Photo: Amtrak

The 7 Most Scenic Amtrak Routes Through National Parks

United States Train Travel National Parks
by Morgane Croissant Suzie Dundas Aug 31, 2022

American trains are not the fastest in the world. They also severely lack the network of tracks necessary for people to ditch their cars or forego flying to rely on them entirely for their domestic travel needs.

But Amtrak has one big flex over the likes of Japan’s Shinkansen or France’s TGV: It crosses — slowly, for our viewing pleasure — some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world.

Map of all Amtrak Routes

The Amtrak Network

Photo: Amtrak

Amtrak trains travel near or through 21 sites managed by the National Park Service, including some of the most visited national parks in the nation. Some Amtrak train routes even have stations within national parks, so visitors can hop off and easily enjoy America’s stunning wilderness without the need to drive.

Below are six epic Amtrak routes you can take to visit some of the best national parks in the country. Not only do you not need a car, but you won’t have to fight the crowds for scenic views since you’ll have them from the comfort of your window seat. Of course, it’s not just national park sites that Amtrak routes go by — you can even travel cross-country on the train system, complete with sleeping berths and surprisingly good food.

Glacier National Park, MT

View of Glacier National park from the Amtrak train

Photo: Amtrak

  • Route: The Empire Builder
  • Starting/ending cities: Chicago, IL; Seattle, WA
  • Distance: 2,200 miles
  • Fastest possible travel time: 46 hours

Hop on the Empire Builder from Chicago, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Spokane, Portland, or Seattle, and get yourself a comfortable window seat (or sit in the first-come, first-seated Sightseer Lounge and stare out of the floor-to-ceiling windows if available). The train crosses the northern part of the state of Montana, including the wild and mountainous landscape of Glacier National Park.

But this Amtrak route doesn’t just pass close to the national park — it stops inside the national park’s East Glacier Park train station. That station happens to be just 209 steps from the beautiful Glacier Park Lodge, so you can step off the train and be relaxing by the lodge’s rustic log pillars and oversized fireplaces in a matter of minutes. While the park is open all year long, this is one of the seasonal Amtrak routes, stopping in the park only from mid-April to mid-October.

Harpers Ferry Historical National Park, WV, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH

Bridge over the Potomac River - amtrak routes to parks

Photo: Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

  • Route: The Capitol Limited
  • Starting/ending cities: Washington, DC; Chicago, IL
  • Distance: 764 miles
  • Fastest possible travel time: 18 hours

The Capitol Limited Amtrak route runs from the nation’s capital to Chicago and departs six days per week. The train stops at the Harpers Ferry station in West Virginia, a depot inside the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park near the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The train crosses over the famous B&O Bridge from Maryland into West Virginia over the rushing waters of the Potomac River and offers beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Stop at the Harpers Ferry train station to take a guided tour of the historic town, or lace up your hiking boots and explore the 20 miles of trails within the park (including some across Civil War battlefields). Roughly 70 percent of the park is forested, so you won’t have any trouble finding peace and tranquility in nature if that’s what you’re looking for.

amtrak routes - ohio park

Photo: Zack Frank/Shutterstock

At roughly the halfway point for travelers headed east is Cleveland, where passengers hoping to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park should disembark. The park is just 20 miles from Cleveland and offers more than 100 miles of hiking trails past waterfalls, wildlife habitats, and deeply wooded areas that will make travelers forget they’re so close to a major city. If you don’t have a car, a rideshare should still cost you no more than $25 or so each way.

Saguaro National Park, AZ

amtrak trips - scenic routes arizona cacti

Photo: Lucky-photographer/Shutterstock

  • Route: The Sunset Limited
  • Starting/ending cities: New Orleans, LA; Los Angeles, CA
  • Distance: 1,995 miles
  • Fastest possible travel time: 46 hours

There is, unfortunately, no train station within Saguaro National Park for an easy hop-off. But the Sunset Limited Amtrak route will take you through the beautiful Arizona park.

From your window seat (or while hanging in the Sightseer Lounge), you’ll get to see the impressive cacti and the colors and landscapes of the desert that make the park so special. If just seeing the view isn’t enough, get off at the Tucson station, about 15 miles from the park entrance. There are often park guides onboard who offer narration and insight on the views you’ll see along the way.

This Amtrak trip also gets travelers in somewhat close proximity to Big Bend National Park, about 115 miles away from the route’s Alpine, TX, stop. The route runs three times a week, so it’s easy to plan a few days around Arizona while you wait for the return ride to come back through.

Colorado National Monument, CO; Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, UT

most scenic amtrak routes - california

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  • Route: The California Zephyr
  • Starting/ending cities: Chicago, IL; Emerson, CA (San Francisco area)
  • Distance: 2,438 miles
  • Fastest possible travel time: 51 hours

The California Zephyr is certainly one of the most scenic Amtrak routes in the US — or at least it is according to Amtrak.

On the 51-hour journey, the train travels through some of the most beautiful areas in the American West. Immediately after Denver, CO, passengers are treated to views of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests on their left, especially around the Fraser-Winter Park depot and the Granby train station. In eastern Utah, the terrain is all gorgeous sandstone and desert before ascending into mountains closer to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake, it’s a flat ride before twisting into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, traveling through the historical railway tunnels blasting through sheer rock near Lake Tahoe.

scenic grand junction

Photo: Don Mammoser/Shutterstock

Travelers who want to stretch their legs and visit Colorado National Monument should hop off at the Grand Junction stop, which is only 14 minutes from the entrance. The NPS-managed area is packed with trailheads and lookout points. The Devil’s Kitchen trail is especially cool and quite close to the entrance.

Because this route is so long, however, Colorado National Monument isn’t the only National Park Service-managed site you could see. End your Amtrak trip at Green River, Utah, and you’ll be just 40 minutes from Arches and Canyonlands national parks, or step off in Provo to explore Timpanogos Cave National Monument (20 miles away). And exiting in Truckee, California, will put you in the heart of Tahoe National Forest (and within walking distance of hotels and restaurants).

Indiana Dunes National Park

Dunes in Indiana - scenic amtrak trips

Photo: Wildnerdpix/Shutterstock

  • Route: Michigan Services
  • Starting/ending cities: Chicago, IL; Pontiac, MI
  • Distance: 304 miles
  • Fastest possible travel time: 6 hours, 30 mins

It may be one of the shorter “distance” Amtrak routes, but the short-and-sweet journey through the Midwest offers heavy doses of natural beauty along the way. If you’re headed east, sit on the left side of the train and keep your eyes peeled for stunning views of Indiana Dunes National Park soon after departure.

Indiana Dunes National Park was designated as a park in February 2019. If you want to visit the park, hop off the train at Michigan City — you’re just a couple of miles away from the entrance and the famous 126-foot-tall sand dune known as Mount Baldy. This is a great national park to visit in summer as it has excellent beaches, but the park offers year-round activities, including several historical landmarks (and more than 60 historic buildings), 50 miles of hiking trails, nearly 40 miles of biking trails, and a robust calendar of more than 400 guided tours and talks with park rangers throughout the year.

Yosemite and King’s Canyon and Sequoia national parks, California

yosemite amtrak trip

Photo: Stephen Moehle/Shutterstock

  • Route: San Joaquins
  • Starting/ending cities: Oakland or Sacramento, CA; Bakersfield, CA
  • Distance: 315 miles
  • Fastest possible travel time: 6 hours

If you’ve been anxious to check some of California’s central national parks off your park bucket list, jump aboard the San Joaquins Amtrak route, running from northern California to Bakersfield (north of LA).

Plan to make a few stops on this route. Going north to south, you’ll first want to get off in Merced, the closest stop to the western entrances of Yosemite National Park. From the Merced station, take the Amtrak connecter bus into the park, which both gets you there without a car and helps you avoid the infamous lines and crowds that can fill the Yosemite Valley on summer days. Once you’re in the park, there’s a bus system throughout the valley, so you won’t need a car to move between trailheads or sites.

Travelers’ next stop should be Hanford, near Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks (which back to each other and are treated as one unit)., Take the Amtrak bus to the gateway town of Visalia, where you can jump on the Sequoia Shuttle for $20 (running May through mid-Sept). The $20 pass also gets you unlimited shuttle service within the park.

Grand Canyon National Park

grand canyon most scenic Amtrak trips

Photo: Amanda Mohler/Shutterstock

  • Route: Southwest Chief
  • Starting/ending cities: Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA
  • Distance: 2,265 miles
  • Fastest possible travel time: 40 hours

Perhaps no national park in the US is more associated with train travel than Grand Canyon. In the late 1800s, dozens of train tracks and routes sprang up near the park to carry ore from Arizona mines to places where it could be refined and shipped. However, these rail lines could also carry people, and were the only way for travelers to get to the Grand Canyon, then one of the most remote places in the west.

Today, the Grand Canyon is still accessible via train if you take the Southwest Chief Amtrak route. The closest stop to the national park is Flagstaff, from which point you have plenty of options for getting into the park (including a direct Amtrak shuttle).

But the most fun route into the park — especially if you’re leaning into the train travel theme — is to take the Amtrak shuttle to the town of Williams (a roughly 30-minute ride) and ride the Grand Canyon Railway (not affiliated with Amtrak) into the park. The Railway runs on the same 1901 route and offers day trips that leave guests about three hours at the Grand Canyon South Rim. The railway also sells overnight packages that including lodging within the park in case you want a few days in the Grand Canyon (perhaps to attempt the rim-to-rim hike).

Whether you choose a one-day tour or spend a few days in the park, your journey on the Grand Canyon Railway will be the same. Expect a roughly two-hour ride with gorgeous desert views, costumed entertainers, cowboy singers, and maybe even a train heist or two. You’ll want to book tickets in advance, which start at $67 per adult for a basic ticket to $226 for a luxury car with a glass dome and high-end cocktail bar.

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