On May 10, 1869, when the ceremonial gold spike was driven in at Promontory Summit, Utah, joining the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific rail lines, traveling coast to coast became easier and faster, opening the West to more settlement, commerce, industry, and tourism. Vacationers from other parts of the country rode the railroad to see the stunning landscapes of the West—the buttes, canyons, deserts, and mountains. Now, more than a century later, tourists are still seeing these landscapes by train. On these historic railroads, watch soaring trees or rolling vineyards pass by your window as you view a new angle on the American West.
Grand Canyon Railway
Round-trip length: 65 miles
Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Price: From $45 for adults and $33 for children
Info: 928-635-4010; thetrain.com
What you'll see: Ride aboard a century-old route that departs from Williams, Arizona, and heads north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, as musicians and cowboy characters entertain you. You'll have a choice of several types of cars (some with air-conditioning), including restored 1920s Pullmans and 1950s railcars. Overnight packages with stays at the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel are available.
Who it's for: Everyone, including families with children of all ages. AAA members save 15 percent off train, hotel, and RV park reservations year-round, and 20 percent on the AAA "Rails to the Rim" and "Rails to Rim Plus" packages.
What's special: Every year through December and into early January, hop on the annual Polar Express and travel 90 minutes to the "North Pole," located near Williams, Arizona. Mr. Claus and his reindeer greet those on the "nice list" with a holiday present. While sipping on hot cocoa and eating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, passengers will get into the Christmas spirit as they listen to a reading of the Chris Van Allsburg story of The Polar Express. (Note: Spots tend to fill up quickly.)
Napa Valley Wine Train
Round-trip length: 36 miles
Time: Lunch and dinner trains,1.5-3 hours. Half- and full-day winery tours are also offered.
Price: From $150
Info: 800-427-4124; winetrain.com
What you'll see: You'll ride in luxury aboard restored 1915 Pullman carriages once used by the Northern Pacific Railway. The carriages have mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched-glass partitions, and armchairs that mimic first-class travel in the early 20th century. While rolling past vineyards, you will learn about the history of Napa Valley's wineries and restaurants.
Who it's for: People who love good food and fine wine. Family-friendly excursions offer multicourse gourmet meals and stops for tours and tastings (for those 21 years and older) at some of California's best wineries.
What's special: Cinco de Mayo marks the start of Tequila Train excursions, where passengers can sample tequila from Casa Dragones, a small producer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Nevada Northern Railway
Round-trip length: 14 miles
Time: 90 minutes
Price: Adults, $33; children, $15
Info: 866-407-8326; nnry.com
What you'll see: Starting in mid-April 2019, you can ride on a steam engine that's more than a century old on one of two routes. The Robinson Canyon route takes passengers through Lane City, a ghost town in White Pine County near Ely, Nevada, as they listen to historic stories about the mines that still operate today. The Valley Vista Train climbs the Schell Creek Range, where passengers get spectacular views of Steptoe Valley in eastern Nevada.
Who it's for: All ages, especially those interested in the history of the West. Both routes played an important role in Western exploration and industrialization.
What's special: Train rides are also offered with diesel locomotives that were originally used on the railroad's freight dating back as far as 70 years ago.
Sacramento Southern Railroad
Round-trip length: 6 miles
Time: 45 minutes
Price: Open-air car: adults, $12; children, $6. First-class car: adults, $24; children, $16
Info: 916-323-9280; californiarailroad.museum
What you'll see: While gliding in a vintage diesel or steam train, you'll get a firsthand view of the Sacramento River. The train, part of the California Railroad Museum, has open-air cars with bench seating, which is ideal for taking in the sights and scents of the river. Early in its history, this route was used to transport pears, celery, and other produce to markets nationwide. In inclement weather, opt for the enclosed first-class car.
Who it's for: Families, seniors, and anyone interested in California history.
What's special: A Farm-to-Fork Cocktail Train (for those 21 years old and older) is expected to launch in September. It will emphasize the historical importance of railroads to agriculture. Appetizers made with locally sourced ingredients will be provided.
The Skunk Train
Round-trip length: 7 miles
Time: 1-2 hours
Price: Adults, $27-$49.95; children, $16.20-$29.95
Info: 707-964-6371; skunktrain.com
What you'll see: Leaving Fort Bragg, California, on the Pudding Creek Express, you'll travel in an open-air or covered car as 64-year-old diesel locomotives chug on 134-year-old railroad tracks along the Redwood Route. The train hugs the banks of Pudding Creek, where the vegetation is lush and redwood trees tower. Some reach more than 300 feet and are more than 1,000 years old.
Who it's for: Young couples curious to explore the redwood forest, according to the Skunk Train operators. Dogs are allowed on board, so don't leave your furry friend behind (fares for dogs are $10.95).
What's special: Take a ride on the tracks without a caboose or conductor aboard a two-person rail bike. Train and rail bike schedules and equipment are coordinated and monitored by dispatchers to avoid collisions. The bikes are secured on the track and are equipped with electric motors so you can enjoy the scenery without too much exertion. Expect to see a variety of wildlife, including blue herons and river otters.
AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.