White Pass & Yukon Route/Facebook

7 Vintage Train Rides in the US That Will Take You Where No Cars Can Go

Train Travel
by Laura Jones May 10, 2021

While the car might be king in the US, and road trips are undeniably great, there’s another way to see the country’s beauty that’s just as slow and that’s got way more swag: Vintage train rides.

There are plenty of retro train rides in the US that get you into pristine wilderness no automobile can reach, and some will even let you experience a little American history along the way — from the old lumber lines in the Californian redwoods to the Appalachians to the Klondike Gold Rush route in Alaska.

On these trains, you can ride in restored cars and listen to the whistle of a steam engine as it chugs through tunnels, across trestles, and up mountains. Most of the trains have on-board entertainment that will transport you many decades back, and some have knowledgeable docents ready to regale you with the history of the area and interesting facts about the landscapes you pass through.

Vintage train rides aren’t the fastest way to get around in the US, but they are as scenic and relaxing as they are slow, so check out these seven old-fashion train rides available around the US for a travel experience like no other.

The Grand Canyon Railway

Take a vintage train ride to one of America’s most visited national parks on the Grand Canyon Railway. The train has been carrying passengers to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon since it started in 1901 and became the fastest and cheapest way to reach the canyon. The train departs daily from Williams, AZ, takes a little over two hours to reach the South Rim, and allows you three hours to explore the canyon before the return trip.

With the Grand Canyon Railway, you’re in for a lively ride aboard restored railcars, some dating back to 1923. Looking out of the wide windows, you’ll pass through a changing landscape of peaceful ponderosa pine groves and the vast, raw beauty of the high desert. Inside the train, things are just as exciting — musicians visit the cars playing old Western songs, and cowboys wander up and down the carriages. Plus, attendants on the train are there to give you facts about your surroundings, so when you arrive at the Grand Canyon, you’ll know just about everything needed to appreciate the impressive landscape.

There are six classes of car to choose from. The most affordable are the restored 1923 railcars, with bench-style seats and windows that can be opened to enjoy the fresh air. Cars with observation domes are available for a little more. For First Class passengers and above, bar service is available and there are complimentary snacks on the morning and afternoon rides.

The train runs year-round except for a few days over the Christmas and New Year period. On certain days throughout the year, the cars are pulled by a steam engine — check the schedule if you want to add an extra special vintage feel to your ride.

The Durango and Silverton Railroad

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a vintage train ride that has been taking passengers on sightseeing trips into the Colorado wilderness since 1882. You’ll want to hang on tight while looking out of the open windows as the train clings to canyon walls and travels along the Animas River Gorge on its way through the Rocky Mountains in the San Juan National Forest. The carriages are pulled by a vintage steam locomotive that whistles and puffs its way along the line.

All of the trips depart from Durango, and round trips to Silverton allow you two hours in the town before returning to Durango. The trip takes 3.5 hours each way, giving you plenty of time to relax on the ride.

You have your pick of car classes on this train — the affordable open-air gondola cars are wonderful as long as you don’t mind the unpredictable mountain weather. First and Presidential classes come with unlimited non-alcoholic beverages, a pastry, and some small souvenirs from the train. You can also choose to take the diesel train which takes the same amount of time but is a little cheaper.

The train runs in the summer months (from May to October) but there are special themed winter trains rides, like the magical Polar Express experience that takes passengers on a ride to the North Pole, and the Cascade Canyon Winter Train, a five-hour round-trip that transports visitors through a dreamy snowy landscape.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Ride the steam locomotive of the Cumbres & Toltec and, from the window, take in rolling meadows full of wildflowers, rushing rivers, narrow rocky gorges, and wide, open plains stretching to distant peaks. Look out for elk, deer, and bears in the surrounding wilderness, and don’t miss out on the aspen trees that surround the line and burst with color in the fall. On-board docents will tell you all about what you’re seeing and fill you in on the history of this 140-year old railroad that was originally built to service the silver mines in the area.

You can choose to depart from either Chama, NM, or Antonito, CO. All rides are round trips, and most go to Osier station, about halfway between the two towns, before turning back to the terminus. Lunch is provided at the rustic Osier station.

There is an open gondola car on all trains that passengers are welcome to use. In the fall, tickets for the ride to Osier in coach are $155, up to $270 in the Victorian style Parlor Car (fares are a little cheaper in the summer.) Some fares include snacks and beverages on the train, and there is a snack bar. The trips run in the summer and fall months.

The Nevada Northern Railway

Take a 90-minute round trip ride through Nevada’s central mountains on the Nevada Northern Railway, which starts and stops in Ely, NV. The historic railroad was built more than a century ago to reach one of the largest copper mines in the US, and this trip is one of the best-preserved vintage rail sections in North America.

Many of the rides are still pulled through the tunnels and mountains by the 110-year old steam locomotives. And you can choose your adventure on this vintage train ride: Take the Wild West Limited to experience an old-fashioned hold-up; ride in the locomotive with the engineer; or stargaze on the Great Basin Star Train and experience some of the lower-48’s darkest skies. The regular route runs year-round, special trips are seasonal.

The Skunk Train

Skunk Train

 Skunk Train/Facebook

Since 1885, the Skunk Train has plowed across Northern California’s redwood forests, transporting lumber and passengers through the difficult terrain. The ride takes you across trestle bridges and through tunnels in California’s Mendocino County. There are two round-trip routes to choose from: the Pudding Creek Express from Fort Bragg depot to Glen Blair Junction for a 90-minute ride, and the two-hour Wolf Tree Turn from Willits to Crowley.

The Wolf Tree Turn is the more scenic of the two — it takes you into the Noyo River Canyon where you’ll be surrounded by towering redwoods and you can get off the train and step into the quiet of the groves. You can also rent two-person railbikes, exclusively on the Pudding Creek trail, allowing you to get even closer to the glorious landscape.

The Pudding Creek Express runs year-round, and the Wolf Tree Turn route is open from early spring to December. The trains are mainly diesel-electric, but some steam trains operate on the Pudding Creek line. There are also special holiday trains like the pumpkin train and the magical Christmas train.

The Cass Scenic Railroad

The 11-mile Cass Scenic Railroad will take you on a steam train on an old lumber line through West Virginia’s verdant and remote mountains. You’ll climb 2,390 feet between the town of Cass and the high point of Bald Knob — a ride during which you’ll see spruce trees and snowshoe hares, and enjoy views of the Appalachians. A shorter trip to Whittaker Station zigzags through two steep switchbacks into lush meadows where you can have a picnic before heading back down.

The town of Cass is relatively unchanged since its founding in 1901, and has a restaurant, museum, and places to shop for local handicrafts. You can also find snowshoeing, mountain biking, and other outdoor adventures in the nearby state parks. Trains are currently only running on certain days.

The White Pass and Yukon Route

Built during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway passes through some of Alaska and the Yukon’s most beautiful scenery. There are several journeys to choose from, you’ll see towering mountains, waterfalls tumbling into gorges, and historic sites on all of them. Most of the trips depart from Skagway or Bennett. The famous White Pass Summit Excursion follows the original route from Skagway to the White Pass summit.

The train itself trundles through tunnels and over trestles into a wilderness inaccessible by car. You can connect your trip on the railway with an overnight camping adventure in the abandoned gold rush town of Bennett, BC, or use the train to connect to the famous 33-mile Chilkoot hiking trail.

Most of the trains are diesel-powered though there are steam excursions available. As some routes on this railway run through the US and Canada, check local restrictions and whether a passport is required for your journey.

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