Photograph by Julia Knop/laif/Redux
From the July/August 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
In selecting the ten best train trips in North America, we followed the advice of fabled newspaper editor Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man.” While some of our picks lie east of the Mississippi, most veer toward the left coast, reflecting the railroads’ large role in opening the western frontier. Today, western rails continue to thrill riders with moutain peaks, desert vistas, spiral tunnels, unnervingly steep grades, and narrow-gauge tracks. So forgive our western bias, knowing that all ten of these rail experiences are among North America’s most memorable.
Peak Experience: Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Route: Durango to Silverton, Colorado
Duration: 3½ hours
In 45 miles, this narrow-gauge railway—with rails just three feet apart—climbs from Durango at 6,512 feet above sea level to Silverton at 9,305 feet. That 3,000-foot elevation gain, not to mention the views of 14,000-foot peaks out the windows, can make you catch your breath. On this historic line, the 1920s steam locomotive pulls 1880s-era passenger rail cars at a leisurely 18 miles per hour along tracks originally constructed to carry gold and silver ore. Noteworthy: Rounding the high line curve 250 feet above the Animas River; crossing the wooden deck of the 190-foot-long High Bridge; adding a day to your trip to glide through the treetops on 22 spans of zipline, ranging in length from 50 to 1,400 feet and accessible only via the train or a helicopter.
Revolutionary Railway: Ethan Allen Express
Route: New York City to Rutland, Vermont
Duration: 5½ hours
Leave the hassles of the Big Apple behind for some of the East Coast’s most mood-altering scenery as this Amtrak train travels 241 miles north from the city, taking in the Catskills in upper New York State and the Green Mountains in Vermont. The train departs in mid-afternoon, leaving enough daylight for sightseeing (sit on the left side facing the front for the best views) before you arrive in Rutland shortly after dark. Stops such as Rhinecliff-Kingston and Albany-Rensselaer (both in New York) feature hiking, biking, boating, museum-going, and all manner of dining. Stop in Saratoga Springs to visit the racetrack, performing arts center, and mineral spas. Last-stop-before-Vermont Fort Edward is the gateway to Lake George and the southern Adirondack Mountain region. End-of-the-line Rutland is famous for its Halloween celebrations. Noteworthy: The newest stop for the Ethan Allen, named after the Revolutionary War hero, is Castleton, Vermont, which features a historically renovated station housing the Green Mountain Country Depot. Skiers use the train to get to slopes at Killington.
Northwest Passage: Amtrak Cascades
Route: Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia
Duration: 11½ hours
This scenery-filled route offers “seascapes, mountain peaks [including Mt. Rainier in the south and Mt. Baker in the north], distant islands, rain forests, farm scenes, clouds, mist, and wildlife,” says Francesca Lyman, an editor and experienced rail rider in Kirkland, Washington. “If you don’t see orcas breaching in Puget Sound, you might see harbor seals or otter. Bring binoculars. Also watch for bald eagles, flying fish, and waterfowl.” Prefer cities? Explore Portland or Seattle. Noteworthy: The station in Bellingham, Washington, is near Fairhaven Village, filled with shops, restaurants, and a commons hosting farmers markets and concerts; Mount Vernon, another stop, is the nation’s largest commercial producer of tulips, irises, and daffodils, which are on display during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in April; Tacoma is home to the Museum of Glass, which looks like a giant cone tipped on its side; the Cascades is the only train in the U.S. featuring rail cars made by the Spanish company Talgo, including the art deco Bistro dining car (try Ivar’s clam chowder).
A Ride in the Woods: Cass Scenic Railroad
Route: Cass to Bald Knob, West Virginia
Duration: 4½ hours, round-trip
This 11-mile heritage rail line, contained within a state park on the eastern border of West Virginia, takes you up into the mountains and back in time. The line was built in 1901 to carry timber to the sawmill in Cass, the company town, which has been preserved much as it was a century ago. Eat at the Last Run Restaurant; wander through the Company Store Building museum; tour the Cass Locomotive Shops, used to restore and maintain the antique equipment. Then board the open-air carriages, converted from timber-carrying flat cars. Take in the scenery and watch the restored steam locomotive billow black smoke as it pulls the cars up two switchbacks. The short ride reaches Whittaker Station in 2½ hours; a longer route continues to Bald Knob at 4,842 feet. Noteworthy: You can overnight at Cass in restored company houses or camp at Bald Knob or Whittaker Station in an uncoupled caboose. Even in summer, a jacket is recommended against the mountain chill.
Westward Ho: California Zephyr
Route: Chicago to Emeryville, California
Duration: 51 hours, 20 minutes
This Amtrak route travels 2,438 miles through seven states, an echo of the epic journey pioneers took to settle the American West. “You follow the emigrant trails west, and cross the Continental Divide via the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, longest in the U.S.,” says model railroader and Western history buff John Vorhes. The Zephyr follows the canyons of the Colorado River down the western slope of the Rockies, crosses the deserts of Utah and Nevada, traverses the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and ends up in the lowlands of the California Central Valley. Noteworthy: Passengers look down on the mile-high city of Denver from the railbed above; California State Railroad Museum docents give talks in the lounge car; the train winds through oil-painting-like colored cliffs at Ruby Canyon, where eagles ride the thermals.
Mountain Climber: Rocky Mountaineer
Route: Vancouver to Calgary
Duration: Two days
The Rocky Mountaineer’s signature trip, running east, is timed so that passengers get daylight views of the Fraser Valley and the Fraser Canyon, which features the Hell’s Gate waterfall on the Fraser River. You overnight in a hotel in Kamloops, British Columbia. Day Two highlights include the climb over the Continental Divide en route to Calgary, Alberta, home of the world-famous Calgary Stampede rodeo. Noteworthy: The Spiral Tunnels, dug from the walls of Cathedral Mountain and Mount Robson; a 360-degree view of glacier and peaks from domed, double-decked carriages (available on higher-end GoldLeaf service cars); gourmet meals, including honey lemon ginseng cheesecake (another GoldLeaf amenity).
On the Rim of Copper Canyon: Chihuahua Pacific Railway
Route: Los Mochis to Chihuahua, Mexico
Duration: 13 hours one-way
“El Chepe,” as the train is known, features two departures—first class, meant for tourists, and economy class, about half the fare but making some 50 local stops. Stick with the former for the most comfort. The trip starts near the Pacific coast in the state of Sinaloa and travels more than 400 miles over 37 major bridges and through 86 tunnels in a climb to 7,874 feet above sea level, where a short stop at Divisadero allows for snapshots of the mammoth Copper Canyon. Noteworthy: The canyon, named for its copper-green color, is actually a network of seven canyons. The train has two to three passenger cars with 64 seats, plus a dining car and bar car. The line’s most spectacular scenery is between Divisadero and El Fuerte on the western flank of the Sierra Madre Mountains, which the eastbound train traverses between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sit on the right side for the best views. Security is provided by armed police officers.
Hail to the Chief: Southwest Chief
Route: Los Angeles to Chicago
Duration: About 40 hours
This 2,256-mile trip starts in congested Southern California but within hours climbs through Cajon Pass into the lonely beauty of the Mojave Desert en route to Arizona—with a connection in Williams to the Grand Canyon Railway (see below) and New Mexico. “Between Glorieta and Lamy southeast to Santa Fe, the route twists through dry, red-rock canyons and hills thick with juniper, tamarisk, scrub oak, and ponderosa pine,” says John Pitt, author of USA by Rail. “Sometimes the rock face is only inches from the train as it snakes through the canyons.” Then come Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois as the train passes through the backyards of small towns—peer guiltily into windows of countless homes at night—and the downtowns of big cities. Noteworthy: Miles and miles of the Painted Desert east of Flagstaff, Arizona, interspersed with dusty towns; from June to August, the train delivers thousands of Boy Scouts to the Philmont Scout Ranch through the stop at Raton, New Mexico; as part of the Trails and Rails program, National Park Service guides from Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site (La Junta, Colorado), Pecos National Historic Park (Pecos, New Mexico), and Petroglyph National Monument (Albuquerque, New Mexico) tell stories on the train between Albuquerque and La Junta, Colorado.
Wilderness Alaska the Easy Way: Coastal Classic
Route: Anchorage to Seward, Alaska
Duration: 4½ hours
The Alaska Railroad system covers 500 miles of some of the world’s wildest landscapes—with this 114-mile stretch through the Kenai Mountains by far the most impressive section, says Susie Kiger of the Alaska Railroad. Leaving Anchorage, the route hugs the coast of the Turnagain Arm to a stop at Girdwood; overnight if you wish at the Alyeska Resort. From there the train veers away from the scenic Seward Highway to areas inaccessible by car, traveling through five tunnels, past cool blue glaciers, and over a river gorge. Watch for moose and bears. Overnight in Seward or simply explore the village and return to Anchorage for a perfect day trip. Noteworthy: Beluga whales, bald eagles, moose, and Dall sheep along Turnagain Arm; the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward; passing within 800 feet of Bartlett Glacier; sunsets over Cook Inlet on the return trip; the Glacier and Wildlife Cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park.
Grand Old Time: Grand Canyon Railway
Route: Williams to the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Duration: 8 hours 15 minutes, round-trip
This rail trek has been offered, on and off, since 1901, taking passengers to the South Rim of the world’s most famous canyon. Today you have your pick of coach, first-class, observation dome, or luxury parlor service, with each offering progressively better views and comforts. All options deliver you to the canyon for a just-under-four-hour stopover to take in the sights. Or overnight in a lodge on the rim. Noteworthy: Views en route of the 12,000-foot-plus San Francisco Peaks; the twisting switchbacks of Coconino Canyon, where passengers can see the curving train out the window; an Old West theme with cowboy musicians and mock train robberies by the Cataract Creek Gang.
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