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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.

Written by
Kelly Lack
Sarah Medina

Taking a road trip can be one of the most fun ways to get from here to there, with plenty of adventures (and gas station snacks) in between. The driver, however, can miss out on some of the scenery, having to keep their eyes on the road and all. For a chance to fully enjoy the beauty of the road, consider one of these scenic train rides.

Riding on a train can be a romantic, nostalgic, and best of all leisurely way to see the country. Even a commuter train between major cities can be a step up from a drive, but these scenic train rides are more than that. Geared towards long-haul trips from coast to coast, or specifically designed for enjoying the scenery, these train routes will let you take in all the glorious views.

Looking for a west coast adventure? Take the Coast Starlight from L.A. to Seattle. Heading to Alaska? Catch all the highlights on the Denali Star’s 350-mile trek from Fairbanks to Anchorage. The Grand Canyon Railway and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will take you from quaint towns to national parks. There are even some shorter jaunts, like the Mt. Washington Cog Railway or the Hawaiian Railway that will give you a small taste of scenic train travel.

So hop aboard, enjoy the views, and take as many pics as you want without having to keep your hands on the wheel.

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Best scenic train rides across the U.S.

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. 

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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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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. 

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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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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. 

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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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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.)

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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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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.

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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.

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