A road trip around the country has long been a reliable way to see America’s most photogenic spots up close. But a road trip often includes wrestling with endless maps, getting turned around at highway rest stops and spending the night in less-than-five-star hotels. Seeing the country from the nation’s rails could be a better bet. There are no directions to follow and there’s no stopping for gas — and when you go to sleep, the train keeps moving. All you have to do is take in the views.
Whether you’re looking to find thick forests or snow-capped majestic mountains, there are probably trains that run through them. But remember, due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the following most scenic train routes in America are operating with limited service and new social distancing measures to keep riders safe.
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The Grand Canyon Railroad approaches the national landmark starting from Williams, Arizona, and weaving up to the South Rim through the pine forests and desert before finally reaching the mesmerizing national wonder. Although the train’s observation deck is out of service for 2020, train riders can still book seats in luxury dome or luxury parlor class.
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This route passes through marshes, crosses cranberry bogs and bustles along the bay, giving you beautiful New England vistas without New England traffic. The train travels through quaint villages and past old industrial buildings, offering a peek into the popular tourist destination’s storied history.
The Cass Scenic Railroad is a 4.5-hour trip from a restored lumbering town up to the 4,842-feet Bald Knob in West Virginia. The summit offers a scenic look into the valley below, and during the fall serves as a great place to see the foliage.
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This route is one of Amtrak’s longest, providing a connection from the plains of Montana and North Dakota to Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. During the 46-hour trip, the train chugs along the Mississippi River, through the open land of North Dakota and Montana and the mountains of Idaho before splitting routes to Seattle or Portland. Glacier National Park, home to some of the most beautiful spots in America’s national park, is also accessible via the Empire Builder line.
This route traces the West Coast, displaying everything from the snow-covered mountain peaks to beautiful coastlines and lush forests. Heading north, riders wake up early to see the sunrise over Mount Shasta and eat breakfast while cruising through the Bay Area heading south. This route is sure to please.
Amtrak’s southernmost route, the Sunset Limited certainly offers plentiful views of its namesake. The train heads west, first pulling out of New Orleans then cruising through the Texas heat and on to the popular Arizona winter escapes of Tucson and Phoenix. The route terminates at Los Angeles Union Station, a beautiful Mission Moderne style station built in 1939, where riders can transfer over to the Coast Starlight.
Amtrak’s Cascades line connects the cities of the Pacific Northwest and does so with charm and beauty. Typically, this route extends as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia. However, there is currently no Amtrak Cascades train service north of Seattle. Still, the route glides past Mount St. Helens and across the Columbia River Gorge, two of the 101 most jaw-droppingly beautiful places in America.
The Capitol Corridor connects the California capital of Sacramento with the Bay Area and San Jose to the south. This route is temporarily operating on a reduced schedule, making eight train trips a week as opposed to the usual 15. However, riders still can see the bustling metropolis and the must-see landmarks of pet-friendly San Francisco — just bring a face mask.
The Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic heads south from Anchorage, one of the world’s coldest cities, following the coastline before turning away from the road system and into the mountains. It then arrives in Seward, home of one of the most underrated parks in America, Kenai Fjords National Park. This train ride has some of the most dramatic scenery that Alaska has to offer short of spending a night in a tent.
Reopening Sept. 1, 2020, The Napa Valley Wine Train chugs through some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. And unlike with a car ride, you’re actually able to sip locally sourced red wine, the state’s signature drink, as you soak up the views. This three-hour, 36-mile trip from downtown Napa to St. Helena and back treks through some of the most prized farmland in the country, tons of wineries and the charming storybook towns that accompany them.
The Adirondack line is a 10-hour trek north from New York City. Typically, the route winds through the lower Hudson Valley, follows the river up to Albany, branches off into the Adirondacks, cruises past America’s best lake towns along the coast of Lake Champlain and continues across the border to Montreal. These days, the route cuts off at Albany.
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This line heads west from Chicago, crosses the Great Plains through Kansas City, then glides across southeastern Colorado to New Mexico. The route then cuts through northern Arizona via Flagstaff, passes by a wacky vintage sign in the Mojave Desert and the Cucamonga Wilderness, and then finally arrives in Los Angeles.
Everything is bigger in Texas, so it’s fitting that the Texas Eagle scenic route clocks in at a whopping 65 hours and 20 minutes of train travel. The journey begins in Chicago, heading south through Springfield and St. Louis. Then it ventures into Arkansas with stops in Little Rock and Texarkana. The rail line crosses the heart of Texas to Dallas before turning south to Austin and San Antonio before joining the Sunset Limited for the remainder of the journey to Los Angeles.
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This scenic railroad winds through the mountain ranges of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. It climbs through tunnels, valleys and meadows and over gorges on a route that takes advantage of its dramatic and varied landscape. The route peaks at 10,015 feet, the highest point reached by any railway in the United States.
Greatly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Durango & Silverton Scenic Railroad remains open but no longer connects its two namesake hidden American gems. All trains to Silverton have been suspended for the remainder of 2020. Still, the popular train route now runs from Rockwood Station, located 18 miles north of Durango, to Cascade Canyon and back in under two hours.
Passing by Niagara Falls, the Maple Leaf usually connects the United States’ and Canada’s largest cities. However, recent route reductions mean no service west of Niagara Falls, New York. Still, en route to some of the world’s beautiful waterfalls, riders can look out those giant train windows at miles of stunning Hudson River Valley and New York wine country.
Mount Washington is famous for the proliferation of bumper stickers proclaiming that “This car climbed Mount Washington.” But driving is far from the only way to climb the mountain. The Mount Washington Cog Railway is North America’s only mountain-climbing cog railway and the first in the world. Over 150 years since its start, the Cog Railway remains one of America’s most impressive architectural marvels.
While other Mount Hood Railroad excursions remain closed, the Hood River Valley Excursion will reopen Aug. 21, 2020. The one-hour ride makes for a short but worthwhile trip along 3 miles of the Lower Hood River Valley. During the wintertime, the Mount Hood Railroad hosts one of the best Christmas train rides in America, fit with dancing elves, sing-alongs, hot cocoa and tons and tons of cookies.
The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway travels along the Toccoa River through the North Georgia countryside. Passengers get to step out and enjoy a break in the neighboring stuck-in-time towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee, before heading back through the wilderness.
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Branson, Missouri, is one of the best towns to visit in autumn. The area around Branson offers the rolling hills of the Ozarks. This train weaves in and out of those valleys, over bridges and through tunnels, ultimately giving passengers a great view of the area’s natural characteristics.
Beginning Sept. 31, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad will once again bring passengers on a ride through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, offering stellar views of the Cuyahoga River without the tiring hike. The park is also one of the best parks in the country for fall foliage.
Considered one of Amtrak’s most scenic lines, the California Zephyr begins in Chicago and then cruises through the plains of Nebraska before arriving in Denver. The path then winds its way through the Rockies, through Utah — the second-happiest state in America — before gliding through the deserts of Nevada. Finally, it climbs over the Sierra Nevada and arrives in the Bay Area. Crossing the country by rail is one of the 101 things every American should do in the U.S. in their lifetime.
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