Adventure Riding the Rails: Great US Train Trips

by Nneka M. Okona | January 03, 2019

Imagine the scene: Just beyond your window seat, a tableau of trees and snow-flocked mountain peaks whizz by.

There’s a book on your lap, a hot cup of coffee on the table in front you, and a steadily chugging engine as the background soundtrack. You're neither behind the wheel of a car nor cramped in an airplane seat, but you are on an adventure: A great American train trip.

Train travel revisits a slower paced and nostalgic era of exploration, and it offers a unique way to take your time and experience unique pockets and corners of the country.

Baltimore, MD, resident A. Jarrell Hayes embarked on his first big train trip in 2002 – a trek to Seattle – and he's been hooked ever since. “I was starting college that August and I wanted to have an adventure before school began,” he says. “Since I experience extreme ear discomfort in flying, I took the train from [the] east to west coast and back again, three days each way.”

Hayes' main tip for train travel is to go in with an open mind and surrender to the slower pace.

“I wasn’t in a hurry and I got to experience a large chunk of the country I haven’t been to before,” he says. “Relax and take things slow. If there isn’t any pressing business to take care of, put away the phone and laptop. Use the time to get away from the constant need to hustle. And on long rides, bring a blanket and pillow to be comfortable.”

Inspired to plan and take the scenic route by train? From journeys across the Pacific Northwest to the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia, there’s a trip for every travel and adventure taste.

Relax and take things slow. If there isn’t any pressing business to take care of, put away the phone and laptop.
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Multi-state train routes

Amtrak Cascades

Connecting 18 cities along the Pacific Northwestern coast, Amtrak’s Cascades is a seriously scenic route made up of several lengthy train trips with interesting jumping off points along the way. Soak up panoramic views of snow-capped mountain peaks, glittering waterways and wildlife such as seals and bald eagles, right from your seat. Daily round-trip journeys include Portland to Seattle, Eugene to Portland and Seattle to British Vancouver. The perks: roomy seats, plenty of legroom and free Wi-Fi.

"Amtrak trains offer a complete travel package with transportation, bedrooms and food service," says Amtrak PR manager Kimberly Woods. "The one-of-a-kind journeys give passengers the chance to relax, move about freely, work or play."

A man and a woman in winter clothing look out of a train window with mountains in the background

Adirondack Line

Pack your passport and glide beyond the hustle and bustle of New York City to Montreal on the relaxing Adirondack Line. A 10-hour total route, passengers depart from New York's Penn Station, traverse through the rolling Hudson Valley wine region and arrive in the French-speaking city of Montreal with its Gallic-influenced Canadian charm.

Highlights of this route include Port Kent, NY, and connecting service to Burlington, VT (a college town on Lake Champlain), Westport, NY (with connecting service to Lake Placid), and Saratoga Springs, NY (known for natural spas, outdoor concerts and horse racing).

Sunset Limited

Journey from the city of beignets, jazz, creole and Cajun cuisine to one best known for swimming pools, movie stars and palm trees via the Sunset Limited. This line, the longest-running U.S. route known by its original name, starts in New Orleans, LA, and ends in the heart of Los Angeles, CA. As one of Amtrak’s southernmost routes, its highlights along the 48-hour journey are sure to be vistas of the Mexican border and the Gulf Coast.

You can opt to stop off at notable waypoints along this route: Alpine, TX (Big Bend National Park), Maricopa, AZ (just outside of Phoenix), and Tucson, AZ (Saguaro National Park). Tap the National Park Service guides onboard for more information about the majestic parks that you see right outside the window as part of the new Trails and Rails program. You can only be "all aboard" three times a week when this 48-hour route is offered.

Tap the National Park Service guides aboard for more information about the majestic parks that you see right outside the window.
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California Western Railroad

Featuring two different trains with varying routes, the California Western Railroad gives riders a chance to explore California north of San Francisco and the towering redwood trees. The more popular of the two is what has been dubbed the Skunk Train, which earned its name from the strong odor the fumes of the train emits.

Following the Redwood Route through Mendocino County, the 131-year old train traces the Noyo River Canyon on the Northspur Flyer, a round trip 4.5-hour journey. Passengers onboard can expect glimpses of deer, birds, dense redwood forests and open meadows along this train route that has been running since 1885. 

a woman holds a camera to her eye as she looks out the window of a train

Short but scenic train routes

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

A freight and heritage historic railroad, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad passes through the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, a railway pivotal to the region’s development. Trips start in the Bryson City depot and include a ride on the steam- or diesel-powered trains.

On the 3.5-hour journey, that winds through 25 bridges and two tunnels on 53 miles of railroad tracks, take in the more than 125 varieties of trees as you breeze past them. Excursions to Nantahala Gorge, meaning “land of the noon-day sun” in Cherokee, is an option available to train passengers. This excursion takes train travelers around the eight-mile gorge filled with rushing water and stacked rocks.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Delve into the heart of northern Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountain area on the regional Blue Ridge Scenic railway. Starting off at the historic downtown depot originally built in 1905 in the mountain village of Blue Ridge, this four-hour round-trip route twists and turns along the Toccoa River with stops in Copperhill, TN, and McCaysville, GA. For the ride itself, choose between open-air rail cars or indoor air-conditioned cars. A two-hour layover in the sister towns of Copperhill and McCaysville to visit restaurants and local shops gives riders a chance to experience a slice of small-town life.

a woman holds her head out of a train window

Georgetown Loop Railroad and Mining Park

Sail through the mountainous city of Georgetown, CO, on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. On the one-hour, 15-minute, ride, riders can book either coach cars or the parlor first class seats that include a snack and drink with the cost of a ticket. There’s also the option to add a mine tour that takes visitors through either the 500-foot tunnel of the Everett mine or the Lebanon mine to pan for gold.

Terry Bison Ranch Train Tour

Terry Bison Ranch Train Tour is a train ride with a wildlife twist. The singular Cheyenne, WY, tour began in 1993 when Ron Thiel bought the ranch to raise bison and thought to share a glimpse of these magnificent animals with curious onlookers. Hop aboard one of their six custom-built locomotives that traverse throughout Cheyenne and dip into parts of Colorado on a standard gauge rail. During the ride be on the lookout for bison, ostriches and even camels that call the ranch home.

a man sits with a large back pack at a train station

Mount Washington Cog Railway

Revisit train travel of the past as a passenger on the Mount Washington Cog Railway in Bretton Woods, NH. During the three-hour round-trip ride, riders embark on a winding journey to the summit of Mount Washington, with an hour stop at the top to take in views of neighboring states, Canada and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Taking a cue from train travel in the early 1900s, dramatic steam can be seen billowing from the front as the train chugs upwards to the 6,288-foot-high summit of the mountain.

Nneka M. Okona

is a food and travel writer based in Atlanta, and appreciates a good train adventure. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, The Washington Post and Mic News.