The golden age of rail travel may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still exceptional experiences out there.
Jessica Naziri explores five train journeys that highlight America’s scenic beauty while letting passengers sit back and enjoy the ride.
1. A Grand West Coast Adventure
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight offers a mixed backdrop of the coast, mountains and city all in one ride. Traveling daily between Seattle and Los Angeles Union Station via Portland, the train’s three-state, 1,389-mile route is full of panoramic beauty. The train rumbles past the beaches of Santa Barbara, the beautiful mountain country around Mt. Shasta and Klamath Falls, and the natural beauty of Washington state.
The Coast Starlight is a great introduction to long-distance rail travel, as the 35-hour ride involves just one night on board and the scenery is varied along the route. But if you don’t want to travel the train’s entire distance, plan ahead to customize your trip and hop on and off at the destination stop of your choice.
This train also offers plenty of bang for your buck: for about $130 each way (for a regular coach seat, not a sleeper car), you can visit some of the most spectacular destinations on the West Coast.
Besides overlooking the Seattle skyline and some of world’s tallest buildings on the southbound trip, you will pass through the region’s golden-brown hills. The snow-capped peaks are practically storybook clichés, visible as you go travel the shores of Puget Sound. Hop on and you will come across the high, dark green oak trees of Oregon City, and watch the waterfalls shimmer. Keep your eyes open to spot a few small farms and ranches scattered on the train’s path.
While both directions are great experiences, many find the northbound trip superior because of the spectacular scenery during daylight hours. The first part of the trip runs along California’s the Pacific shore, and passes through the wilderness along a forested ridge. The view of Mount Shasta, visible in the early hours of day two around Dunsmuir, California, is unforgettable—best of all, the train skirts the base of the mountain for around 30 minutes. By afternoon, the train overlooks the vast Willamette Valley.
Passengers can experience the Coast Starlight’s luxurious coaches and sleeping cars, along with one special feature that’s not found on any other of Amtrak’s trains: the Pacific Parlour Car. It’s available only to sleeping car passengers and features a lounge area in soft swiveling chairs, and a casual seating area. If you’re in a formal mood, dress up and order from the full dinner menu. While this family-friendly train will keep kids entertained in the arcade room, adults can enjoy a selection of beers, ales and wine. Each afternoon there is a wine tasting for $5. 800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com
2. Most Scenic Train in North America
Amtrak’s California Zephyr is widely considered to be one of the most scenic trains in North America. There is no shortage of sights to see while traveling on this two-day, 2,438-mile ride. The Zephyr will take you across two mountain ranges, including the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, as well past the scenic Donner Pass, the Mississippi River, and the old Pony Express Trail in Colorado.
The Eastbound route is actually scheduled in such a way to allow maximum daytime viewing of the beautiful parts—namely the regions just outside of Denver and Reno, and let you sleep during the less scenic stretches.
Passengers begin their journey at the Golden Gates of San Francisco, where they take a short bus ride across the bay to Emeryville, California on an Amtrak motorcoach (included in the price).
During the morning and afternoon the Zephyr heads past Sacramento and into the Sierra Nevada on its way toward the historic Donner Pass, with its scenes of breathtaking alpine beauty. The nighttime hours are spent chugging through Nevada and Utah, then on day two passengers speed through the Colorado Rockies like a gust of wind—no wonder they call it the Zephyr! On day three the jaw-dropping mountain scenery gives way to the vast plains of the Midwest, before the train finishes its journey in Chicago.
The Westbound route is similarly well-planned for sightseeing during peak summer months, but outside of Daylight Savings time it can get dark in some scenic areas. The first part of the journey takes you past the towering skyscrapers of Chicago, through farmland for several hours, then on to the Mississippi River at about dusk where it chugs through Iowa, Nebraska and half of Colorado by night.
After leaving Denver the next morning, the train climbs up into the Rockies, passes over the Continental Divide, through the Moffat Tunnel and on to Provo then Salt Lake City. The Nevada flatlands come the next day, and then the Zephyr crosses over into California for the long climb through the Sierra Nevada, the Donner Pass, and back to Emeryville.
You can reserve a coach seat for your journey, or if you’re looking for a more luxurious experience, book a roomette sleeper car for about $780 per person. 800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com
3. A Train Ride and Culinary Experience
Whether you are looking for a $20 bottle of Chardonnay or a $200 Cabernet Sauvignon for your collection, the Napa Valley train is a wine aficionado’s dream.
The round-trip Napa Valley Wine Train provides a pleasant three-hour journey along a 36-mile route from Napa to St. Helena via Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford, onboard restored vintage Pullman cars. Large windows onboard the train offer views of the intense greenery, vineyards and independent wineries. The train’s wine-tasting bar features an array of more than 100 wines, so pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Depending on the tour and the day of the week, the train usually makes two stops, so you’ll have plenty of time to get off, visit the wineries, and actually do a little tasting.
The Wine Train is renowned for its cuisine, and has a kitchen in each of the three vintage cars. The Vista Dome, the Gourmet Express and the Silverado Grill all offer different dining experiences, priced at $124, $94 and $49.50 per person, respectively.
Several packages are available. Every Sunday through Friday, a lunch train includes a gourmet three-course meal, followed by a one-hour stop at Grgich Hills Estate, from $119 per person. To travel a bit off the beaten path, try the Ambassador Winery Tour, which starts with lunch, followed by a stop at Raymond Vineyards, and to the east side of the Napa Valley to ZD Winery, an organic, solar-powered, family-run operation. Rates start at $184 per person.
Special events include winemaker dinners (available by request) starting July 11, moonlight rides and family days that include day-care and special activities for kids. 707-253-2111, winetrain.com
4. The Best Way to See Alaska?
Instead of an Alaskan cruise, consider an adventure onboard the Alaska Railroad, which takes passengers on a variety of routes to Anchorage, Seward, Fairbanks, and a host of destinations in between.
Tours range from one to two weeks, covering 500 miles and passing through wild vistas and stunning panoramas. All routes include several stops and the railway company coordinates with hotels and outfitters so passengers can explore each destination.
As soon as you step aboard the train you’ll see what makes the trip so unforgettable: expansive views, casual dining, and a down-to-earth atmosphere offer a relaxing way to experience Alaska. If you want to see wildlife, Mount McKinley, glaciers, and bears, try the Denali Star Train tour starting from Anchorage, coursing through Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks from $167. This family-friendly ride appeals to passengers of all ages, with plenty of space for kids to run around the train and trained high-school students onboard to offer detailed history, highlights, stories, and narratives.
And, if you don’t mind spending just a little bit more for exceptional views and comfort, ride the Coastal Classic with the Gold Star accommodations. Considered the most scenic route in Alaska, the Coastal Classic travels between Anchorage and Seward.
The Gold Star option allows passengers to sit on top of the world’s only double-decked viewing platform car. Coastal Classic tickets are $119 round-trip, per person; the luxury service is $254 round-trip, per person, and allows passengers sit at the front of the train to get the best views first. As a bonus, the train is celebrating its 50th anniversary by offering anyone free rides to anyone turning 50 in 2009. 800-544-0552, www.alaskarailroad.com
5) A Kid’s Ride
It’s no secret that kids love trains, so imagine their delight on a scenic ride geared especially for young ones. There are numerous scenic trains for kids throughout the country, such as the Hocking Valley Scenic Train which passes through the beautiful hills of Southeastern Ohio. From the blooming dogwoods of spring to summertime fun to spectacular fall foliage, each season brings new sights and activities on the railway.
Instead of cramped seating, this train features ample leg room and plenty of space to move around. The two-hour Train Robbery Train is a winner as the onboard staff re-enact historic events, when it carries a “gold” shipment with an alert sheriff and his deputies who attempt to protect the train from robbers. In the summer months, the train departs every Saturday and Sunday, twice a day, to the restored 1840s village of Robbins Crossing, and every Thursday and Friday in October is the scenic fall foliage train. 800-967-7834, www.hockingvalleytrain.com
By Jessica Naziri for PeterGreenberg.com
For more, check out Amtrak’s Top 5 and Bottom 5 On-Time Train Routes.
For Amtrak news, check out Obama Includes Struggling Amtrak in Economic Stimulus Plan.
The VP is also a huge rail fan: check out Travel Joe Biden’s Delaware.
Find out the latest on the future of American trains with All Aboard for American High-Speed Rail?