Iconic American Rails to Explore This Summer


If you enjoy traveling, but think exciting journeys are a plane ride away, consider traveling by rail this summer. Since the 19th century, many have enjoyed this romantic yet practical way to tour the countryside. You can relax, take in the sights and even reflect on the history of rail travel during our nation’s push westward in the post-Civil War era and beyond.

Iconic rail travel provides the traveler with extraordinary experiences. Each nook and cranny of the United States has unique attractions that make each region special. Whether your goal is more practical (point A to point B) or more leisurely, a rail trip along any of these routes will ensure you and your family have an adventure you will remember for years to come.




The Empire Builder connects Chicago with the Pacific Northwest. Inaugurated in 1929, this impressively-named passenger train took its moniker from railroad executive James J. Hill, whose ambition and far reach earned him the name “Empire Builder.”

RailroadIt’s easy to see why this is the most popular long-distance train in Amtrak’s system. During its long journey, the train passes through prairie, Mississippi River country, stunning mountains and high plateaus. Every view is a lesson in geography.

This route is a perfect mix of the practical and the romantic, since you will arrive at your location with a new sense of wonder for the middle states.
Highlight: Glacier National Park
The Empire Builder is one of the few trains that transit Glacier National Park, where the high mountains and gorgeous scenery can’t help but command attention. The deep, glacier-carved valleys and lakes will make you wonder if you’ve accidentally woken up in the Swiss Alps.

The natural beauty and varied attractions of the park draw travelers from around the nation and the world each year, but Glacier National Park also provides a lesson in North America’s geology. The sedimentary rock that caps the park is some of the oldest on the continent, dating back to 1.6 billion years ago. Nature created this vast sedimentary vista around 60 million years ago. Later, glaciation carved out the park’s signature shapes during the last 2 million years.

The overall trip from Chicago to Seattle/Portland takes 48 hours and passes through some of the greatest scenery in North America.

Purchase a USA Rail Pass and enjoy the trip. The Empire Builder also makes several stops in beautiful Montana along the way, including Whitefish, West Glacier or East Glacier, allowing easy exploration of one of the United States’ most majestic national parks.



The Amtrak Adirondack line runs between New York City and Montreal. The 10-hour trip sends travelers back to the earliest days of the European settlement in North America.

Once the line leaves the New York environs, it runs along the Hudson River—at river level—for much of the trip to Albany. The craggy hills and wide river combine to produce a landscape that inspired many colonial artists.
The Hudson River School was the first art movement to arise in the United States. Building on ideas of the sublime or fearsome, the works of the Hudson River School demonstrated a combination of light, natural beauty, and danger in a fresh, powerful manner.

ADIRONDACK-viewThe scenery today may seem tame, but the view through the train’s western windows remains, for the most part, that of the wilderness of 200 years ago.

Highlight: Gateway to the Continent
North of Albany, the train passes through several stations that retain a colonial atmosphere. Saratoga Springs calls to mind both horse races and the first American Revolutionary victory over the British in 1777. The name “Fort Edward” suggests frontier, though it’s located barely 200 miles from New York City.

North of Whitehall, you see the waters of Lake Champlain, and to the east, Fort Ticonderoga comes into view.
The fort blocked hostile transportation north and south along the water route from New York to Montreal. The British fought to control it during the French and Indian War, and the colonists sought to wrest it from British control during first years of the American Revolution.

North of Fort Ticonderoga, the train travels along the west bank of Lake Champlain. The views of the Green Mountains to the east complement the glimpses of the Adirondack Mountains to the West. The train pulls into Montreal in time for dinner.



While the Hudson River School sought to capture the awe and power of the wilderness of the Eastern United States, the deserts of the American Southwest are the place to go to see some of the remaining unspoiled natural North American landscape. And there’s no better way to see it than on the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles as it passes through the great Southwest region.

SUNSET-LIMITEDThe Sunset Limited, the oldest-named train in the U.S., runs three days a week and takes 48 hours to make its run. Starting in the green bayou country of Louisiana, the route travels deeper into the arid Southwest after passing Houston, Texas.

In fact, the train runs through three of North America’s deserts—the Chihuahua, Sonora, and Mojave. Each presents its own vision of stark natural beauty. During peak seasons, National Park Service Rangers will board the train to provide educational commentary.

Highlight: Sonoran Desert

Detrain at the Tucson station to explore the desert. Rent a car, and travel just a bit out of town to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The museum gives visitors a comprehensive understanding of the natural history, flora and fauna of the desert, and the state of Arizona.

One unique exhibit at the museum allows visitors to touch a meteorite. Found in Arizona and secured in clear acrylic, it is 4.6 billion years old—older than the Earth!

The train arrives in Los Angeles early in the morning, with passengers refreshed after the overnight run from Tucson, and ready to explore the city.



After staying in Los Angeles, board the Coast Starlight to head north to Seattle. The train runs along the coast for 100 miles from Santa Barbara, providing a wonderful send-off from southern California. Skirting the fertile Central Valley, the train arrives in the San Francisco Bay area late in the evening.

COAST-STARLIGHT-areaNorth of San Francisco, the Coast Starlight heads into the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. The train passes around the base of Mount Shasta during the dawn hours and continues north past a string of volcanoes — Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and especially Mt. St. Helens — until it arrives at Seattle in the evening.

Highlight: Crater Lake

Consider taking a break from the train ride at Klamath Falls to rent a car and visit Crater Lake. The Klamath Nation, a local Native American tribe, tells many stories about the lake’s creation through a massive volcanic explosion 7,700 years ago. These stories have been passed down among the people from generation-to-generation.
The train arrives in Klamath Falls before 9 a.m., allowing plenty of time for exploration.



The California Zephyr begins near sea level and climbs to the high elevation of 9,239 feet above sea level in the Moffat Tunnel. The train passes through mountains, forests, deserts, and plains on its journey between San Francisco and Chicago.

Between the Bay Area and Salt Lake City, the train’s route follows one of the main pioneering trails used by wagon trains heading west to California during the 1849 Gold Rush. It heads up into the mountains through gold country and enters the basin and range region of Nevada and Utah. After Salt Lake City, it heads back into the mountains and crosses the Continental Divide at the Moffat Tunnel.

After arriving in Denver, the train streaks across the Plains, crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, arriving in Chicago some 52 hours later.





The American West is a powerful backdrop to any American journey. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad — first operated in 1880 — gives each traveler a glimpse of the exploration and exploitation of the West.

CUMBRES-AND-TOLTEC-SCENIC-RAILROADThe railroad travels through striking terrain at altitudes of 7,500 to 10,015 feet above sea level—probably the highest elevation rail line in the U.S.

Most trips begin at one of two stations, and most travelers buy one-way tickets. A motorcoach is available to transfer from one station to the other.

Owned jointly by New Mexico and Colorado, the line views itself as a “museum on wheels” and hosts several special event journeys throughout the tourist season. The focus of each trip is on the history and natural beauty of the route between New Mexico and Colorado. This high-elevation adventure provides a historic perspective of rail travel in the region.



The Amish have long been a presence in the U.S., and the areas they settled retain an agrarian character despite pressure to modernize and develop the regions. Their food products and well-preserved countryside have long attracted visitors from the rest of the nation.

The Strasburg Railroad offers a variety of short tours in Amish Country. Based in Ronks, Pennsylvania (just outside of Lancaster), the Strasburg Railroad provides a brief tour of a simpler time. Select trips even offer lunch.

Also, the Strasburg offers special event tours, including a children’s trip, organized around Thomas the Tank EngineTM, and the Great Train Robbery. In November/December, Christmas-themed special trains entertain the whole family.




The Grand Canyon Railway, based in Williams, Arizona, is iconic because of its destination. The two-hour ride arrives in time for lunch and a three-hour visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.


The route passes through forest, desert, Indian Reservations, and past Arizona’s highest point, the San Francisco Peaks. Taking the train allows you to avoid the traffic jams of groups of tourists entering the Grand Canyon.




Mount Washington, New Hampshire, is known for the extreme variability at its summit—it’s the highest peak on the East Coast of the U.S. It’s also the home of the first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world. It will be 150 years old in 2019.

The Mt. Washington Cog Railway takes three hours to reach the summit. On a sunny day, the view includes all of New England and New York and extends well out into the Atlantic Ocean.





The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad gives its passengers access to some of the most stunning scenery in the eastern U.S. The line offers two main excursions: one into Nantahala Gorge and the other along the Tuskegee River. Offering both steam and diesel locomotives, travelers experience mountains, rivers, deep gorges, and open skies.

The line also offers several other package tours, including an adult-only tour called the Moonshine Express.
They also coordinate with a local rafting company for rafting excursions along with the train ride.




This railroad features a variety of rail excursions based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Trips range in length from 55 minutes to over 9 hours. The Chickamauga Turn allows travelers to spend two hours touring the Chickamauga National Battlefield on foot.

The variety of trips offered by this railroad makes it a must-see. The line’s most frequent excursion, the Missionary Ridge Local, features a locomotive turntable at the East Chattanooga terminus. Each line features scenery and history.




For the sublime, we head to Alaska and the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. Offering three different excursions deep into the wilderness of Alaska and part of the Canadian Yukon Territory, passengers should bring their passports with them. Based in Skagway, the line coordinates with cruise lines, and passengers on the cruise ships can purchase excursion tickets to ride the rails.

The White Pass Summit Excursion travels up the side of the mountain to the summit of the pass at 2,865 feet. It’s a 3.5-hour trip.



Rail is one of the most convenient ways to see the country. Each region of the U.S. has its special brand of scenery, history, and culture.

Rail travel allows a study of the country unparalleled in its beauty, relaxation, and enjoyment. These railroads serve as iconic ways to see the country.