Note: All travel is subject to frequently-changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state, and local advisories before scheduling trips. 

There’s nothing quite like seeing the beauty of the country by rail. The first U.S. company to transport freight and people was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad back in the early 1800s. In 1839, the first sleeping car took passengers between Chambersburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Though most travelers prefer to get to their destination more quickly today, there’s a lot to be said for slowing down and enjoying the ride. We’ve gathered a handful of the most scenic train trips in the United States that might just change your mind about how you get to where you’re going. All Aboard!

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Rocky Mountaineer: Rockies to the Red Rocks

Photo Credit: Rocky Mountaineer

Those who have been lucky enough to take one of the Rocky Mountaineer routes know this is not just a train ride, but an experience. Since 1990, Rocky Mountaineer has been taking guests on luxury train trips through Western Canada. But beginning in August, Rocky Mountaineer guests will, for the first time, explore a U.S. route. Rockies to the Red Rocks will roll through the American Southwest, between Moab, Utah and Denver, Colorado, offering stunning vistas comparable to their Canadian routes.

Days aboard the Rocky Mountaineer are spent viewing the sites through glass-domed coaches while eating gourmet food, and enjoying a choice of beverages from coffee or tea to mimosas or cocktails. Nights, when traveling with Rocky Mountaineer, are spent at upscale hotels. The Rocky Mountaineer Red Rock route two-day trip has an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

What you’ll see

Guests will see vast canyons, chromatic deserts, captivating hoodoos, ancient rock canyons, and natural archways, with history lessons from onboard hosts peppered throughout the journey. A handful of sites to be seen on this route are the Gross Reservoir Dam, with a spillway sitting at 7,225 feet, the Continental Divide, Moffat Tunnel, the Colorado River, Byers Canyon, Gore Canyon, Mount Garfield, Arches National Park, and more. Wildlife sightings are part of the fun and include bighorn sheep, deer, mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and marmots.

What you need to know

Meals are part of the journey, so no boxed or packaged food here. Rocky Mountaineer also offers a risk-free deposit that is fully refundable as well as two free date changes for up to 30 days before travel. You can move your travel to any date up to and including the 2023 season.

Where to stay

Rocky Mountaineer makes all the arrangements for your stay in Glenwood Springs. However, there’s a lot to see before you start your trip! Book a room in Moab to enjoy the area a bit and be refreshed for your early morning departure.

 

Cardinal Amtrak

Washington Monument on Amtrak route.

Amtrak’s Cardinal Route explores the country between two of the largest cities in America, New York and Chicago. This trip is 26 hours and 30 minutes from beginning to end, but there’s a lot to do along the way. Seated in a wide, comfortable coach seat, you’ll enjoy the views as you roll along through the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. On Amtrak, you have a choice of taking the entire route at once or stopping along the way.

For history buffs, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Jefferson’s Charlottesville await. Wine lovers will find 25 wineries in Charlottesville alone. Reserve a private wine tour to enjoy while you’re there. Book a room at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel and be just a half-mile from the station for the next leg of your journey! Guests can also overnight on the train with several options for accommodations which include meals.

What you’ll see

This route is pretty all year, but especially in autumn when the leaves change color. It’s one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes—going through the Shenandoah Mountains and New River Gorge—and includes rolling hills, rivers, mountains, farmland, and historic small towns. The train passes the Susquehanna River as it rolls through the Delaware-Maryland state line. It also crosses the Potomac River, with the Pentagon visible on the Virginia side. As it heads west, this route rolls right along the banks of the beautiful Ohio River as it continues through Indianapolis and on to Chicago.

What you need to know

Trains leave New York’s Penn Station around 6am. Save yourself the headache of dealing with traffic in the morning and book a room at Embassy Suites by Hilton in Times Square and be less than a mile from Penn Station. If you’re beginning on the other end of the route, the train doesn’t depart Chicago’s Union Station until 5:45pm. Book a room at the gorgeous Hyatt Regency Chicago, just over a mile from the station, and spend a day taking in the sites before your early evening departure. Take a look at Amtrak’s site to see stations in between.

Where to stay

If you’re planning to take the Cardinal Amtrak overnight, the train has roomettes (1-2 adults), bedrooms (1-2 adults), and even bedroom suites (up to 4 people) on a sleeper car. Roomettes have access to a private restroom and shower in the car. Bedrooms and Bedroom Suites feature in-room sinks, restrooms, and showers. Fresh towels and linens are provided for all room bookings. Accommodations do vary by train, so be sure to look closely before reserving your room.

All meals, as well as complimentary lounge access, are included when you book a roomette or bedroom, and you’ll have a dedicated train attendant to help you with luggage, make your bed and meal reservations, and let you know when you’re close to your stop. If you’re planning to get off at one of the destinations along the way, you’ll find a lot of options as this route stops at quite a few stations, including Washington, D.C., Charlottesville, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.

 

Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic

Coastal Classic scenic train trips.

Photo: Glenn Aronwits

You know when National Geographic Traveler ranks a journey in their Top Ten Train Rides in North America, you’ve got a winner. Your Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic trip begins in Anchorage, winding along Turnagain Arm, one of the most beautiful stretches of natural beauty in the country. After a short stop in the picturesque Girdwood, the train rolls into backcountry wilderness, through one of the most scenic stretches of our nation’s only Arctic state. This day trip is a little over 14 hours from Anchorage to Seward and back.

What you’ll see

Alaska Railroad believes the journey should be as spectacular as the destination. Along the way, you’ll see Chugach State Park’s mammoth 3,000-foot mountains, gorgeous coastlines, massive glaciers, and towering waterfalls. A seven-hour layover gives you time to explore Seward. You can even book a day trip to take a wildlife glacier cruise while you’re there. Visit its website to look at all the options and other train trips offered by Alaska Railroad.

What you need to know

There are two levels of service on Alaska Railroad: GoldStar Service and Adventure Class Service. GoldStar Service puts you in the GoldStar Railcar, with glass-domed ceilings, an upper-level viewing platform, and a full-service dining room. Meals, all soft drinks, and two adult beverages are included. Adventure Class Service offers large windows, access to Vista Dome cars, as well as dining and cocktails in the Wilderness Cafe. Before or after your trip, take one of the free driving tours provided by Alaska.org.

Where to stay

The Hilton Anchorage is less than a mile from the Anchorage station, making it easy for you to be ready for your 6:45am departure. For another adventure while you’re there, check out this 3-hour private tour of Anchorage. It’s a great way to see historic Ship Creek, Earthquake Park, and even scout for wildlife like black bears, beluga whales, and Dall sheep while taking in the scenery.

 

Grand Canyon Railway

Grand Canyon Railway one of the best US train trips.

Photo credit Scott Temme/Xanterra Travel Collection

For a really special day trip and great fun for the whole family, the Grand Canyon Railway is a must. Departing from the historic Williams Depot, the 4.5-hour roundtrip covers 65 miles of wilderness, including high desert plains and parts of the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. Guests arrive at the Grand Canyon Depot, located just 200 yards from the South Rim, and the last log depot in operation in the United States. Here, you’ll have over three hours to explore the canyon, exhibits, and historic buildings.

What you’ll see

Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready. Guests have seen a variety of fauna, including elk, mountain lions, pronghorn, mule deer, bald eagles, horned owls, and even skunks. For flora, you’ll see a variety of plants and trees as the elevation changes, such as ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, aspen, and spruce. In the Upper Sonoran Zone, you’ll see sagebrush, grama grass, saltbush, and mountain ash, among others. At the start of each trip, there’s a cowboy square off. Cowboy musicians also roam the train entertaining guests with tunes from the Wild West. In addition, each car has a Passenger Service Attendant who will tell you about the history of the area and answer questions.

What you need to know

There are six classes of service, ranging from the least expensive Pullman Class with bench seating and open-air windows to the plush Luxury Parlor, offering a private bar with cocktails, as well as morning and afternoon snacks. Be sure to review the age limits for children on each class before booking. It’s strongly suggested you book your tickets for the Grand Canyon Railway as far in advance as possible. Book a Grand Canyon Tour with a Train Ride so you can see more of this stunning area.

Where to stay

The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is just next door to the train depot and only a block from downtown Williams.

 

The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Photo Credit: The Broadmoor

We can’t have a list of scenic train trips without including the Cog Railway. America’s highest train journey, reaching a height of 14,115 feet, will open to the public in May of 2021 after a $100 million renovation. This train ride is not only one of just two cog railways in America, but also the highest cog railway in the world, and one of Colorado’s top attractions. 

What you’ll see

The experience begins at the new Manitou Depot with viewing decks for grabbing that Instagram shot before or after the trip. On the way up and down, you’ll experience 360º sweeping Colorado views. At the summit, at the National Historic Landmark of Pikes Peak, you’ll be able to see where America the Beautiful was penned. The $60-million-plus Pikes Peak Visitor’s Center offers more breathtaking views, dining, digitally interactive displays, and the world-famous Pikes Peak doughnut, which you won’t want to miss.

What you need to know

Tickets for the 9-mile, three-hour roundtrip are available now on the Cog’s website. The railway operates from 8am until 9pm in summer, with departures every 40 minutes. The final trip of the day departs at 5:20pm.

Though the round trip is about 3 hours, you’ll want to take time for photos and visiting the gift shop afterwards, so plan for longer. Guests can reserve tickets, as well as upgraded tickets to secure a better view. Fall and winter experiences, including holiday special train trips, will be announced soon.

For those who crave adventure, new hiking, biking, and trail adventures will be available soon, including options to hike up the 13-mile Barr Trail and ride the train down or riding the train up and cycling down the 19.5-mile summit on a guided excursion. Two retail shops with snacks and drinks are available at the Manitou Depot.

Where to stay

Originally built in 1891, The Broodmoor has owned and operated The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway since 1925. This Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond Resort offers the perfect luxury stay to bookend end your train adventure.

 

Kelly Stilwell is a freelance writer and the editor of Food, Fun & Faraway Places with a focus on travel and food. 

Travelocity compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site; such compensation may include travel and other costs.

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