Photo: Adam Baker/Ocean/Corbis. Design by Erik Mace for Yahoo Travel.
There’s something a little romantic, a little old-fashioned and exotic, about train travel. Sure, you could blow past everything in your car or fly over it. Instead, take your time on the train, where the journey is more than the destination. Not sure what train trip to take first? Try these most-searched North American train voyages on Yahoo.
10. Copper Canyon Train: A Journey Deep Into Mexico
The Copper Canyon Railway (Photo: iStock)
Get aboard a train that takes you through canyons larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, while stopping at local villages and towns on the way. The Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico (Copper Canyon Railway), known locally as El Chepe, travels 400 miles, across 37 bridges, and through 87 tunnels in the unique Copper Canyons of northwest Mexico — which are called that because of their bright color. The trip from Chihuahua into the Sierra Madre mountains takes about 16 hours. For an organized travel package, contact tour companies like Authentic Copper Canyon or Canyon Travel, which runs private train cars.
9. Smoky Mountains Railroad: Right Out of the Movies
Photo: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
While the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad was featured as the train that crashed in the movie The Fugitive — allowing Harrison Ford to escape — your trip will likely be much more idyllic and far less dramatic. The train runs 53 miles through the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. Start from the historic depot in Bryson City, and travel to the Nantahala Gorge or along the Tuckasegee River. There are also special excursions, like the Halloween trip to the Pumpkin Patch or the Christmas Polar Express train.
8. Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad: Mountain Through the Window
At the foothills of the stunning Mt. Rainier, just outside Seattle, this scenic and historic steam-powered train chugs along. Trips leave from Elbe, Wash., and travel through the forest south of the mountain to the historic museum in the town of Mineral. If the weather is good, you’ll get a one-of-a-kind view of Rainier as you cross the Upper Nisqually River. The steam locomotive travels at a very leisurely pace — plan for around two hours for your trip — and the nonprofit that operates the train relies almost entirely on volunteers. That means excursions are relatively limited. They run only on weekends through October, with the Santa Express starting at the end of November.
7. Mt. Washington Cog Railway: Up, Up, and Away
Photo: Mt. Washington Cog Railway
When it was first proposed in the 1850s, the Mt. Washington Cog Railway was considered impossible. You might as well build a train that goes to the moon. But the rail line was eventually completed and reached the summit of Mt. Washington, in New Hampshire, in 1869. Today it still remains the second steepest rack railway in the world, heading straight up the mountain. Trips leave from the base and rise slowly the three miles to the peak at 6,288 feet. Travelers are then given about an hour to explore the observatory, visitor’s center, and historic museum before taking the trip back down. If you look out the window as you go, you might also see hikers mooning passengers as the train goes by — a tradition that has resulted in at least a few police citations.
6. Narrow Gauge Railroad: Historic Colorado
Though there are countless narrow gauge railways around the U.S. — marked by train tracks that are narrower than the standard width — the most famous are in Colorado. Originally, the Narrow Gauge Circle made a complete trip from Denver around the Rocky Mountains. While that full circle no longer exists as a single railroad, many of the most breathtaking and historic legs can still be traveled on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway also offers a truly authentic rail trip with original equipment, leaving from a depot built in 1882 to travel through the canyons of the San Juan National Forest.
5. Napa Valley Wine Train: Fun on More Than Four Wheels
Photo: Napa Valley Wine Train
If Napa is all about wine, then its ideal train journey would naturally travel through vineyards while offering tastes of the region’s grapes. The Napa Valley Wine Train chugs back and forth between the towns of Napa and St. Helena. Lunch and dinner trains also serve top-notch gourmet meals. Check out the train’s special events. One caveat: It has been in the news recently due to a discrimination lawsuit.
4. Coast Starlight: One-of-a-Kind West Coast
Coast Starlight (Photo: Bruce Fingerhood)
It takes 35 hours to travel the full route of the Coast Starlight all the way from Seattle to Los Angeles, but it’s worth every second. The daily train is the only one to travel the entire 1,300-mile coast, passing through all the Pacific Ocean’s major landmarks and cliff-side views. Run by Amtrak, the train is one of their most popular routes, carrying nearly 500,000 passengers every year. Since 2008, the line’s parlor cars have been refurbished with movies and wine tasting, as well as a dinging room and lounge.
3. Ethan Allen Express: Rustic Charm in Vermont
The Ethan Allen Express (Photo: Adam E. Moreira/Wikimedia Commons)
Named for the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen — not for the furniture store — the 241-mile train runs between New York City and a number of stops in Vermont. The total route takes a bit under six hours and is popular with tourists traveling to the Hudson River Valley and skiers going to Killington in the winter. As you travel, you can enjoy New England’s picturesque charm. Though run by Amtrak, the Ethan Allen Express is subsidized by Vermont — since it’s simply the best way to see what the state has to offer.
2. California Zephyr: Truly Breathtaking Cross-Country Travel
The California Zephyr (Photo: Amtrak/Facebook)
When it opened service in 1949, the California Zephyr’s route was designed specifically so that it would pass through the best scenery between Chicago and California during the day — so passengers wouldn’t miss any of the amazing views. The current route is run by Amtrak and is a combination of the original California Zephyr line and the old City of San Francisco line, but the scenery hasn’t changed. The route runs from Chicago through Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake City before arriving in San Francisco, coming into California through the famous Donner Pass (though you won’t face the same end as the ill-fated Donner Party). The full trip takes over 50 hours — traveling across the country isn’t fast — so you may want to splurge for a roomette or sleeping car.
1. Grand Canyon Railway: To the Wonder of the World and Back
The Grand Canyon Railway (Photo: Xanterra Parks & Resorts)
The Grand Canyon Railway doesn’t actually run through the Grand Canyon, but it does run to the Grand Canyon and that’s the next best thing. Leaving from the restored Santa Fe Railway Station in Williams, Ariz., each morning the train travels to the Grand Canyon’s south rim, lets visitors explore the national park, and then returns in the afternoon. Originally opened in 1901, trips used to cost just $3.95. The rise of cars forced the train to shut down in the 1960s, though, and it didn’t reopen until 1989. Special Polar Express trains around the holidays also run to a fictional “North Pole.”