The Most Transcendent Train Rides In North America

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Image courtesy of White Pass Railroad

Well, train, train, take me on out of this town–Blackfoot, “Train, Train” (1979)

If you’re looking for a travel experience where the journey’s worth more than the actual destination, these train rides will take you through some of the most serene scenery in North America. Enjoy the old-fashioned feel of railroad travel. It’s a real road trip via railway as you thread your way through tiny towns and chat with fellow passengers on these 12 transcendent train rides through North America.

1.  The Cascades

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The Cascades train trip goes from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada to the cities of Seattle, Washington, Portland, and Eugene, Oregon. It’s a scenic, relaxing ride past historic Mount St. Helens and across the well-known Columbia River Gorge. The 156-mile trek’s span from Eugene to Seattle is especially noteworthy complete with evergreen forests, Puget Sound, and a great view of the Olympic Mountains. Veteran visitors say it’s like being in a four-hour living picture postcard.

2.  The Cass Scenic Railroad

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This trip focuses on Cass in West Virginia. It’s an eight-mile trek through a place that singer-songwriter John Denver called “almost heaven.” This trip employs only original locomotives once used only to carry lumber to various mining camps. Now they carry passengers up an 11 percent-grade, four-mile slope complete with spectacular views of the mountains and a stop at the restored logging camp Whittaker Station. Go in October and see the fall foliage.

3.  The California Zephyr

Take this 2,438-mile train trip from Chicago, Illinois all the way to Emeryville, California. It’s a ride that lasts over two days and perfect for tracing the trail that early pioneers traveled when they settled the Old West. Take in all the grandeur of the West including the rugged Rocky Mountains in Denver, the scarlet boulders of Utah, rustic Ruby Canyon, the scenic Sierras, dashing Donner Pass, and scenic San Francisco Bay.

4.  The White Pass and Yukon Route

Image courtesy of White Pass & Yukon Route

Head to Alaska for this 120-mile round-trip. Take in the shuddering sheer cliff drops on this nifty narrow-gauge ride. It was built in 1898 during the famous Klondike Gold Rush.

Your journey begins in Skagway where you’ll decide between three different excursions. You’ll go as high as 3000 feet within 20 miles. Their signature trip includes taking the old miners’ supply route to Carcross, Lake Bennett, and Bridal Veil Falls.

5. The Cape Cod Central Railroad

trainImage courtesy of John Kettredge Cape Cod Central Railroad

Take in the beauty of this popular seaside community from Hyannis to Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. There are two options for this 27-mile trip. You can take the sightseeing tour that features informational narration or take the “foodie-favored” dinner train and have a freshly prepared dinner right on board the train. Both trips include a unique view of Cape Cod complete with adorable small towns, cranberry bogs, oceanfront trails, and salt marshes.

6. The Grand Canyon Railway

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Enjoy this (ahem) grand trip that starts in Williams, Arizona. It’s a 130-mile round trip. Unless you want to hike the canyon rim to rim (as your roving writer once did), this is a great way to avoid being stuck behind too many tour buses en route to the Grand Canyon. You’ll see Arizona’s pine forests, high desert, reservations, and San Francisco peaks prior to reaching the spectacular south rim of the canyon.

7. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Image courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Here in Bryson City, North Carolina, you’ll have two choices in train treks through the Great Smoky Mountains. One trip is 32 miles long. The other is 44. The former, known as the Tuckasegee River Excursion, will take you through valleys and across historic bridges into the town of Dillsboro for a 1.5-hour stop. The latter is the Nantahala Gorge Excursion featuring the Nantahala and Tennessee Rivers, Fontana Lake, and the gorge.

8. The Coast Starlight

Image courtesy of Amtrak

Give your usual vacation driver (or yourself) a break and see the US Pacific coast from Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington via a relaxing train ride. You’ll travel a distance of 1,377 miles without anyone dividing their attention between the sharp curves and the numerous sights along the way. You’ll see the craggy cliffs beside the PCH, Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, Puget Sound, and the San Francisco Bay.

9. The Sunset Limited

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This scenic run begins in New Orleans, Louisiana, and ends in Los Angeles, California. This 1,995-mile trip begins in bayou country and travels through the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. Visit during peak season and there will be national park guides on board to tell you of the geography and history of the area. Want a closer look? Simply get off at Saguaro or Big Bend National Parks.

10. The Strasburg Railroad

Image courtesy of Strasburg Railroad

Here’s the oldest railway on our list. Located in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, it offers a nine-mile trip through Amish Country. Take in the rolling hills and countryside as you ride the route once employed to carry products from industrial Pennsylvania to the coast.

It was restored sometime in the 1960s. Now a passenger train, the president’s and first-class trains feature “Gilded Age luxury.” This trip to Plymouth is even a family-friendly excursion.

11. The Empire Builder

See the impressive Great Plains on this 2206-mile trip from Chicago, Illinois to Seattle, Washington. This 46-hour ride also includes eight scenic hours crossing great Glacier National Park. Hang out in the observation lounge and see such attractions as the famous Lewis and Clark’s expedition route, beautiful Whitefish, Montana, mountain ranges, and even a seven-mile tunnel bored through the impressive Cascade mountains.

12. The Aurora Winter Train

Explore Alaska comfortably from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska. Take this 358-mile route to see the Northern Lights all the rest of the state’s “greatest hits” in style. You can roam about the cars on this particular Alaska Railroad train.

Your 12-hour trek begins in surprisingly metropolitan Anchorage through what veteran visitors call “vertigo-inducing mountain passes,” across broad bridges, and into the depths of the wilderness. It’s there that you’re likely to see the aurora borealis reflecting off the pure snow and dancing across the night sky. The trip is only available in the winter (September through May).

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