For those who subscribe to the adage “the journey matters more than the destination” and want to decrease their carbon footprint, train trips are the perfect vacations. In today’s post, we’ll look at the 12 best train rides in the USA.
Traveling by train may seem like a quaint, old-fashioned way to get from one point to another, but millions of Americans ride the train every year.
Passengers choose to take the train over cars or planes probably because of the more casual atmosphere, overall comfort, less environmental impact, and of course, the scenery that may not be viewable from any other mode of transportation.
The best time to travel by train is during the spring or fall; trains are likely crowded and fares go up during the summer and national holidays, while the shorter daylight times during winter decrease the chances to appreciate the scenery outside.
In today’s article, we enumerate the 12 best train rides in the USA.
Best Interstate Train Rides In The USA
The train routes I’m going to enumerate in this section are all Amtrak routes, simply because with more than 30 train routes in the US and Canada, traveling to more than 500 destinations in 46 contiguous states (except South Dakota and Wyoming), Amtrak is the clear choice.
Although these are described as one-way routes, you can generally purchase round-trip tickets, going back the same way.
1. Amtrak Cascades Train through the Pacific Northwest
This ride through the Pacific Northwest connects 18 cities along the I-5 and lets you witness breathtaking views of Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Columbia River, and evergreen forests in between.
It travels from Vancouver, BC, Canada and ends in Eugene, Oregon. It passes Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, and Portland and Salem in Oregon.
If you plan to board in Canada, arrive one hour before departure to allow for security checks. Also, consider the travel requirements for crossing the border.
Distance: 467 miles
Duration (one-way, non-stop): 10 hours 25 minutes
Cost (Standard fare, no discounts): Starts at $94
More Information: Amtrak Cascades Train
2. Pacific Surfliner through Southern California
The Pacific Surfliner route goes along the coastline, serving up fantastic views of the ocean and endless beaches.
Starting from San Luis Obispo, California and ending in San Diego, California, it passes through Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
It follows almost the same route as the Pacific Coast Highway, but from a different vantage point.
Their trains have special racks for surfboards and bikes to accommodate those who want to get off at any of the coastal stops.
Distance: 350 miles
Duration (one-way, non-stop): 8 hours 30 minutes
Cost (Standard fare, no discounts): Starts at $62
More Information: Pacific Surfliner
3. Coast Starlight through the West Coast
The Coast Starlight route features all the great cities on the West Coast, providing spectacular views of the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific shoreline, Mount Shasta and Klamath Falls, with luxurious forests and emerald valleys in between.
The route starts in Seattle, Washington and ends in Los Angeles, California. Notable stops include Portland, Oregon, Sacramento, California, and Santa Barbara, California.
As this is a longer journey than most, sleeping cars are available in this particular train route.
Distance: 1,377 miles
Duration (one-way, non-stop): 35 hours
Cost (Standard fare, no discounts): Starts at $126
More Information: Coast Starlight
4. Maple Leaf along the Hudson River
From the west coast, we head over to the east coast.
Amtrak’s Maple Leaf train travels from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to New York City, New York. Notable stops include Niagara Falls (though sadly, the majestic falls aren’t visible from the train), Syracuse, and Albany.
The gorgeous scenery includes the Hudson River, Lake Erie, New York’s wine country, and the incredible gorges of the Finger Lakes region, with lush orchards and vineyards in between.
Border control is at Niagara Falls and takes two hours, so make sure to have your travel requirements ready and declare any prepackaged food you may have from either country.
Distance: 544 miles
Duration (one-way, non-stop): 12 hours 30 minutes (includes time at border control)
Cost (Standard fare, no discounts): Starts at $130
More Information: Maple Leaf Train
5. California Zephyr as You Trace The Path of the Pioneers
The longest continuous Amtrak route, the California Zephyr is also one of the best train rides in the US.
The route starts from Chicago, Illinois and ends at Emeryville, California and is said to be the same path that the trail pioneers took when they settled in the west.
The California Zephyr courses through the plains through Nebraska to Denver, then follows the Colorado River for more than 200 miles, through the Rocky Mountains, Colorado’s Gore, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, into the red rock desert of Utah, sagebrush country of Nevada, California’s Sierra Nevada, Donner Pass, and into Emeryville, California.
Distance: 2,438 miles
Duration (one-way, non-stop): 51 hours 40 minutes
Cost (Standard fare, no discounts): Starts at $176
More Information: California Zephyr Train
6. Lake Shore Limited along Tranquil Shorelines
Shorelines aren’t only located near the ocean; they’re also present in-state.
The Lake Shore Limited starts at Chicago, Illinois and diverges in Albany, New York to go to either Boston, Massachusetts or New York City.
On the way, it travels along the south shore of Lake Michigan, the Mohawk River, the Erie Canal, and the Finger Lakes region to Albany, with views of big cities and college towns in between.
Distance: Chicago–New York: 959 miles; Chicago–Boston: 1,017 miles
Duration (one-way, non-stop): Chicago–New York: 20 hours; Chicago–Boston: 22 hours 40 minutes
Cost (Standard fare, no discounts): Chicago–New York: Starts at $112; Chicago–Boston: Starts at $120
More Information: Lake Shore Limited
7. Coast-To-Coast Through the California Zephyr and the Lake Shore Limited
Definitely an ambitious, massive undertaking, file this one in your bucket list.
Not many people can say they’ve traveled North America from coast to coast via train, so this should definitely be one of those trips you should do at least once in your life.
To perform this feat, you’ll need to take the California Zephyr and the Lake Shore Limited trains, changing at the Chicago, Illinois Union Station.
It’s up to you whether you want to do the journey from west to east or from east to west. Just know that at by the end of this journey, you’ll have passed through 12 states and traveled almost 3,500 miles in almost 75 hours; and that’s one-way (assuming your terminal stop is Boston, Massachusetts).
It sounds grueling, and it is, but rest assure this is one of the best train rides in the USA you’ll ever take.
Distance: Emeryville–New York: 3,397 miles; Emeryville–Boston: 3,455 miles
Duration (one-way, non-stop): Emeryville–New York: 71 hours 40 minutes; Emeryville–Boston: 74 hours 20 minutes
Cost (Standard fare, no discounts):Emeryville–New York: starts at $288; Emeryville–Boston: starts at $296
More Information: California Zephyr Train and
Lake Shore Limited
Tips When Traveling Via Amtrak
- Download the Amtrak app. The Amtrak app allows you to buy, change, and store your eTickets. It also updates schedules real-time so you can check for any delays or changes in itineraries.
- Book well in advance. You can save some money if you book in advance at least 2 weeks ahead.
- Buy a USA rail pass. This is well worth it if you plan to travel a lot within a short period of time.
- Use Amtrak’s checked baggage service. If you have large baggage, it’s advisable to check in your baggage so that you don’t have to stress about the limited space in the train and you can get off at rest stops without lugging a big bag.
- Plan your trip meticulously. If your trip has you transferring trains, make sure you have enough time to make your connections. Many Amtrak trains that share tracks with freight trains experience delays, so consider this when booking your tickets.
- Check out Amtrak Vacations. Amtrak Vacations offer pre-planned routes catering to different needs and destinations, which are packaged with tours and accommodations.
Best Non-Intercity Scenic Train Rides
There are scenic train rides limited to one city or state that can give you the adventure of your life. Here are the best train rides in the USA where you don’t have to venture too far.
8. Grand Canyon: Grand Canyon Railway
The Grand Canyon is one of the great American landmarks and must-visit national parks.
But because it is such a popular destination, especially the tourist-friendly South Rim, you can get stuck in traffic going there and in lines for going through the entrance, parking, and shuttles.
This is where the Grand Canyon Railway comes in.
The Grand Canyon Railway takes passengers from Williams, Arizona to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park all year round.
On the way, a variety of landscapes from the Ponderosa and Pinion pine forests of Northern Arizona to expansive prairies and deserts, through the San Francisco Peaks and various Native American reservations, and of course, canyons.
Once at the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park, there’s a four-hour stopover for you to explore and take in the sights.
You can also opt to stay one night or a few nights in the park and then ride the train back on a different day.
Trains leave Williams, Arizona every day at 9:30 AM (8:30 AM DST) and leave Grand Canyon Railway Station every day at 3:30 PM (2:30 PM DST). During peak seasons, a second train departure time is added both ways.
You can choose from 6 different train classes and enjoy the entertainment in the railway station as well as on the train.
Distance (round trip): 130 miles
Duration (round trip): 4 hours 30 minutes
Best time of year to go: Avoid busy times: spring break, summer, national holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas
Cost: Ranges from $67 to $226 depending on class of service
More Information: Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel
9. White Pass & Yukon Route through Alaska and Beyond
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 brought about the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway in 1899.
This railway is a feat in civil engineering recognized internationally; it is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
You can choose from three different excursions. All of the trains start from Skagway, Alaska and are either round-trip or one-way depending on the excursion you select.
The White Pass Summit Excursion retraces the original route from Skagway, Alaska to the White Pass Summit, passing Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point, and Dead Horse Gulch, with views of mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, and so much more. It climbs to a 3,000-feet elevation in just 20 miles.
The Bennett Scenic Journey is a 120-mile round trip from Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Yukon Territories, Canada, with a 45-minute layover at Bennett Station to visit the White Pass museum and tour the town.
You’ll be traveling by train one way and by motorcoach the other way via the Klondike Highway; you can choose whether to take the train to the Yukon and motorcoach back to Alaska or motorcoach to the Yukon and train back to Alaska. As this excursion crosses the border, have your passport and other documents ready.
Lastly, the Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion is a 54-mile round trip from Skagway, Alaska to the Fraser Meadows Loop aboard a restored steam locomotive through rugged terrain and cliff-hanging turns.
Note: If you have a fear of heights, skip this route.
Distance: White Pass Summit Excursion: 40 miles round-trip; Bennett Scenic Journey: 120 miles round-trip; Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion: 54 miles round-trip
Duration:White Pass Summit Excursion: 2 hours 45 minutes; Bennett Scenic Journey: 8 hours; Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion: 4 hours
Best time of year to go: Limited operations within the year; July to September is when all three excursions are available.
Cost: White Pass Summit Excursion: $129; Bennett Scenic Journey: $235; Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion: $170
More Information: White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
10. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will take you on a journey through the Carolina Mountains that make up half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The trains travel through tunnels, across rivers and lakes, through mountain valleys, and into a deep river gorge.
You can choose between a diesel or a steam train, and two scenic journeys.
The Tuckasegee River Excursion leaves Bryson City, North Carolina and travels to Dillsboro, stops for 1.5 hours, and travels back to Bryson City. Get mesmerized by the panoramic valleys and the trainwreck set from the film The Fugitive.
The Nantahala Gorge Excursion also leaves Bryson City and travels to Nantahala Gorge, crossing the historic Fontana Lake trestle. It stops for 1 hour at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and then goes back to Bryson City. This excursion is available from March to October.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad also offers a Moonshine Experience, where you get to taste many different types of moonshine with a barbecue meal, as well as a Narration Car, where you can have an unforgettable learning experience with a guide narrating the history of different landmarks along the journey.
Distance: Tuckasegee River Excursion: 32 miles round-trip; Nantahala Gorge Excursion: 44 miles round-trip;
Duration (one-way, non-stop): Tuckasegee River Excursion: 4 hours; Nantahala Gorge Excursion: 4.5 hours
Best time of year to go: Limited availability; Fall offers pumpkin patch trips and winter offers Polar Express-themed rides
Cost: Tuckasegee River Excursion: starts at $51; Nantahala Gorge Excursion: starts at $51
11. Mount Washington Cog Railway through New England
Starting from the Marshfield Base Station in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, the Mount Washington Cog Railway (affectionately called “The Cog”) climbs around 3,500 feet up to the highest summit in New England.
As you can probably surmise, this is the steepest rack railway in the USA, and second in the world. So again, if you have a fear of heights, this might not be for you.
A one-hour stopover at the summit gives you breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Canada, as well as the Atlantic Ocean from the Mount Washington Observatory.
You can also browse the museum and gift shops, as well as send yourself and your loved ones a postcard from their post office.
Though there’s only one way up (and down), you can choose between riding a biodiesel or a steam locomotive.
Distance (round trip): 6 miles
Duration (round trip): 3 hours
Best time of year to go: Limited operations; mid-April through November
Cost: Starts at $72
More Information: Mount Washington Cog Railway
12. Arkansas & Missouri Railroad through The Ozarks
The Arkansas & Missouri Railroad runs 139 miles from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Monett, Missouri.
The A&M runs mostly freight cars, but offers round-trip scenic tours through the Ozark Boston Mountains. Travel high trestles over 125 feet from the ground.
The Springdale to Van Buren route is a whole-day affair, taking you through the Boston Mountain range of the Ozarks with spectacular forest views all around and stopping at the historic town of Van Buren for three hours.
The Van Buren to Winslow route takes you over streams, wildlife, and trestles overlooking lush forests. Go through the 1700-foot long Winslow tunnel for more breathtaking scenery.
If you’re purely going for the fall foliage and the Winslow tunnel, skip van Buren entirely and ride the Springdale to Winslow route.
Distance: Springdale to Van Buren: 134 miles round-trip; Van Buren to Winslow: 70 miles round-trip; Springdale to Winslow: 70 miles round-trip
Duration (one-way, non-stop): Springdale to Van Buren: 8 hours; Van Buren to Winslow: 3 hours; Springdale to Winslow: 3 hours
Best time of year to go: Fall
Cost: Springdale to Van Buren: starts at $70; Van Buren to Winslow: starts at $50; Springdale to Winslow: starts at $50
More Information: Arkansas & Missouri Railroad
What’s the Best Train Ride in the US?
Are you now inspired to book one of these train routes?
Do you agree with the routes in this list?
Or do you have a train ride to suggest? Weigh in on the comments below!