10 of the Most Fantastic Train Trips in the United States

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Sit back and enjoy the scenery, history and culture (or a nap) while traversing spectacular parts of the country by rail.

Need to unplug and relax on your vacation? Consider leaving the car at home and taking a train.

Amtrak, private companies and some states offer train trips with fabulous views of mountains, deserts, oceans and forests, as well as cultural and historic experiences.

Many offer discounts for military members, senior citizens, students, children and members of AARP and AAA. The costs for these trips depend on the season, route and class of train car. But here’s the one thing they have in common:

“You get a chance to relax,” said Sylvia Blishak, co-owner of Train Travel Consulting in Klamath Falls, Oregon. “You can get back into the habit of being in the moment.”

These train trips — and trains in general — allow you to ponder the scenery instead of the traffic.

Here are 10 of the most fantastic, scenic train trips in the United States:

1. California Zephyr

Photo (cc) by Loco StevePhoto (cc) by Loco Steve

The California Zephyr Amtrak route running between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area takes about two days.

Passengers see the Rocky Mountains, along with Colorado’s Gore, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, cross the Continental Divide through the Moffat Tunnel, and see San Pablo Bay just north of San Francisco.

For the best Amtrak prices, book at least 14 days ahead. Students ages 17 to 25 can get 15 percent off some fares. Fourth-graders can get a 75 percent-off discount on trains if they’re visiting national parks.

2. Cass Scenic Railroad

Photo (cc) by Ron CogswellPhoto (cc) by Ron Cogswell

For a short but magical historical jaunt, try the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park rail line. Riding in a train with an immaculately restored Shay steam-powered locomotive, you will traverse the scenic mountains in eastern West Virginia, with streams, sawmills and old locomotive shops along the way.

The route from Cass up the mountainside to Bald Knob — the summit of Back Allegheny Mountain at over 4,800 feet — is about four-and-a-half hours round trip. It’s about two hours round-trip from Cass to Whittaker Station.

Pricing: Ages 12 to 64 pay $59, seniors ages 65 and older are $57, children ages 4 to 11 are $49, and kids ages 3 and under are free, round-trip to Bald Knob.

3. Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Photo (cc) by Larry SamsaPhoto (cc) by Larry Samsa

This train route, a national historic landmark, runs between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. Rides are two to eight hours long, depending on the route you choose.

The dramatic views include the San Luis Valley, Rocky Mountains, the 800-foot-deep Toltec Gorge, bridges and tunnels. Lunch is served in the ghost town of Osier, Colorado.

Prices: From May 28 to Oct. 23, round-trip starting in Chama or Antonito (riding a bus one-way) tickets start at $95 for adults and $49 for children.

4. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Photo (cc) by Joel SowersPhoto (cc) by Joel Sowers

This ride, which takes passengers along a blasted-out rock shelf with views of the Animas River in Colorado was No. 1 on National Geographic’s “Top 10 North American Train Trips.”

The train climbs from Durango to Silverton, Colorado, at over 9,000-feet, from early May to late October. The round-trip journey between Durango and Silverton is about seven hours.

In the winter the route is about half the distance, from Durango to Cascade Canyon.

Pricing: For Durango to Silverton, round-trip tickets start at $89 for those ages 12 and older and at $55 for children ages 4 to 11.

5. Ethan Allen Express

Photo (cc) by Grant BushPhoto (cc) by Grant Bush

This Amtrak route between New York City and Rutland, Vermont, scored No. 2 on National Geographic’s top 10 train trips.

The route, about five hours and 45 minutes one-way, features wilderness and views of the Hudson River Valley, as well as the Catskills in upper New York state and the Green Mountains in Vermont.

Prices: Vary according to class and route. For example, on June 1 an adult, one-way ticket from Rutland to New York starts at $73.

6. Grand Canyon Railway

Photo (cc) by Grand Canyon National ParkPhoto (cc) by Grand Canyon National Park

This train journey offers travelers a unique and low-stress way to view the heavily touristed Grand Canyon — one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Since 1901, this train has been taking passengers to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Leaving from Williams, Arizona, it’s about two hours and 15 minutes one-way. Passengers have a few hours to explore the canyon, with its pine and fir forests and sandstone canyons, before the trip back.

Pricing: Lots of packages are available, including half-off train service when booking two nights at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel through May 27.. Regular prices start at $65 for adults and $29 round-trip for children.

7. Great Smoky Mountains Route

Photo (cc) by Mike BurtonPhoto (cc) by Mike Burton

The Great Smoky Mountains railroad route in western North Carolina begins at an historic depot in Bryson City and takes riders into tunnels through the Appalachian Mountains.

On the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, the train travels on the historic Fontana Trestle and into the gorge. Riders on the Tuckasegee River Excursion pass a train wreck site from the movie “The Fugitive.”

Prices: For diesel trains, adult prices start at $51 and children start at $29. For steam trains, adults start at $56 and children start at $32.

8. Napa Valley Wine Train

Photo (cc) by Michele UrsinoPhoto (cc) by Michele Ursino

This Northern California route traversing the popular wine valley combines fine dining, vintage cars and, of course, wine.

It travels from Napa to St. Helena and back, revealing the agricultural preserve of Napa Valley. Passengers can tour wineries.

The Castle Winery Tour includes 90 minutes aboard the vintage train and a wine tasting and tour at Castello di Amorosa, starting at $249 per person.

9. The Mount Washington Cog Railway

Photo (cc) by David BrossardPhoto (cc) by David Brossard

The Mount Washington Cog Railway, a National Historic Engineering Landmark built in 1869, is in the White Mountains in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

Built for climbing the more than 6,000-foot Mount Washington, this rail line offers riders a view of the mountains and valleys of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, as well as the Atlantic Ocean.

Prices: Ages 13 to 64 are $69 round-trip (biodiesel trains) and $75 (steam trains), seniors ages 65 and older pay $65 for biodiesel and $69 for steam round-trip. Children 4 to 12 pay $39 round-trip on all trains, kids 3 and under are free.

10. Rocky Mountaineer’s Coastal Package

Photo (cc) by Roderick EimePhoto (cc) by Roderick Eime

This private luxury train company’s unique Northwest route links Seattle, Washington, with Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and the Canadian Rockies.

During the all-daylight journey, passengers view the Pacific Ocean’s coastline, along with waterfalls, greenery, roaring rivers and mountains.

Riders with GoldLeaf Service can move around a bi-level glass-domed coach.

Several price packages are available, starting at $2,336 for a trip from Jasper, Alberta, Canada, to Seattle that includes four nights of hotel stays.

What are your experiences and impressions of traveling by rail? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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