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Mount Washington Cog Railway
Photograph: Shutterstock

The most scenic train rides across the U.S.

It’s all about the journey on these mind-blowingly scenic train rides across the U.S.

By Kelly Lack and Sarah Medina
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This may be the summer of the road trip, but train rides can be equally nostalgic, romantic, and, most importantly, a leisurely way to see this beautiful country. From national forests in the South to the mighty Pacific coastline, these scenic train rides across the U.S. ensure you get to admire the most beautiful parts of America without having to put in any time behind the wheel. So this summer—between all the hiking, biking, and camping—add these breathtakingly scenic train rides to your outdoorsy to-do list. 

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Best scenic train rides across the U.S.

Amtrak's Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle
Amtrak's Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle
Photograph: Courtesy Amtrak

1. L.A. to Seattle: Coast Starlight

Put a spin on the classic left-coast road trip by traveling by train instead. The advantages? Zero wrong-turn fights and way more photo-ops. The 1,377-mile Coast Starlight route hits the best of the West: Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland and more. On the 36-hour trip, bounce from your seat to the dining car and the “sightseer lounge car,” where all the seats face the panoramic, floor-to-ceiling windows. 

Discover the best things to do in Seattle 

Green Mountain national forest, vermont
Green Mountain national forest, vermont
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. NYC to Vermont: Ethan Allen Express

While the destination is a major draw, getting there is half the fun on this five-and-a-half-hour journey from New York City to Vermont. You’ll cruise through the postcard-perfect towns of New York’s Hudson Valley; hit Saratoga Springs, as famous for its horse races as its hot springs; and snake around Vermont’s fittingly named Green Mountains before landing in charming little-big city Rutland, with its historic downtown and one helluva farmers' market.

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GoldStar 15
GoldStar 15
Photograph: Courtesy Alaska Railroad

3. Anchorage to Fairbanks: Alaska Denali Star

Note: The Denali Star Train will operate July to mid-September 2020. 

This 350-mile stretch through the heart of Alaska highlights the state's beautiful, rugged wilderness. Between the birch forests, rushing rivers, caribou- and bear-spotting, views of Mt. McKinley and a stint through Denali National Park, there’s a reason this is the Alaska Railroad’s flagship sojourn. If you can swing it, splurge on a GoldStar upgrade and take in the spectacular scenery from an open-air viewing car, with absolutely nothing between you and the wild. 

Discover the best things to do in Alaska 

Grand Canyon, Arizona
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Williams to the Grand Canyon: The Grand Canyon Railway

Sure you may have been to the Grand Canyon already, but have you ever admired Grand Canyon country by train? On The Grand Canyon Railway you’ll depart from Williams, Arizona, and roll through pine forests and prairies, spotting pronghorn and bald eagles, before arriving two hours and 15 minutes later at the epic South Rim. All of the historic cars of the Grand Canyon Railway have fascinating former lives, and some have glass-dome ceilings for unstoppable panoramas. 

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Amtrak's Empire Builder, between Chicago and Portland
Amtrak's Empire Builder, between Chicago and Portland
Photograph: Courtesy Amtrak

5. Chicago to Portland: Empire Builder

There is only one word to describe this journey: epic. The Empire Builder runs daily between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, mirroring much of Lewis and Clark’s original expedition. It passes through a greatest hits list of must-see sites, from the urban (St. Cloud-Minneapolis) to the great outdoors (big-sky country and Glacier National Park). The trip totals 46 hours, which warrants booking at least a roomette with seats that convert to beds, so you can fully stretch out once you’ve gotten your fill of landscapes under the moonlight. 

Discover the best things to do in Portland 

New Hampshire - extreme crop
New Hampshire - extreme crop
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Bretton Woods, NH: Mount Washington Cog Railway

Note: Admission to the visitor center is by advanced reservation only.

Like the Little Engine That Could, this antique train chugs daily up Mount Washington, depositing its passengers at the 6,288-foot peak, the highest in the Northeast. A working museum of sorts (the track dates to 1852), the Cog has the elevated feel of a gondola, only you’re in a sturdy little train. At the top, take in the sweeping views—to Canada and the Atlantic on a clear day. 

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, North Carolina
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Bryson City, NC: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

It may be pint-size, but Bryson City, the departure point for this rail-riding adventure, is rich with local gems (like barbecue joints, a soda fountain, and a brewery). Various routes originate here, but the four-and-a-half-hour Nantahala Gorge excursion is a scenery-serving star, snaking along the forested Nantahala River and crossing the Fontana Lake by bridge. (Foliage lovers take note: The leaves here are absolutely on fire during the fall.)

Discover the best things to do in North Carolina 

The Hawaiian Railway Society
The Hawaiian Railway Society
Photograph: Courtesy The Hawaiian Railway Society

8. Oahu, HI: The Hawaiian Railway Society

Note: Reservations are now required to ride the train. 

Train travel takes a turn for the tropical on this 90-minute jaunt across Oahu in an old sugar-cane hauler traveling at the lickety-split speed of 15 miles an hour. The ride shows you a rarely seen version of Hawaii, filled with old sisal plantations and ghost towns. Time your trip for the second Sunday of the month and you can book a seat in the elegant 1900 parlor car that was the personal ride of Oahu Railway & Land Co. founder Mr. Dillingham. 

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Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Photograph: Courtesy DSNGRR/Yvonne Lashmett

9. Durang to Silverton, CO: Narrow Gauge Railroad

Note: Passenger train service to Silverton has been temporarily discontinued. Trains are currently running from Rockwood Station to Cascade Canyon from Tuesday to Saturday. 

One of the most scenic ways to experience one of the most scenic states, a ride on the Narrow Gauge Railroad isn’t merely photo fodder, but a full immersion into the wild wild west. The train has been rolling between Durango and Silverton since 1882, when it was tasked with transporting silver and gold out of the San Juan Mountains. The 45.4-mile route runs in both directions along the Animas River, crisscrossing it five times, and passing by old stagecoach trails and long-deserted mining camps as it winds between 14,000-foot-high peaks.

Discover the best things to do in Colorado

Napa Valley Wine Train
Napa Valley Wine Train
Photograph: Courtesy Napa Valley Wine Train

10. Napa Valley, CA: The Napa Valley Wine Train

Note: Napa Valley Wine Train journeys are temporarily canceled until August 21, 2020.

On this California Wine Country track, you can get drunk on the scenery alone: picture-perfect wineries and hills carpeted in lush rows of vines. But you’ll have a little help, what with all the vino you’ll be sipping alongside your onboard multicourse meal—both lunch and dinner are options. The roving restaurant is made up of a collection of vintage Pullman railcars complete with mahogany panels and brass hardware. So go ahead and soak it all up—you’re not behind the wheel, after all.

Discover the best things to do in Napa

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