Adventures by Rail: The Most Scenic Train Vacations in North America

10 great reasons to take a long-haul ride on North America's rail lines for a different kind of vacation

Train voyages and vacations have been part of European and U.S. culture as long as there have been tracks on the ground. Millionaires Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt made their fortunes by making railroads accessible to Americans. 

Though the peak of rail travel seems like a bygone era, Amtrak—the major U.S. railroad system—recorded record ticket sales revenue within the past 10 years. Being whisked from one city to another without having to go through customs, TSA and other checkpoints might sound appealing. Some train routes even deserve recognition as a destination in their own right.

There’s something magical about boarding a train and traveling by the chug of the engine. So many authors—Paul Theroux ("The Great Railway Bazaar"), Haemi Balgassi ("Peacebound Trains") and others—have tried to describe the beauty and romance of riding the rails.

We’d like to think that these routes speak for themselves on the beauty of the American landscape and the romance of traveling by train in a hectic, get-there-fast world.

Pullman Rail Journeys

Pullman Rail Journeys

Complete Art Deco ambiance—with modern tech and comfort—is evident throughout the restored Pullman car journeys offered by this stand-alone company. Currently, passengers can purchase package tickets for a trip to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Board a Pullman car at Chicago’s historic Union Station on Sept. 29, 2016. Watch the hills, grasslands and desert rush into view during this four-day adventure into New Mexico. Crane your neck to see a field of hot air balloons ascend during the Albuquerque event and stick around for festivities celebrating the balloons afterward. Once the revelry is complete, board a Pullman back to Chicago. Tip: Before departing Chicago, check out the Pullman Historic District, a model industrial town where the Pullman railcars were built.

Route: Chicago to Albuquerque

Hurricane Turn train ride, Alaska Railroad

Alaska Railroad: Hurricane Turn

Though other routes on the Alaska Railroad stop through more popular areas like Anchorage to Denali, a ride on the Hurricane Turn is the route for train lovers. Alaska Railroad's flag-stop route is exactly what it sounds like: Locals along the route wave a white, cloth flag and the train stops to let them board.

This off-the-beaten path route is a lifeline for people living between Hurricane Gulch and Talkeetna. There are no roads that connect many of the small towns to larger cities, so residents board the train to get supplies and food, sometimes shopping for the entire month ahead.

Summer routes are available from May to September and run Thursday to Monday. The winter schedule runs from October to May only leaving on the first Thursday of the month going all the way to Anchorage. While there are no food and drink services, this route is BYO and full of locals, prime for a deeper immersion and insight into Alaskan life.

Routes: Summer route—between Hurricane Gulch and Talkeetna; winter route—between Hurricane Gulch and Anchorage

Southwest Chief, Amtrak

Amtrak: Southwest Chief

Take in the American West on the Southwest Chief Amtrak journey. Just the act of boarding the train in Los Angeles feels like the start of an epic adventure. The station, in its Art Deco and Spanish-style glory faces City Hall, made famous as The Daily Planet building in the 1960s Superman TV show.

From there, the train rolls past the Los Angeles River through the Santa Ana Canyon. As Joshua trees come into view, you know you’re entering the Mojave Desert and farther into Arizona. Williams Junction serves as the disembarking point for day-trips to the Grand Canyon. Leaving Williams Junction, the train chugs past the San Francisco peaks—these volcanic mountains serve religious purposes for local American Indian tribes—and Canyon Diablo.

Through Arizona, the train passes Clifton House Ruins—a stagecoach stop built in the 1860s—and other trading cities in the Southwest. As the train pulls through Kansas and Missouri, the orderly farms and pastures line the tracks all the way past the horizon in some places. When the train begins to slow up in Chicago, preparing to stop, look for the skyscrapers that tower over the Windy City. 

Route: Between Chicago and Los Angeles

California Zephyr, Amtrak

Amtrak: California Zephyr

For less desert than the Southwest Chief, board the world renowned Amtrak California Zephyr. Careen through the Rocky Mountains and Colorado’s Gorge on your way from Chicago through Denver and Glenwood Springs. Pass yellowed grasslands and white-peaked mountains before coming to a halt outside San Francisco. Over 50 hours and 2,400 miles, the full California Zephyr is a scenic way to see six states. 

Route: Between Chicago and San Francisco

Rocky Mountaineer

Rocky Mountaineer: Coastal Passage

Cruise out of Seattle into the heights of Western Canada on the eastbound Coastal Passage route. Board the Mountaineer at King Street Station in Seattle for views of Puget Sound as the train roars on to Vancouver. Pass through Banff, home to one of Canada’s most famous national parks. Tour the Emerald Lake on the fifth day of the journey before racing to Lake Louise, a crown jewel in the heart of Banff National Park. After admiring the mirror-surfaced lake, the train will pull you on to Calgary, the final destination.

Route: Between Seattle and Calgary

Crescent route, Amtrak

Amtrak: Crescent Route

Leave New York City on this route that flows through the American South and into the bayous of Louisiana. Observe the towering Delaware Bridge not far outside of Philadelphia or take in the view of Alexandria, Virginia, outside of Washington D.C. The train zips through Charlotte, North Carolina—one of several barbecue hotspots in America—on its way to the party capital of the South. Atlanta, Mobile and New Orleans—roughly 1,300 miles and 30 hours after leaving New York—await down this curving, transcontinental Amtrak route.

Route: Between New York City and New Orleans

Amtrak: Silver Star

For staying on the East Coast, the Silver Star route stops at more than half a dozen historic and economically valuable cities from New York to Miami. Enjoy the views of large train hubs like D.C. and Richmond but also add waterfront sights of Charleston and Savannah to the must-see list for this ride. On the way to Miami you might even see a Walt Disney character (or at least some Disney memorabilia carried on by travelers when the train makes several stops near Orlando). Find yourself at the last stop in Miami for a rollicking party in Little Haiti or a visit to the many Cuban-inspired art installations in the city.

Route: Between New York City and Miami

Empire Builder train route, Amtrak

Amtrak: Empire Builder 

Leave the hustle and bustle of Chicago behind in this 46-hour ride and enjoy the lights of St. Paul as you zoom through Minnesota. Admire Glacier National Park from the windows of your train car and from Spokane, Washington, choose to go to either Portland or Seattle. We hear both have great coffee selections.

Route: Between Chicago and either Portland or Seattle 

Vermonter route, Amtrak

Amtrak: Vermonter

Though the Vermonter route is shorter than other Amtrak routes—only shy of 14 hours total—it serves as a way to relax. Trundle out of Washington, D.C. and admire the rural splendor of New York on your way to Connecticut and even farther north. Pass through Mount Snow, Sugarbush, Stowe and other quaint towns with resorts beloved for East Coast skiing. Gliding past castles on the Hudson River on your way to the remote Northeast practically melts stress away.

Route: Between Washington, D.C. and St. Albans, Vermont

Amtrak: Sunset Limited

Tour some of the lowest 48 on this route that connects New Orleans and Los Angeles. Fly by Saguaro National Park in Arizona after marveling at Big Bend National Park in Texas. Sidle through the rest of Texas to see Marfa, Texas, the famous art-centric town with stops like “Marfa Lights” and The Prada Store before heading past San Antonio's iconic river walk, lined with multi-colored umbrellas over dining tables. Whiz past Lake Charles—a game and recreation lake with dozens of annual events and festivals—to small towns in Louisiana, like Lafayette’s town situated amongst rolling hills, and New Iberia with its French, Native American and Spanish influences. Roll into a New Orleans after a 4.4-mile trip over the longest railroad bridge in the country, the Huey P. Long Bridge.

Route: Between New Orleans and Los Angeles