Photo: Ian Dewar Photography/Shutterstock

These Iconic Rail Journeys Showcase the Best of US Train Travel

United States Train Travel
by Matador Creators Jun 12, 2023

Many Americans associate train travel with traipsing through Europe when they could be traversing their own backyards on equally epic tracks. Railroads have a long and mighty history in the US, from the pioneer days of exploring the American West to the Gold Rush era of transporting ore. Many of America’s most epic train rides honor this heritage with historic routes and vintage rail cars — some of which take on territory where no cars can go. Other US trains embrace the leisurely and sophisticated rail service that many of us identify with European train rides. Whichever you prefer, wherever you’d like to go, these are the iconic American trains that embody the best of US train travel.

Grand Canyon Railway


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Where it goes: Round-trip from Williams, AZ, to the Grand Canyon
Total distance: 130 miles round-trip
Total time: 6.5 hours
Why it’s iconic: It kicks off with a cowboy showdown.

Attractions as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon tend to make us forget the old adage that life is about the journey, not the destination. The Grand Canyon Railway honors both, traveling from the historic depot in Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The day trip to the Grand Canyon starts about 30 miles west of Flagstaff and covers about 65 miles, passing through Ponderosa and Pinion pine forests, wide-open prairies, and a variety of other landscapes. Passenger service attendants are stationed on every train to teach you about the region and the railway as you ride, along with live musicians who serenade the train with Western-style tunes. Once at the Grand Canyon, expect to have three hours to explore before re-embarking for Williams.

Coast Starlight


Photo: Alex Cimbal/Shutterstock

Where it goes: Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles
Total distance: 1,377 miles
Total time: 35 hours
Why it’s iconic: It showcases the best of the West.

The coast referenced in the name of this Amtrak train is the West Coast, with the traveling between Los Angeles and Seattle over the course of about 35 hours. The train connects major cities in California, Oregon, and Washington — including Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Portland — as well as a variety of iconic attractions and landscapes, from Hearst Castle in beachy San Simeon, to the snowy peaks of Mount Shasta, to the gateway to Crater Lake National Park. Small dogs and cats are welcome aboard — reservations and fares required.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad


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Where it goes: Round-trip from Bryson City, NC, to Dillsboro, NC
Total distance: 32 miles round-trip
Total time: 4.5 hours
Why it’s iconic: Passengers ride in restored vintage cars.

A subrange of the Appalachians on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains are regarded as some of America’s greatest outdoors, as well as being one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad operates multiple routes through the area. Two of the most popular routes are the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, which follows the Nantahala River through a deep gorge and past cascading waterfalls, and the Tuckasegee River Excursion, which showcases the Appalachians in all their glory. Seasonal themed excursions include the Peanuts Pumpkin Patch Express and the Polar Express, both of which are an excellent choice for families.

Empire Builder


Photo: Ian Dewar Photography/Shutterstock

Where it goes: Chicago, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Spokane, Portland/Seattle
Total distance: 2,200 miles
Total time: 46 hours
Why it’s iconic: It retraces the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Set off like an early pioneer through the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, starting in Chicago and ending in either Portland or Seattle. Amtrak describes the scenery you’ll see along this route as the “rugged splendor of the American West.” Highlights include skirting the Mississippi River, crossing North Dakota’s Gassman Coulee Trestle bridge, and venturing into Montana’s Big Sky country to get a glimpse of Glacier National Park. When you reach Spokane, Washington, passengers have the choice between disembarking in Seattle or continuing along the Columbia River Gorge, complete with Mount Hood views, toward Portland.

Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway


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Where it goes: Round-trip from Durango, CO, to Silverton, CO
Total distance: 90 miles round-trip
Total time: 9 hours
Why it’s iconic: It’s a National Historic Landmark.

Dating back to the late 1800s, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway originally operated as a mining vessel in southwestern Colorado, transporting gold and silver from the San Juan Mountains to the town of Durango. Today, the railway’s steam-powered cars transport tourists along a narrow gauge track through the San Juan National Forest and along the Animas River. One of the most famous sections of the railway is the Highline, which hugs the steep cliffs above the river. In addition to the standard round-trip, the railway organizes a variety of themed excursions — such as the Cascade Canyon Express, which travels to a remote canyon in the heart of the mountains, and the festive Polar Express — throughout the year.

California Zephyr


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Where it goes: Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Emeryville
Total distance: 2,438 miles
Total time: ​​51 hours and 20 minutes
Why it’s iconic: It’s Amtrak’s longest daily route.

Combining parts of the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder routes, this Amtrak journey travels between Chicago and the Bay Area. Mountain-lovers will appreciate passing through both the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, passing through cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno along the way. It’s not all majestic peaks on the California Zephyr, however. Passengers also pass through the wide-open Nebraska plains. Riders may or may not be familiar with the endpoint, Emeryville, but rest assured it’s a quick trip to Oakland or San Francisco from there.

Alaska Denali Star


Photo: Tim Hancock/Shutterstock

Where it goes: Anchorage, Wasilla, Talkeetna, Denali, Fairbanks
Total distance: 356 miles
Total time: 12 hours
Why it’s iconic: You have the option to book a glass-dome rail car.

The Alaska Denali Star runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks, traveling through the heart of Alaska’s rugged wilderness. The highlight of the journey occurs when you pass by Denali National Park, home to North America’s highest peak. The views are particularly special for those who book the premium GoldStar Service, which seats passengers in glass-dome rail cars. The Alaska Denali Star also offers various excursions and packages, such as the popular Denali Backcountry Adventure, which provides a guided tour of the national park and includes opportunities to see wild animals such as grizzly bears, moose, and caribou.

Rockies to the Red Rocks


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Where it goes: Denver, CO, to Moab, UT
Total distance: 355 miles
Total time: 2 days
Why it’s iconic: It’s one of the only luxury train trips in the US.

The Rocky Mountaineer has been operating luxury train trips through the Canadian Rockies for some 30 years. In 2021, the company brought its service stateside with the Rockies to the Red Rocks route, a two-day trip between Denver to Moab, Utah. Along the way, passengers are regaled with Southwestern scenery, including towering peaks, deep canyons, and open prairie. Highlights include a stop at Glenwood Springs, home to the world’s largest hot springs pool, and the iconic red rocks of Arches National Park. Passengers have their pick of two service classes, SilverLeaf or SilverLeaf Plus, while special packages allow riders to start or end their journey in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.

Mount Washington Cog Railway


Photo: Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

Where it goes: Round-trip from Mount Washington’s west slope to the summit
Total distance: 3,588 feet of climbing
Total time: 3 hours round-trip
Why it’s iconic: It’s the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway.

Operational since 1869, the Mount Washington Cog Railway is a historic train route that journeys through New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The train runs up the side of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, and showcases breathtaking views of the surrounding forests, mountains, and valleys. The train uses a special “cog” system, where it climbs the mountain on a series of gears that mesh with a track in the center of the rail, allowing it to navigate steep inclines. The Mount Washington Cog Railway also offers a variety of special events throughout the year, including steam train rides and fall foliage tours.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway


Photo: Animas Photography/Shutterstock

Where it goes: Round-trip from Blue Ridge, GA
Total distance: 26 miles round-trip
Total time: Four hours
Why it’s iconic: It shows off the scenery John Denver sings about.

The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway is a tourist train that travels 26 miles through Georgia’s irresistible Blue Ridge Mountains. The ride starts in downtown Blue Ridge and travels to the town of McCaysville, where the train stops for two hours so passengers can have lunch, shop for souvenirs, and even step across the state line into Tennessee. One cool feature of the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway is its restored vintage rail cars whose large windows provide optimal viewing. The railway also offers special events and themed rides, such as a fall foliage train ride, Santa Express train, and Easter Eggspress.

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