Whether they're drawn to the jaw-dropping scenery, the spontaneity of a last-minute escape or the nostalgic vibe, travelers are finding unique benefits to train trips — and there's a stateside excursion for every personality.
From afternoon jaunts to overnight journeys, these options are not only picturesque but also planet-friendly: Rail travel emits up to 73% fewer emissions than flying, according to a 2022 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It can be a lower-stress way to travel too. You don't have to deal with traffic, and you're not restricted to your seat – you can get up to stretch your legs whenever you want. Read on to find the train trip that's right for you.
Picture yourself sampling candied salmon in Vancouver, sipping a blueberry pie-inspired ale in Eugene, OR, and washing a root beer float donut down with a small-batch coconut coffee in Seattle, all in the span of a few days. That's just a fraction of the food-centric itinerary you can experience via Amtrak Cascades, a multi-city journey on a European-style train known for its smooth ride.
You can book this trip as one 11-hour jaunt, which takes you through 18 train stations and within eyesight of the Columbia River Gorge, Puget Sound and the snow-peaked Cascade and Olympic Mountains. (Along the way, you can sample a bacon-laced, Northwest-style clam chowder and a few other local vittles served onboard.) But hopping off the train is the best way to treat your tastebuds, so you may want to book separate, shorter segments along the route instead.
Consider folding in a side trip or two as well. Willamette Valley's 700-plus wineries are just over an hour's drive from Portland's Union Station, for example. Or you can stop off at Pike Place Market, the oldest continuously operating farmers market in the country, which is only a mile or so from Seattle's King Street Station.
See Chicago and New York in one fell swoop aboard Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited. The five-state trip on a single-level Viewliner train gives you a ground-level perspective on these cities' standout skyscrapers and natural landmarks, including Great Lakes, rivers and mountains. The train follows what was originally a Native American pathway; after gliding past the Windy City's Lake Michigan shoreline, you'll swoop along the southern banks of Lake Erie and then through Cleveland, following that up with the Finger Lakes and Mohawk River in Upstate New York.
The trip takes a total of 20 hours, so you'll spend one night onboard (ideal for anyone looking to dip their toe in the sleeper train experience). Choose from a roomette, a bedroom or a bedroom suite, all of which include spacious seats that fold into beds, fresh towels and sheets, and complimentary meals.
Make like an old-school American adventurer and head out west. Want to zip down white sand dunes in a sledding saucer or hike through a forest full of the country's largest cacti? How about rowing the Rio Grande or riding horseback through desert canyons? You can do all of this and more via the Amtrak Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, passing through five states and putting you in striking distance of four national parks: Big Bend near Alpine, TX; White Sands near Demin, NM; Saguaro near Tucson, AZ; and Joshua Tree near Palm Springs, CA.
What's more, National Park Guides are often onboard to teach passengers about the plains, dunes and deserts whizzing past the observation car's floor-to-ceiling windows. And while your days might feel rustic, evenings don't have to be; you can book a bedroom suite with sofa beds, showers and even a dedicated attendant who can deliver your rigatoni Bolognese or plant-based burger right to your room when you've kicked off your hiking boots for the night.
Anyone who appreciates the romance of the rails will enjoy a day trip on the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel. Leaving from Williams, AZ, these refurbished locomotives with historical passenger cars hightail it to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, following the same route sightseers have traveled since 1901.
After hopping off at the Grand Canyon depot, built in 1910, you'll get more than three hours to explore the Grand Canyon and Historic Village. There, structures such as the Hopi House — a National Historic Landmark that's part Native American museum, part store — date back to the early 20th century. Check out Hermit's Rest, a gift shop and snack bar built in 1914 as a rest stop for horse-drawn carriages. And don't miss El Tovar Hotel, the oldest lodge in Grand Canyon National Park; it's hosted scores of movie stars and even a U.S. president.
This isn't your only chance to explore lodgings from yesteryear either. The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel — right next to Williams Depot, where you'll end your ride — is built to resemble the railway's original hotel, which opened in 1908 to accommodate railroaders, ranchers and lumbermen. For a dose of railway baron-like grandeur, drop by the hotel's pub to sit at a wooden bar crafted in the 1880s.
With the historic train depot in Bryson City, NC, as its departure point, a journey on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is a must-do for train enthusiasts. You can choose either a steam- or diesel-powered ride that lasts about four or five hours roundtrip, depending on the route, across 53 miles of track, through two tunnels and 25 bridges. That's just the right amount of time to be able to chug past rivers, through forests and alongside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park without having your little ones get antsy.
Because conductors-in-training need their fuel too, kid-friendly boxed lunches (PB&J, turkey sandwich or veggie wrap with chips and a cookie) are part of the experience. Care to combine your ride with river rafting, ziplining or a waterfall off-road tour? You can select adventure add-ons in your railroad package or even rent a private caboose for a celebration of up to 15 guests.
— With additional reporting by Amelia Mularz.
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