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An introductory guide to the most scenic train rides in the United States

Recapture the magic of the Golden Age of Travel by riding the trails across the good ol' U.S. of A.

For anyone who lives by the adage that “the journey is more important than the destination,” look no further: Train travel will fulfill your slow travel desires. Slow, leisurely train trips harken back to the Golden Age of travel when people savored every moment along the way. Quite frankly, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the stunning landscapes that reveal themselves outside your window.

Whether you’re embarking on a coastal odyssey or a jaunt through mountainous terrain, scenic train rides are the easiest and greenest way to see the magnificent landscapes of the United States. These are our favorite scenic train routes in the nation, along with a few beginner tips if it’s your first time riding the rails.

The most scenic train rides in the U.S.

Head-on view of the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Courtesy of

The United States is the fourth-largest country in the world, so there’s no shortage of scenic cross-country routes, whether by train, plane, bus, or car. If you’re going by train, here are a few of our favorites.

The White Pass Yukon Route

Distance: 120 miles
This historic and narrow railway was built during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. As you cruise across the Yukon from Alaska to Canada, you’ll encounter cliff drops and pass glaciers, mountain lakes, and roaring waterfalls. There are three excursion options to choose from at the Skagway, Alaska departure station, but the most popular route retraces the original miners’ supply route to Carcross, Yukon.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Distance: 32 or 44 miles
It’s difficult to capture all of the Great Smoky Mountains in a single train trip. Luckily, passengers have two routes to choose from out of Bryson City, North Carolina. Option one: The 32-mile Tuckasegee River Excursion takes you over historic bridges and through lush valleys, with a stop in the town of Dillsboro. The second option is the 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion which travels past North Carolina’s rivers, lakes, and gorges to Tennessee. Option one carries more history, while option two offers more scenery.

The Grand Canyon Railway

Distance: 130 miles
The Grand Canyon Railway dates back to 1901 and is one of the country’s most scenic train rides for seeing the scenery of one of the U.S.’s most famous regions. The restored train departs from Williams, Arizona and travels 65 miles to the South Rim. During the journey, musicians and the crew bring the Wild West to life. You’ll find yourself spotting elk, bald eagles and condors. It’s a lot more entertaining than being stuck behind a plethora of tour buses.

Cape Cod Central Railroad

Distance: 27 miles
The Cape Cod Central Railroad allows you to enjoy the beauty of this seaside community without breaking the bank. The sightseeing tour rides through Massachusetts’ salt marshes, cranberry bogs, seaside trails, and quaint towns, complete with narration. The dinner route serves fine dining on board. Both options take you through unique, scenic areas that can only be accessed by train.

The Napa Valley Wine Train

Distance: 36 miles
A hop-on-and-off wine train? Dreams really do come true! This three-hour Napa Valley Wine Train follows a rail line that was originally built in 1864. Board the train from downtown Napa and travel to St. Helena and back, all while leisurely stopping at many of the region’s famed vineyards. Travelers can also opt to stay on the train (maybe order a glass of wine from the food and drink car?) and enjoy the scenery of wine country.

Empire Builder

Distance: 2,206 miles
Board the Empire Builder to experience the most scenic eight hours of your life crossing Glacier National Park. The 46-hour journey takes you through the Great Plains, follows Lewis and Clark’s expedition route, and cuts through several mountain ranges, including the Cascade Mountains. Pro tip: Spend your time in the observation lounge for breathtaking views.

Aurora Winter Train

Distance: 358 miles
Wind through the greatest treasures of Alaska on the Aurora Winter Train. Starting in Anchorage, the scenic route takes you over mountain passes, across bridges, and through the heart of the state’s vast wilderness. The highlight of this trip is seeing the Northern Lights. To see the lights, you must take the winter train between September and May. Otherwise, if you’re not interested in seeing lights dancing in the sky, you can take the summertime Denali Star Train.

The Coast Starlight

Distance: 1,377 miles
It’s hard to take in the sights while behind the wheel driving up the Pacific coast. That’s where Amtrak’s Coast Starlight comes into play. Ride on the edge — literally — along this West Coast route, which goes all the way from Los Angeles to Seattle. The expedition passes through Santa Barbara, San Francisco, snow-covered peaks, Mount Shasta, Mount Rainer, and of course, long stretches of the Pacific Ocean shoreline.

6 tips for U.S. train travel

People taking photos on scenic train ride through Colorado.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Traveling by rail is not unlike air travel. You’ll want to pack many of the same creature comforts and other essentials. But, here are a few rail-specific tips for newbie train passengers.

Research rail pass options

If you’re planning a long-distance trip or a number of trips at one time, it may be worth looking into getting an Amtrak USA Rail Pass. Otherwise, you can buy individual tickets a few weeks in advance for all but the most popular routes.

Plan for delays

Delays (especially on longer routes) are unavoidable. Amtrak trains share their tracks with freight trains, which get priority. Downloading Amtrak’s mobile app or signing up for email notifications will keep you in the know about all delays. As with air travel, the bottom line is: Avoid any tight connections if you can help it.

Pack a jacket and socks

Amtrak’s Coach cars are uniformly temperature-regulated all year. This means that your car may be a bit chilly, even if you’re passing through a scorching-hot desert. No matter the time of year, we recommend tossing a few extra layers in your carry-on bag.

Bring your own snacks and beverages

The good news is you’re allowed to bring food and beverages onboard. Although food and beverages are served on board, carrying your own stock is convenient and budget-friendly.

Not all stations serve the same purpose

Your train will make planned stops at various stations throughout your trip. It’s imperative to know which stops are rest stops and which are only meant for dropping off and picking up passengers. The last thing you want is to get left behind.

Find the best views

It’s simple: If you are traveling west, you’ll experience the best views on the right side of the train. If you’re traveling east, be sure to sit on the left side.

Editors' Recommendations

Latifah Al-Hazza
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Latifah is an Emmy Award-Winning travel journalist and documentary filmmaker, as well as the Cofounder of Femscape Sojourns…
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