There really is something about traveling by train. Softly moving side to side while the world whizzes by your window, reflecting upon the wonders of nature. Or, if you have free WiFi, knocking out some emails and scrolling through social media. Whatever your train-bound activity of choice, it’s a magical way to see places you never would by car and typically only see from above in an airplane.
It’s also a fantastic way to see all — or almost all — of America as trains can take you to all four corners of the nation and every point in between. The bus-and-train-travel experts at Wanderu planned out a spectacular itinerary that loops around the lower 48, taking you through deserts, mountain ranges, great plains and great lakes, with dozens of cool stops along the way. It doesn’t hit every state — just over half, actually — but it does show you just how big our country really is. And it may be the most efficient way to see it all.
Leg one: Boston, Massachusetts, to Washington, DC
Length: 8 hours, 11 minutes
Though you can really begin your journey anywhere along this route, for consistency’s sake we’re starting in the far northeastern corner of the country in a little town called Boston, Massachusetts. Here, you’ll board the very un-glamorous Northeast Regional, a commuting favorite for business travelers connecting all the major cities of the northeast.
Though the trip will take you through seven states on your way to the nation’s capital, if you’ve got some time you might want to step off and check out Providence, Rhode Island, on the way. It has one of the best Little Italys in America, plus five colleges and universities right in town. You should also definitely take a few hours and get off at Penn Station in Manhattan. Because what’s a trip around the US without at least one selfie in Times Square?
Leg two: Washington, DC, to New Orleans, Louisiana
Length: 26 hours, 2 minutes
The first long leg of your journey takes you from DC deep into the heart of Dixie aboard the Amtrak Crescent. It’s a 26-hour trip, so if you’re planning to plug straight through, perhaps look into booking a roomette or bedroom, which can almost double the price. Then again, compare that to the price of getting a lay-flat seat on an airplane, and this seems like a bargain.
The ride takes you through seven southern states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — before dropping you in the Crescent City. If you’re keen to get off the train, make a stop in Greenville, South Carolina, and eat your way through the best small food city in America. Or spend a couple of days exploring Atlanta before heading west. Charlotte, Greensboro, and Birmingham also have stops if you want a real southern tour.
Leg three: New Orleans, Louisiana, to Los Angeles, California
Length: 46 hours, 35 minutes
The Amtrak Sunset Limited is probably the best way to take in the sprawling desert-scapes of the American Southwest. It’s also a fantastic way to learn how big Texas is, exactly, as you’ll spend nearly an entire day of this leg rumbling through the Lone Star State. This is another ride where it’s worth springing for the sleeper cabins, but if you’re looking to break the trip up, you’ll find plenty of cool stops along the way.
Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso all have stops along the Sunset Limited, as do Tucson, Arizona, and Palm Springs. Though if you just want to gaze out the window at the red rocks and blue sky, nobody’s going to blame you.
Leg four: Los Angeles, California, to Seattle, Washington
Length: 29 hours, 1 minute
Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the great scenic American road trips. Of course, assuming you do crazy stuff like keep your eyes on the road when you drive, it can sometimes be tough to truly appreciate the grandeur of everything you’re driving through. But hop aboard the Coast Starlight and you’ll get the majesty of California with no road to focus on as your train travels up the coast through green mountains dropping into the crashing Pacific.
Once you’ve cleared the central coast you may want to take a day and explore Sacramento, one of the more underrated restaurant cities in the US. Or get out in Portland and bike along the Willamette River before cruising through a few of its famous breweries. From there, it’s a few short hours to Seattle’s King Street Station. If you want to take a little bonus ride, jump on the Amtrak Cascades up to Vancouver, BC, for even more spectacular northwest scenery.
Leg five: Seattle, Washington, to Chicago, Illinois
Length: 45 hours, 15 minutes
Though it would be hard to pick a scenic highlight of a train trip around the US, the second day of this leg is hard to beat as the Amtrak Empire Builder goes headlong into Glacier National Park. It’s as close to a train trip through Switzerland as you’ll find in the US, with your train barreling past snow-capped mountains and vast alpine lakes before dipping into the flatlands of North Dakota and Minnesota.
If you’re looking to break the trip up, might we suggest spending a couple of days in Fargo, a city that offers far more than its namesake film would suggest. If you’re lucky enough to go during fall, you absolutely must tailgate a North Dakota State football game. Even during other times of the year, Fargo is the epitome of Midwestern hospitality and has some fantastic beers you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
Leg six: Chicago, Illinois, to Cleveland, Ohio
Length: 6 hours, 5 minutes
After your massive trek from the West Coast, take a few days and enjoy the Windy City with all its diehard baseball and artery-clogging food. Once you’re sufficiently stuffed, jump aboard the second-shortest leg of your trip, a scant six-hour ride aboard the Amtrak Capitol Limited to Cleveland. You’ll roll over Lake Erie as you venture into Cleveland, narrowly missing Michigan but getting a second Great Lake along your tour.
Once in Cleveland, you’ll find a surprisingly vibrant city where you can eat at James Beard award-winning restaurants or traditional Polish cafeterias. If you’re doing this trip during summer (highly recommended along the Great Lakes), catch a beachside concert at Edgewater Park. Or check out the brilliant turn-of-the-century architecture in Playhouse Square, or in downtown’s many arcades.
Leg seven: Cleveland, Ohio, to Albany, New York
Length: 8 hours, 41 minutes
Your tour of the Great Lakes continues as you roll along Lake Erie aboard the Lake Shore Limited. The ride to Albany is only about eight and a half hours, but once you’re up this way you would be remiss if you didn’t stand among the mist at Niagara Falls. Stop in Buffalo, scarf some wings, and take the half-hour trip to the falls. If you brought your passport you can even head over into Canada and do some wine tasting.
Other stops of interest include Rochester, where you can enjoy a leisurely lunch at the Genesee Brewhouse before launching into a tour of the Northeast’s best beer town. After that, you’ll enjoy the rocking motion of the train as you nap the rest of the way into Albany.
Leg eight: Albany, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts
Length: 4 hours, 47 minutes
If you’re hard-pressed to do this trip as quickly as possible, you can just stay on the Lake Shore Limited another five hours, roughly, and take it all the way to Beantown. But we suggest taking some time in Albany, if for no other reason to make a trip out to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not a baseball fan? No problem. This is the shortest leg of the trip, and after traveling 6,500 miles and spending 175 hours on trains, it might be nice to complete the loop.
Traveling in the cheapest class of service and following this route, you’ll see 27 states across seven different Amtrak lines, all for under $1,000. Which is likely less than a road trip would have cost and certainly less than flying. So if this summer the great expanse of America is calling your name, a big train trip may be just what you’re looking for.