It’s time to mix up the classic US road trip or the flyover bypass blitz. Train travel is making a comeback. There’s the old school romance and allure of riding the rails. But there’s also ditching a driver, not having to pull over to use the bathroom, ample legroom, and no TSA. Train travel’s carbon footprint is minuscule compared to flying or driving, so there’s no green guilt. Best of all, the US rail routes hit craveable bucket-list destinations across the nation. So heed the whistle and climb aboard these seven standout rail lines.
1. Coast Starlight — Seattle to Los Angeles
The most consistently scenic train ride in the US is a grab bag of destination treasures. The natural glories of this West Coast route deliver mountains, forests, and coasts. But for those with more urbane needs, four cities with unique personalities also anchor the line for the best of both worlds.
Portland — “Keep Portland Weird” by joining a soapbox race, seeing the underground history of the Shanghai tunnels, or checking out a famed vegan and vampire-themed strip club. Like things a little less funky? This crunchy hipster haven is tripping over craft breweries, food carts, and gourmet doughnut wars. For a nature fix, you’re good in any direction. Grab a car and head east to the gorges and waterfall hikes of the temperate, mountainous rainforest. Or go west and road trip the acclaimed Oregon coast, making sure to spot the iconic rocks at Ecola State Park.
Crater Lake National Park — Deep and pristine, the brilliant water in this sleeping volcano is often elusive under an eerie cloud cover. To get your view of the deepest lake in the US, hop off the train at Klamath Falls and catch a trolley that covers the park’s circle drive. Outside of the park, Klamath Falls is your adventure base for rafting, fishing, hiking, biking, golfing, and the country’s oldest birding festival.
Channel Islands National Park and the coast — Many don’t realize that these five undeveloped islands are separated from 19 million people by just an hour ferry ride. For a wilder LA experience, catch the ferry at the Oxnard station and pack in everything you need to hike, camp, and kayak on your chosen island. Definitely watch for the sea lions, dolphins, and whales that frequent the islands more than people. Once back on shore head to the upscale neighbors of Santa Barbara or Malibu and treat yourself.
2. Empire Builder — Chicago to Seattle
Amtrak’s northern cross-country route covers a lot of open space before it arrives at the Crown Jewel of the Continent: Glacier National Park. The mountain scenery is relentless from there until the train pulls to a stop in Seattle.
Chicago — The Windy City hubs almost all of Amtrak’s cross-country lines, and since Amtrak is notoriously late, a planned overnight is a smart idea for any connections. Enjoy Chicago’s eccentricities. Take a tour on the only river in the world that flows backward. Climb the steep steps of one of the oldest baseball fields and check Wrigley’s ivy walls. For dinner, make sure to order the quintessential deep dish pizza an hour ahead of time. Then skip the tower formerly known as Sears and go for the best views: the lounge at the top of the skyscraper formerly known as Hancock.
Glacier National Park — The world’s first international peace park straddles the continental divide and houses abundant wildlife, glacial blue lakes, and the namesake glaciers. While the park has three stops, get off at East Glacier station for the chance to hike right up to a glacier and head up to the Many Glacier Lodge. From there a ferry takes you to the trailhead. Remember that much of the park is impassable in the winter and summer brings out the huckleberries… and the bears.
Seattle — Welcome to this watery world, the source of not only the city’s activities but also its aesthetic. Amtrak’s station is near Pike Place Market where you can watch the famous fish toss and sample the seafood. From there the greater Puget Sound opens up to whale watching and cabin stays on remote islands. Back in Seattle, ‘90s nostalgia and the birth of grunge round out the other “Seattle sound.” The unofficial memorial to Kurt Cobain is at Viretta Park (take a closer look at those benches). And the Museum of Pop Culture showcases Hendrix, Heart, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam for inspiration before turning you loose on the instruments. Finish off your local nostalgic fix with a vintage pinball bar.
3. Southwest Chief — Chicago to Los Angeles
This route is at its best through its namesake region, weaving through mountains and buttes before the desert stretch of southern California and finally, La-La Land.
Santa Fe — This 1610 Spanish colony capital offers up architecture, art, and authentic spice in its signature green chile dishes. You won’t see Santa Fe listed as a station — the Chief’s station is actually in nearby Lamy. Instead, Amtrak-sponsored shuttles take passengers the 16 miles into Santa Fe with hotel stops. Once in Santa Fe, art galleries, studios, and art museums turn up in even the most unlikely places. To understand part of the influences, tour the Palace of Governors and take a deeper look at the history and intersections of Pueblo, Spanish, and a young American culture. The ancient and still-inhabited Taos Pueblo to the north, a glimpse at the dominant culture of the past, makes a moving day trip.
Grand Canyon — This international star deservedly gets a lot of visitors. Whether you rent a car or shuttle to Williams and ride the Grand Canyon Railway right up to the main park lodge, try to leave the wheel (and crowds) behind as much as possible. Shuttles try to break up the traffic and take passengers to campgrounds, lookouts, and trailheads. For those looking to get in the canyon, the Bright Angel trail descends rapidly and stretches out as it follows the erosion to the Colorado River. Make sure to read the signs that help you decide how far down you should go!
Los Angeles — This downtown art deco station is a bit of a celebrity in the world of pretty train stations but most leave quickly into the city. Hollywood, Universal Studios, and Rodeo Drive call out to those on the hunt for stars. Beachgoers have a buffet selection: upscale Malibu, the carnival piers of Santa Monica, quirky Venice Beach, more laid-back beaches like Hermosa, and the surf scene of Huntington. Whether you’re putting on mouse ears at Disneyland or making a late-night In-N-Out burger stop, let go of cramming it all in and soak up that chill SoCal vibe.
4. California Zephyr — Chicago to San Francisco
Slashing a line through the center of the country, this route takes the Colorado Rocky Mountains head on, then relaxes through long, lonely stretches of Utah and Nevada. The Zephyr climbs one last time for the infamous Donner Pass before coming to California wine country and San Francisco.
Rocky Mountains — Simply, the stretch of railroad from Denver to Granby is one of the most spectacular rail routes in the US. Far away from highways, the train climbs, plunges, and hangs to precipices as it takes on the Rockies. The six-mile Moffat Tunnel cuts under the range before busting out directly to the base of Winter Park Ski Resort. Further down the line, the Granby station offers the western gate to Rocky Mountain National Park with mountain-chic Estes on the other side. The entire valley accommodates outdoor adventures like skiing, rafting, hiking, and biking.
Tahoe — Whether you get off at the Reno or Truckee stations, the massive and pure Lake Tahoe is just a short drive. The huge area goes far beyond its high-end reputation with a variety of lodging and a sport for every season. When not skiing or boating, nearby Donner Pass and Memorial reminds us that this now idyllic place deals up cruel winters that test humanity. If you’re looking for something lighter (and feeling lucky), South Tahoe’s Nevada casino scene is open and hoping you don’t hit big.
San Francisco — Cable cars, foggy afternoons, and that big red bridge are iconic Bay Area experiences. By all means, ride the cable car, watch the seals at touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, and walk down the shore for a treat at Ghirardelli Square. Then mix it up. Splurge for the Alcatraz night tour with special access to the creepy medical ward. Stroll the Presidio. Kick back on Hippie Hill, breathe deep, and listen for Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Take the ferry across to Sausalito, rent a car, and jump on Highway 1. From there, Muir National Woods and the Marin Headlands give you a whole new perspective of the city and the coastal area.
5. Adirondack — New York City to Montreal
Striking in any season, once outside of Manhattan this route pulls out all the stops with its fall foliage. Just bring your passport — this line ends in the capital of Canada’s French province.
New York City — NYC can be just about anything you want it to be. The skyscrapers of Manhattan, the reminders of a country built on diaspora, the noise, and the lights. With unique character from Harlem to Brooklyn to Staten Island, New York pushes innovation in art, fashion, culture, food, and industry. You can even get green space breaks with Central Park and the newer raised Highline Park. There’s no way to do it all — pick your must-dos and leave room for the unexpected. Make sure at least once to get a sense of scale: take a ferry out to Staten or an elevator to the top of a high rise to feel little in a great big world.
Saratoga Springs — Far from the city, Amtrak stops at Saratoga, a famous respite for the well-heeled, turn-of-the-20th-century New Yorkers (and mobsters). These characters mixed springs spa relaxation and a heavy pour of vice with horse racing, gambling, and pearl-clutching “dens of debauchery.” These days you can still take in the spas, the horse racing, rounds of golf, and trips into the massive Adirondacks State Park.
Montreal — This French-Canadian city makes the bucket list stop as an Amtrak terminal. While you cross an international border, it really feels like you just crossed an ocean. Brush up on some French, see the European styled Old Port and Basilica, and climb to the top of Mont-Royal for the best view. Montreal cooks up far more than poutine, but make sure to grab a bowl somewhere. If you can, take in a hometown Habs hockey match and expect special rivalry fireworks if it’s against the Boston Bruins.
6. Palmetto — New York City to Savannah
From the Big Apple to the Hostess City of the South, the Palmetto runs through original colonies and some of the most storied destinations in US history.
Philadelphia — As the birthplace of a nation, Independence Hall and the nearby Liberty Bell are must-see stops for first-time Philly visitors. Once you’ve hit your fill of history in the dozens of options in the area, jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for your own Rocky moment. You’ve earned one of the city’s famous cheesesteaks; good luck picking amongst the heated contenders. If you’re looking for something more modern, try the newer Wonderspaces Interactive Gallery or the funky mosaic Magic Gardens.
Washington DC — It’s very possible to spend a week in the US capital without leaving two square miles. The Smithsonian campus homes massive museums on everything from art, history, and aeronautics to American Indian and African American history and culture to the Holocaust. Tour the Mall for a concentration of the most prestigious memorials and see Congress and the White House with the right clearance. Just a subway ride across the river is Arlington National Cemetery with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame, and the home of Robert E. Lee. If you want to go a bit further from the center, check out the cobblestone streets of Georgetown and the wider city’s busy theater scene. Make sure to get away for a day and cruise down to Mt. Vernon to see the life George Washington wanted instead of being a king.
Charleston — The Holy City may have a lot of steeples, but it’s also a great city for food. Prepare to spend a lot of time brunching and exploring industry innovation when it comes to southern and seafood. Between meals, a harbor cruise by Ft. Moultrie, and tour of Ft. Sumter invokes Charleston’s impact in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The area is full of beautifully preserved plantations, but if you want a full look at the involuntary side of this history, McLeod Plantation Historic Site covers both the free and enslaved peoples’ experience and the birth of Gullah/Geechee heritage.
Savannah — The Hostess City of the South is known for five things: One, 24 squares that make it feel like one big garden. Two, a general lack of caring what others do. Three, an openness to any party occasion. Four, the second-largest St. Patrick’s celebration in the US. And five, last and least if they had their preference, “The Book.” Take the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tours if you like, but make sure to stroll through other squares and let the city’s timelessness soak in. Then grab a cocktail, y’all, and keep your eyes peeled for the fun because in Savannah something is always happening.
Used to being left to its own devices, the Last Frontier has its own rail company, and once again, they get the job done. Icefields, glaciers, and the highest point on the continent are an easy jaunt from Anchorage.
Denali — Not only the highest point in North America, Denali is also one of the toughest mountains in the world to climb. But if you’re not an expedition climber, the national park still has plenty to offer. The Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star drops passengers off right at the park’s gate. From there you can choose a narrated tour bus or a non-narrated hop-on/hop-off bus. The park offers plenty of hiking and camping opportunities, but the best way to see wildlife is actually on the buses. If you can, stay overnight at a lodge or with campground clearance to increase your chances of a clear day for wildlife and summit spotting.
Seward — Heading south from Anchorage, the Alaska Railroad’s Coastal Classic ends at Seward’s Resurrection Bay. From here you can easily visit Kenai Fjords National Park to witness the 40 glacial flows of Harding Field. When open, short trails let you walk right up to Exit Glacier or you can cruise and kayak the greater bay. Overnight cabins are available in the park, and ample tourist accommodations thrive in Seward, but if you don’t want to spend the night, the train gives you seven hours to explore before heading back to Anchorage.
Fairbanks — Once a Gold Rush boomtown, Fairbanks persists as a gateway to the backcountry, the largest city this far north on the continent. Part of the attraction to visiting the Golden Heart of Alaska is simply saying you made it to the Great North. But the town also offers up historic river cruises with gold rush touches, an elaborate ice carving museum, and one very Game of Thrones-sounding Museum of the North that details this harsh life. The sled dogs that made the boom possible still have a place in city life for those that want to mush. And if you stay a bit you might see a real thrill: the northern lights.
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