Last updated: 06:30 PM ET, Mon August 22 2016

Epic Train Vacations for Your Bucket List

Car Rental & Rail | WhereTraveler Staff | August 22, 2016

Epic Train Vacations for Your Bucket List

Photo via James Bretz/Flickr, Creative Commons

Train voyages and vacations have been part of European and U.S. culture as long as there have been tracks on the ground. Millionaires Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt made their fortunes by making railroads accessible to Americans. 

Though the peak of rail travel seems like a bygone era, Amtrak—the major U.S. railroad system—recorded record ticket sales revenue within the past 10 years. Being whisked from one city to another without having to go through customs, TSA and other checkpoints might sound appealing. Some train routes even deserve recognition as a destination in their own right.

There’s something magical about boarding a train and traveling by the chug of the engine. So many authors—Paul Theroux ("The Great Railway Bazaar"), Haemi Balgassi ("Peacebound Trains") and others—have tried to describe the beauty and romance of riding the rails.

We’d like to think that these routes speak for themselves on the beauty of the American landscape and the romance of traveling by train in a hectic, get-there-fast world.

Southwest Chief, Amtrak

The Southwest Chief takes travelers into the heart of the American Southwest. (©LocoSteve/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Amtrak: Southwest Chief

Take in the American west on the Southwest Chief Amtrak journey. Just the act of boarding the train in Los Angeles feels like the start of an epic adventure. The station, in its Art Deco and Spanish-style glory faces the City Hall, made famous as The Daily Planet building in the 1960s Superman TV show.

From there, the train rolls past the Los Angeles River through the Santa Ana Canyon. As Joshua trees come into view, you know you’re entering the Mojave Desert and farther into Arizona Williams Junction serves as the disembarking point for day-trips to the Grand Canyon. Leaving Williams Junction, the train chugs past the San Francisco peaks—these volcanic mountains serve religious purposes for local American Indian tribes—and Canyon Diablo.

Through Arizona, the train passes Clifton House Ruins—a stagecoach stop built in the 1860s—and other trading cities in the Southwest. As the train pulls through Kansas and Missouri the orderly farms and pastures line the tracks all the way past the horizon in some places. When the train begins to slow up in Chicago, preparing to stop, look for the skyscrapers that tower over the Windy City. 

Route: Between Chicago and Los Angeles

California Zephyr, Amtrak

(©LocoSteve/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Amtrak: California Zephyr

For less desert than the Southwest Chief, board the world renowned Amtrak California Zephyr. Careen through the Rocky Mountains and Colorado’s Gorge on your way from Chicago through Denver and Glenwood Springs. Pass yellowed grasslands and white-peaked mountains before coming to a halt outside San Francisco. Over 50 hours and 2,400 miles, the full California Zephyr is a scenic way to see six states. 

Route: Between Chicago and San Francisco

Rocky Mountaineer

(Courtesy Rocky Mountaineer)

Rocky Mountaineer: Coastal Passage

Cruise out of Seattle into the heights of Western Canada on the eastbound Coastal Passage route. Board the Mountaineer at King Street Station in Seattle for views of Puget Sound as the train roars on to Vancouver. Pass through Banff, home to one of Canada’s most famous national parks. Tour the Emerald Lake on the fifth day of the journey before racing to Lake Louise, a crown jewel in the heart of Banff National Park. After admiring the mirror-surfaced lake, the train will pull you on to Calgary, the final destination.

Route: Between Seattle and Calgary

Crescent route, Amtrak

(©Wikimedia Commons)

Amtrak: Crescent Route

Leave New York City on this route that flows through the American South and into the bayous of Louisiana. Observe the towering Delaware Bridge not far outside of Philadelphia or take in the view of Alexandria, Virginia, outside of Washington D.C. The train zips through Charlotte, North Carolina—one of several barbecue hotspots in America—on its way to the party capital of the South. Atlanta, Mobile and New Orleans—roughly 1,300 miles and 30 hours after leaving New York—await down this curving, trans-continental Amtrak route.

Route: Between New York City and New Orleans

Vermonter route, Amtrak

Trundle through rural Vermont during any season for a great view. (©Ryan Taylor/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Amtrak: Vermonter

Though the Vermonter route is shorter than other Amtrak routes—only shy of 14 hours total—it serves as a way to relax. Trundle out of Washington, D.C., and admire the rural splendor of New York on your way to Connecticut and even farther north. Pass through Mount Snow, Sugarbush, Stowe and other quaint towns with resorts beloved for East coast skiing. Gliding past castles on the Hudson River on your way to the remote Northeast practically melts stress away.

Route: Between Washington, D.C., and St. Albans, Vermont

This story by Jamie Lowe first appeared on

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