The United States helped pioneer railroad travel back in the 19th century when booming railroad construction fueled the country’s economic and cultural growth. For the next several decades, the U.S. relied on steam-powered trains to whisk cargo and people across the country. But when the jetliner showed up on the mainstream travel scene, recreational rail travel began to lose steam.
Nearly two centuries after railways began crisscrossing the U.S., the country lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to train travel. Without digging into all the cultural, social and political reasons why, the good news is that — thanks to a new focus on infrastructure and the environment — slow travel is witnessing a revival.
Amtrak, the largest passenger train operator in the country, is currently renovating its trains to be more spacious, with panoramic windows, onboard Wi-Fi and upscale dining options. Driving the development of luxury train travel are passengers, many of whom are eager to experience the romance, mystery and upscale leisure of a train journey.
Are you a traveler who dreams of watching the world zip by as you travel by train? Below are incredible train rides you can book right now — from quick day trips by train to multiday transcontinental luxury train voyages. All of these rides offer breathtaking vistas, and many include upscale dining cars, modern amenities, luxurious sleeper cars and more:
1. Seattle to L.A.: Amtrak’s Coast Starlight
This 35-hour train journey runs from Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles, California, whizzing through Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Barbara. Book a seat on the west side of the train to enjoy the majestic vistas of the Pacific coast.
You can choose from a variety of standard and luxury sleeper train travel options, including bedrooms and suits with private restrooms with showers, a dedicated first-class attendant, and sofas and chairs that turn into beds at night. Bedding, pillows and towels are provided, so all you need to pack are essentials, a good book and a sense of adventure.
2. Denver to Moab: Rockies to the Red Rocks
Traveling from Denver, Colorado to Moab, Utah, this two-day journey snakes past canyons, hoodoos and natural archways. The Rockies to the Red Rocks ride takes place on the Rocky Mountaineer, a sophisticated train with glass-dome coaches, an outdoor viewing area and a dining lounge dishing out regional fare, wine and cocktails.
With this all-inclusive Rockies to the Red Rocks package, you travel by train by day and stay overnight in a hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
3. Anchorage to Fairbanks: Aurora Winter Train
The Aurora Winter Train travels 12 hours from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska on weekends from September to May. From cozy railcars and comfy seats, you can watch pristine wilderness blanketed in snow, and catch reflections of celestial light. The day trip includes a stop in Wasilla, Talkeetna, where you can hike Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America.
4. Williams to Grand Canyons: Grand Canyon Railway
The Grand Canyon Railway has been ferrying passengers from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim for more than a century. The total round-trip journey takes 8.25 hours, including a three-hour stopover in the park and views of towering pine forests, sprawling prairies, and wildlife like wild horses and antelope.
The ride also includes entertainment, including a mock train robbery and cowboy singalongs. As far as day trips by train go, this one is one of the most kid-friendly.
5. Chicago to Portland: Empire Builder
To experience train travel across the U.S., book yourself a sleeper car on The Empire Builder: a 46-hour train ride that runs from Chicago, Illinois to Portland, Oregon. The epic trip closely follows Lewis and Clark’s legendary journey, passing through Whitefish, Montana mountain ranges, and a seven-mile tunnel cut through the Cascade mountains.
The train also spends a stunning eight hours crossing Glacier National Park, with its melting glaciers, carved valleys and sparkling lakes. You have a choice of standard and luxury sleeper train travel packages — we suggest splurging on a private roomette or bedroom.
6. Brunswick to Boston: New England Amtrak Downeaster
When it comes to day trips by train, New England’s Amtrak Downeaster is pretty darn perfect. The train choo-choos from downtown Boston, Massachusetts to lush, scenic Maine in a zippy four hours. Along the way, the train stops in historic New England towns like Dover, Old Orchard Beach, and Portland. You can watch it all whirl by from a reclining seat or the onboard cafe.
7. Salt Lake City to Yellowstone: Yellowstone National Park Getaway
This five-day round-trip journey kicks off with a night in Salt Lake City and transports you to the 3,500 square miles of spectacular wilderness that is Yellowstone National Park. The trip includes a tour of the Park’s Lower Loop, which includes must-sees like the Old Faithful Geyser and Gibbons Falls, as well as two nights in a hotel.
Since it’s operated by Amtrak, this luxury train travel journey can be customized to start (or end) in an Amtrak station in a city of your choice.
8. Napa Valley: The Napa Valley Wine Train
Want to tour California wine country without a designated driver? Hop on board the Napa Valley Wine Train, which packs the Napa experience into a single excursion. Choose from full-day, half-day or evening experiences, including options that stop at wineries along the way and scenic voyages that don’t disembark. Day trips by train include dramatic vineyard views, multicourse gourmet meals, and — of course — wine.
9. Chicago to San Francisco: The California Zephyr
Touted by seasoned travelers as the most scenic long-distance train route in the U.S., Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs from Chicago to Emeryville, California near San Francisco. The 52-hour journey stops at major cities along the way, including Omaha, Denver and Salt Lake City. Scenery-wise, the trip is train travel across the U.S. at its finest, boasting highlights like the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas and Donner Lake.
10. Denver to Winter Park Resort: Winter Park Express
Aptly nicknamed “the ski train,” the Winter Park Express is a seasonal train that delivers riders directly from Denver Union Station to the doorstep of the Winter Park Ski Resort. But even if you aren’t planning to ski, the journey is worth it for the scenery.
Just be sure to grab a seat in the upper-level sightseeing lounge, where you’ll have the best vantage point of the snowy wintry wonderland.
11. Eugene to Vancouver: Cascades
Another one from our friends at Amtrak, the Cascades chugs through America’s Pacific Northwest from Eugene, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. The roughly four-hour journey cuts through dense forests and along Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean indenting northwestern Washington. Snag a seat on the west side of the train to enjoy spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains.
12. Hyannis to Buzzards Bay: Cape Cod Central Railroad
The short-but-sweet Cape Cod Central Railroad departs from Hyannis Depot in Hyannis, Massachusetts to Buzzards Bay Depot, in Buzzards Bay. During the 2.5-hour ride, the train passes salt marshes, cranberry bogs and historic towns.
The Cape Cod Central Railroad operator offers different experiences, including narrated journeys where you can learn about the history and wildlife of the area, as well as luxury trips serving lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch and beer tastings.
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