and countryside. Book separate tickets for each leg of the journey and consult with The Man in Seat Sixty-One before you pack your suitcase. He’s got the full scoop on how to buy your tickets and where to stop along the way.
Another frequent train traveler to know is Derek Low. He “came to fame” when he blogged that it’s possible to travel coast-to-coast by trains—3,400 miles—for just $213. He traveled the rails from San Francisco to Chicago on board the California Zephyr, then transferred to the Lake Shore Limited line to complete the journey to New York. Not surprisingly, he now offers a train travel planning service. Before hopping on board, be sure to check out these secrets your train conductor won’t tell you.