5 Train Trips to Reconnect You to the Beauty of North America
Photo by Ron Niebrugge / Alamy. Design by Erik Mace for Yahoo Travel.
In the age of air travel, we often only get the chance to admire North America from above: the patchwork quilt of plains blends seamlessly into geometric slate mountains dusted with snow, all of which is cut through with ribbons of rivers, canyons, and paved interstates.
From a train, however, we have the opportunity to slow down and appreciate the view, even as it flashes past. Here are five train routes that not only give you a chance to enjoy the view, but to appreciate the beauty of the North American continent that we often overlook.
The Denali Star Aboard the Alaska Railroad
Alaska is full of beautiful scenery and a train is the perfect way to soak it all in. (Photo: Alaska Railroad)
Most people who visit Alaska take the Alaska Railroad from their cruise ship to Anchorage, and then they fly home. While that four-hour ride cuts through impressive mountains and along the starkly beautiful coastlines of Southeastern Alaska, the better route takes you nearly eight hours by train into the heart of the Alaskan Interior.
The Denali Star leaves Anchorage each morning between mid-May and mid-September, its gold and blue body slithering through forests and valleys until it approaches the tundra-covered mountains of the Alaska range. Along the route you’ll have the chance to enjoy beautiful panoramic views of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, past Hurricane Gulch and Broad Pass Summit, and tiptoeing among the foothills surrounding Mt. McKinley herself.
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There are few places so remote as Denali National Park, and as you disembark the train in the small town of Denali, you’ll have plenty of time to explore and appreciate the wilderness of Alaska.
First Passage to the West Aboard the Rocky Mountaineer
Streams, rivers, and mountains, oh my! (Photo: Rocky Mountaineer/Facebook)
The Canadian Rockies are often overlooked in favor of their southern counterparts, but they hold some of the most impressive geologic formations in the upper half of North America. Departing weekly from Vancouver, the eastbound Rocky Mountaineer crosses fields and streams, over a dozen rivers, and multiple mountain ranges along its route. While you could drive close to the same route along Trans-Canada Highway 1, the train takes its own path, offering once-in-a-lifetime views throughout British Columbia and Alberta that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
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With two destinations, you can disembark in Banff or Lake Louise, but the latter is most impressive: the smoky teal waters of this famous lake leave an indelible mark in your mind, as they have for travelers for over a century.
Canyon Discovery Aboard the Grand Canyon Railway
Going to the Grand Canyon? Ride there in style and enjoy the views along the way. (Photo: Xanterra Parks & Resorts)
The shortest route on this list, the Canyon Discovery route aboard the Grand Canyon Railway only takes two hours to work its way from Williams, Arizona — near Flagstaff — to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but it provides ample opportunity to experience the distinct allure of the Southwest.
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There are few places in this part of the world that afford such impressive and distinct landscapes, and the views flying past the train windows include desert, sagebrush, and cactus, not to mention local mammals, reptiles, and birds.
There are plenty of vacation packages that include hotel and amenities to make the visit to the Grand Canyon as comfortable and luxurious as possible, but it’s the train itself that harkens back to a time when rail travel was the best way to see this part of the country.
The Ethan Allen Express Aboard Amtrak
Ride along the Hudson, up through scenic New York state, and into Vermont. (Photo: iStock)
While many of the most impressive train routes in the U.S. are in the Wild West, there is one iconic route that does justice to all the stereotypes of New England. The 5.5-hour Amtrak Ethan Allen Express between New York City and Rutland, Vermont, cuts through verdant New England forest, which is particularly stunning in autumn. You might even mistake yourself for being in Europe as the route passes Bannerman’s Castle near New York’s Hudson River.
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Aside from the staggering views throughout upstate New York, an additional highlight of the route is the ease of access: the train not only makes it easy to visit the heart of the Northeast, but also stops in Poughkeepsie, Schenectady, Albany, and Fair Haven. From small towns to big cities, the 241-mile route offers plenty to appreciate, whether you’re watching the scenery from the window or experiencing it on foot.
El Chepe (The Chihuahua-Pacific Railway)
El Chepe gliding through Copper Canyon. (Photo: iStock)
Taking its nickname from the reporting mark “CHP,” El Chepe is one of a handful of passenger trains experiencing a revival in Mexico during the past few years. Working its way between interior Chihuahua and Los Mochis near the coast of the Gulf of California, El Chepe will surprise you with the myriad of ecosystems it passes through: brown deserts, rich red rocks, emerald forests, and crystalline rivers.
El Chepe runs twice daily, one as a pseudo-commuter train allowing passengers to request disembarkation at nearly 65 stops, and the other making the 15-hour journey in slightly better time. With only approximately 64 seats, this is an uncommon and often overlooked train journey.
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