Travel

8 of the best scenic train routes to ride in the U.S.

The White Pass & Yukon Route train climbs the White Pass railway with many passenger rail cars in tow. The White Pass & Yukon Route scenic railway climbs toward the White Pass summit.

Recent events have seen a revival of the great American road trip, but rail travel can offer an even more immersive experience.

We look at some of the most scenic train routes in the U.S., all of which can be enjoyed without your hands on the wheel. If you’re looking to travel the U.S. by train, as well as something to celebrate the holidays, we highlight a popular Polar Express experience with one of our favorite travel partners.

Railroad tracks by the sea near Lompoc, California

The Coast Starlight runs by the sea in much of Southern California.

1. Coast Starlight, Amtrak

Los Angeles, CA — Seattle, WA

This overnight route winds north from Los Angeles Union Station along the coast in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and San Francisco Bay before turning inland. From there, the scenery switches to the beauty of the Cascade Range, heralded by the appearance of Mount Shasta early on the second morning of the trip. The rest of the second day sees the beauty of the Cascades on full display, with snow-capped peaks and pristine pine forests, before arriving in Seattle that night.

A train passes through a mountain gorge with pine trees and snow-capped mountains.

The White Pass & Yukon Route travels through mountain gorges in Alaska.

2. White Pass & Yukon Route

Skagway, AK – Whitehorse, YT, Canada

The Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s brought thousands of prospectors to Alaska, many of whom disembarked in Skagway and hiked through the White Pass on their way to the gold fields in the Canadian Yukon. The hiking trail was replaced by the White Pass & Yukon Route railway when it was completed in 1900, and while the gold and the prospectors are gone, the railway remains. 

Many of the line's excursions cross into Canada, which is closed to non-essential travel as of November 11, but White Pass is on the U.S. side of the border and is arguably the most scenic portion of the route. The White Pass Summit Excursion is about 2.5 hours round-trip and features vintage passenger coaches, as well as a chance to see the original Klondike Trail of 1898 cut into the rocks.

A Grand Canyon Railway steam locomotive in a field of flowers Santa Claus talking to kids aboard the Grand Canyon Railway Polar Express Christmas train

3. Grand Canyon Railway

Williams, AZ – Grand Canyon National Park
Williams, AZ – The North Pole (seasonal)

All year round, the 64-mile trip from the Williams train station to the Grand Canyon passes through multiple ecosystems, and the train gives you a front-row seat to all of them. Start off among the ponderosa pines and junipers near Route 66 before transitioning to sweeping vistas of scrub prairie. As you approach the canyon, the scene transitions again to lush pinyon pine forests.

During the holiday season, the railway also adds trips to a different destination: Santa's Village. The 90-minute round trip visits the "North Pole" on select nights in November, December, and January, with hot chocolate, cookies, and storytelling from Santa Claus himself.

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A freight train rounds the bend of Horseshoe Curve amid fall foliage.

Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, Pennsylvania, is famous for its dramatic scenery.

4. The Pennsylvanian, Amtrak

Pittsburgh, PA – New York, NY

This aptly named train connecting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia gives riders a cross-section of the state in just a day's ride. It departs from the junction of 3 rivers in downtown Pittsburgh and climbs into the Allegheny Mountains. Reaching the eastern edge of the Alleghenies, it makes a dramatic descent down the famous Horseshoe Curve, completed in 1854. (Sit on the right side of the train when heading east, or the left side if heading west for the best view here.)

After winding through more beautiful Appalachian scenery, the train descends into the rolling fields of Pennsylvania Dutch Country before arriving in Philadelphia.

The California Zephyr Amtrak train travels through a red rock landscape in Utah

The California Zephyr passes the Book Cliffs near the Green River in Utah.

Kabelleger / David Gubler, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

5. California Zephyr, Amtrak

Chicago, IL – San Francisco, CA

If you're a fan of mountain sightseeing, the California Zephyr offers a feast for the eyes. The main event is the crossing of Rockies, which sees the train climb above 9,200 feet to pass through the historic Moffat Tunnel. Along the way, passengers are treated to views of the Colorado River and snow-capped mountains, some of which are only visible on this route. 

The Zephyr passes through the beautiful rock formations of the Utah and Nevada badlands before climbing once more into the Sierras in California. It traverses the infamous Donner Pass and passes several scenic lakes before descending into the Central Valley and, eventually, San Francisco Bay.

A steam engine train pulls passenger cars across a green landscape

6. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Durango, CO – Silverton, CO

On the Durango & Silverton, the man-made sights are just as compelling as the natural ones. It's one of the few lines in the U.S. that still operates steam locomotives, and many of the route's passenger coaches are more than a century old. Trips depart from Durango Depot, built in 1882 and preserved in its historical form. (If you can't get enough of historic steam trains, plan to visit the nearby Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway, too.)

The scenery is no slouch, either. The route closely follows the Animas River through the Rockies, with beautiful views of foliage, peaks, and canyons. A highlight is the Highline, a stretch of track where the train slowly edges along a narrow cliff. The route continues running in winter with a slightly shorter itinerary and a lot more snow.

A view of the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River at sunset

7. Sunset Limited, Amtrak

New Orleans, LA – Los Angeles, CA

There are few routes that traverse a more diverse landscape than Sunset Limited. Departing from New Orleans, it begins by crossing the mighty Mississippi River on the Huey P. Long Bridge. (Before it was built, trains crossed the river on boats.) It weaves through the flooded fields and Spanish moss of Bayou Country before night falls near Houston.

The next day, the train runs right up to the Mexican border, where orchards grow along the Rio Grande. From there, the scenery steadily becomes more barren as Texas gives way to New Mexico and Arizona, culminating in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson with its massive saguaro cacti. The route crosses the Colorado River at Yuma and enters California, passing the Salton Sea before reaching Palm Springs and, eventually, Los Angeles.

The Mount Washington Cog Railway climbing the mountainside among trees

8. Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington, NH

The forested scenery on Mount Washington is marvelous, and no less marvelous is the steep railway that lets visitors take it all in. Built in the 1860s, the Mount Washington Cog Railway is the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway, using toothed gears to climb the mountain's steep grades (an average of 25% and almost 38% in some places). Near the summit, the train traverses Jacob's Ladder, the steepest railway trestle in the world. 

The train's itinerary varies by season. In warmer weather, it climbs all the way to the summit, where travelers can see the historic Tip Top House. In winter, heavy snow limits the train to the lower Waumbek and Skyline stations, which still offer great views.

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Explore the National Parks with Amtrak Vacations

Amtrak Vacations is a great solution for AAA members looking to stay closer to home. They offer a variety of vacation packages throughout the U.S., including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Glacier National Park, and more. 

All AAA Members also receive AAA Vacations Amenities: 

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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.

Learn more about how Amtrak is adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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