10 Train Rides in America to Take in Your Lifetime
Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway, a roundtrip day trip or a cross-country excursion, we suggest getting to your destination by train -- and checking these 10 unforgettable rides.
Denali Star Train
Stretching from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska, the 12-hour Denali Star Train spans more than 350 miles and many landmark attractions -- including Talkeetna and Denali National Park, the highlight of the route. Travelers taking this journey are treated to views of Mt. Denali, Hurricane Gulch and the Nenana River canyon gorge, among other natural delights dotting Alaska’s stunning landscape.
Pro tip: Due to the long travel time, many passengers do not take the entire route, at least not in one sitting. You can choose to do a section, such as the popular Anchorage to Denali route, and/or break up the trip with overnights in Denali or Talkeetna.
Mount Hood Railroad
Oregon’s Mount Hood Railroad is 60 miles east of Portland and stretches 22 miles, from Hood River to Parkdale, with a stop in Odell. The railway offers roundtrip rides to Odell -- their most popular route -- as well as specialty dining rides. During the holiday season, you can book the Polar Express Train Ride, where families are encouraged to wear their pajamas, are served treats and get a visit from Santa Claus on their way to the North Pole.
Pro tip: The Mount Hood Railroad offers theatrical rides like the family-favorite Western Robbery for some Old West entertainment.
Grand Canyon Railway
It’s only fitting that one of the most spectacular U.S. landmarks is also home to one of the most renowned trains: the Grand Canyon Railway. The route travels from Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, a 65-mile trip that takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes each way. The historic train made its first trip in 1901 and has since taken thousands of travelers across the outstretched Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona.
Pro tip: The early bird catches the worm! During high season, there are two departures -- at 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. -- while during the rest of the year, the 9:30 a.m. departure is your only chance to travel this train route.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway
First opened in 1882, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway has been in operation since its original rides -- and continues to dazzle travelers. The historic train covers 45 miles between Silverton and Durango, Colorado, along the Animas River; the curving rails offer riders a feeling of suspension and a one-of-a-kind way to see Colorado’s unspoiled landscapes.
Pro tip: Visitors can choose from either the Skyway Tour, which completes part of the journey by charter bus, or the Silverton Train Tour, a nine-hour roundtrip excursion.
Adirondack Scenic Railroad
Covering the route between Utica and Lake Placid, New York, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad offers additional stops in Thendara and Saranac Lake. The train offers a variety of specialized tours, including a Beer & Wine Train, a Rail & Cruise package and even holiday-themed rides. And don’t forget about the Fall Foliage tours, which offer travelers spectacular views of the changing colors of Adirondack trees.
Pro tip: Check the full online calendar to see which rides are coming up on this route.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Winding through western North Carolina, this scenic and historic railway travels from Bryson City across 53 miles of track, two tunnels and 25 bridges. Riders can choose from the two regular excursions -- one to the Nantahala Gorge and the other along the Tuckasegee River -- as well as specialty themed trips. Each option offers a series of breathtaking views for passengers, including mountains, wildlife, wildflowers and a variety of scenic vistas.
Pro tip: For tourists hoping to double down on the adventuring, the railroad offers a Zip & Rail package, which includes a roundtrip train ride, lunch and a guided tour of 13 zip lines and eight sky bridges overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains and Lake Fontana.
Coast Starlight Santa Barbara
If you think the West Coast’s 101 highway is scenic, then you should check out Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route. The coastal route stretches from Seattle to Los Angeles and passes through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland. Visitors embarking on the 35-hour trip are given a front-row seat to views of sparkling waters, oceanfront cliffs and other West Coast towns.
Pro tip: In partnership with the National Park Service, the Coast Starlight offers two Trails & Rails programs, each which offers guests the chance to travel by train while exploring national historic parks and trails along the way.
Ethan Allen Express
Covering everything from the city to the country, Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express travels between NYC and Rutland, Vermont, offering locals a chance to escape the metro area (and traffic) for a peaceful getaway. The five-and-a-half-hour ride departs daily and travels through the scenic Hudson River Valley, which gives passengers a chance to check out magical scenes of foliage and mountains all year long.
Pro tip: Bring Fido along -- the train is pet-friendly (additional fee applies).
Cape Cod Central Railroad
This heritage railroad runs May through October from Hyannis to the Cape Cod Canal. The railway offers a series of ride experiences, including themed trains, dinner trains and coastal excursion trains; favorites include the Rails & Ales Oktoberfest ride, the Vines & Views Wine Tasting Train and the Colonial Lunch Train. Most rides last about two to three hours and offer vistas of everything from woodlands to beaches.
Pro tip: To enhance the authentic, traditional vibe of the train, some rides -- including the Cape Cod Dinner Train -- require guests to follow a dress code.
The Empire Builder could easily be nicknamed the Great American Train Ride, as it covers a big portion of the country across a number of states, landmarks and cities. The route extends from Chicago to Seattle and travels through the plains of North Dakota, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the natural landscapes of Glacier National Park. The trip takes 46 hours in total and retraces many of the routes first explored by early American pioneers.
Pro tip: This isn’t the time to skimp on the upgrades -- Amtrak offers Superliner sleeping trains that make this long route ultra-comfortable.