Train traveling along river in Colorado
Travel through some incredible landscapes aboard the California Zephyr.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Learn How to Appreciate the Journey Aboard These 7 Train Vacations in the USA

All Aboard!

Train trips are constantly romanticized in movies, TV and even music, from westerns to train heists to love stories. Despite the fact that the United States is no longer in the golden age of rail travel, trains still hold a level of sentimentality due to their history.

And while train travel in the USA may not get you where you want to go as fast as possible, it will allow you the opportunity to see parts of the country that are inaccessible any other way. Verdant forests await you in the summer, vibrant foliage in the autumn, snow-capped peaks in the winter, and colorful blooms in the spring. Who knows? You may even see some wildlife, undisturbed by human contact.

Whether you’re looking to explore the country on a train trip across the USA or just enjoy the old-timey feeling of dining in a restored rail car, these are some of the best train rides in the USA.

California Zephyr (Amtrak): Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA

Experience the best of the west with a ride on Amtrak’s California Zephyr line. Regarded as one of the most scenic routes in the United States you’ll start your journey in the Windy City, crossing through the plains of the Midwest, the Colorado Rockies, the Utah desert, and then the California Sierras before ending up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aside from your standard coach cars, California Zephyr also has lounge, cafe, sightseeing and sleeper cars to make your trip more enjoyable.

A base one-way ticket costs around $140 USD per person, but for the most comfortable experience, we recommend booking a sleeper car. Traveling straight through takes around 51 hours, but there are also pricey vacation packages available to extend your trip, like the 10-Day Peaks to Pacific Journey, which includes hotels and sightseeing tours along the way.

Train through AlaskaFind adventure in Alaska aboard the Denali Star.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Denali Star (Alaska Railroad): Anchorage, AK to Fairbanks, AK

During the summer months, you can explore Alaska by rail on Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star train. With only two classes available, both of which are attractive options, ticket prices are a little pricier than the average U.S. train, coming in at $249 USD per person one way for Adventure Class and $450 USD per person for Goldstar Class for the 12-hour ride. Longer excursions are available as well, with day trips and lodging in either Talkeetna or Denali National Park ranging from $315-1025 USD per person.

However, as the train passes through the Chugach Mountains, along rivers and provides views of Hurricane Gulch and Healy Canyon, you may want to splurge for Goldstar Class. You’ll have access to special double-decker cars with glass-dome ceilings, one-of-a-kind upper deck outdoor viewing platforms, and lower level dining with two complimentary alcoholic beverages included.

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Waterfall into a riverThe High Falls of the Cheat are just one of the sights you'll be privy to when you ride the Cheat Mountain Salamander.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Cheat Mountain Salamander & Cass Scenic Railroad: Elkins, WV to Cass, WV

While West Virginia might not be the first state that comes to mind when you think train travel in the USA, they have some of the best train routes in the States, especially if you plan to travel in the fall. On weekends from May to October, you can board the Cheat Mountain Salamander and journey through the mountain wilderness. Buffet lunch is included, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot a bald eagle or a black bear.

A full day trip will take you across the Cheat Bridge, through the High Falls of the Cheat, and to the former town of Spruce, which is only accessible by rail. From there, you can transfer to the Cass Scenic Railroad, originally a lumber train, where you’ll be privy to sweeping mountain views and colorful foliage during the fall months. The full route starts at $118 USD one way for an approximately 12-hour journey.

Railway tracks along the coastStart in either Seattle or Los Angeles and take in the changing Pacific Coast.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Coast Starlight (Amtrak): Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA

Amtrak’s most popular long distance train route and one of the most stunning luxury train trips in the USA will take you all along the Pacific Coast. Whether you start in Seattle or Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight will allow you to enjoy unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean along with lush forests, rushing waterfalls and the picturesque Puget Sound in Washington.

As it’s a 35-hour ride, you’ll want to book a private room in the sleeping car, especially if traveling with a group or your family. While having a bed to sleep on is certainly a perk, private rooms also get access to upgraded dining in the Pacific Parlour Car for meals and an evening wine and cheese reception. A room for two will cost about $225 USD per person one way.

If you’re flying solo, you can try your luck by curling up on a coach seat for around $97 USD one way.

View of the Grand CanyonPeriod actors on board will give you a sense of the train in its heydey.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Grand Canyon Railway: Williams, AZ to Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Another one of the best train vacations in the USA takes you through Arizona to the Grand Canyon’s Southern Rim on the historic Grand Canyon Railway. Operating since 1901, the restored cars and on-board period actors give riders a sense of how the train was in its heyday. Enjoy live entertainment as you chug for two hours and 15 minutes through deserts and forests before finally arriving at the canyon where you can explore on your own or with a tour.

Vacation packages are available for multi-day trips including meals and hotels for around $650 USD and up. However, day trips start at just $33.50 USD for adults and $16 USD for kids, one way. In Pullman Class, you can ride in one of the 1923 Harriman refurbished cars — the most economical option. Prices go all the way up to $113 USD per adult for the Luxury Parlor car at the rear of the train, which has an open-air platform for sightseeing. Other high-end classes also have access to observation dome or panoramic cars in addition to bars and lounges with comfortable seating.

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Railway tracks along a lake with bridge in the distanceSee a large portion of the country in the least amount of time. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Crescent (Amtrak): New York, NY to New Orleans, LA

Ever wanted to travel across 13 states in 30 hours? Well, with Amtrak’s Crescent line train, you can do exactly that, traveling from New York City to New Orleans. Among the stops along the way are Philly, Baltimore, DC, Charlotte, Greenville and Atlanta with many smaller towns and cities in between.

Coach seats start at around $134 USD per person, but since it’s an overnight, cross country train, booking a Viewliner Roomette or Bedroom is a smart choice. Although they may be tiny, these rooms — which include a toilet, shower, chairs and pull-down beds — can cost upwards of $1,100 USD one way, and you may be paired with a stranger if traveling solo.

But if not for the views and the relaxed vibe of the train, booking a room on the Crescent will give you access to their surprisingly well put together menu. Enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner on board, choosing from omelets, mussels, and surf and turf hand-selected by award-winning chefs.

Looking out over valley in Great Smoky MountainsEnjoy local activities on the layover and beautiful views from the train window.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad: Bryson City, NC to Multiple Destinations

Steam or diesel? Take your pick on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Trains depart from Bryson City in North Carolina, with two destinations available. Venture to the Nantahala Gorge on a 4.5-hour ride or journey through the Western North Carolina countryside on the Tuckasegee River Excursion. Both options also include a layover, allowing you to enjoy local activities before completing your round-trip experience.

Like many local specialty trains, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad now offers special events and excursions to tempt travelers away from air travel. Where else can you taste craft moonshine from local distilleries or enjoy a family-friendly Peanuts cartoon-themed holiday ride for Easter or Halloween?

As for the classes, they range from coach (starting at $51 USD per person for adults) to first-class ($114 USD per person for adults), with open-air gondola options available. And expect Southern comfort food and barbecue for first-class tickets, while you can purchase a basic boxed lunch with coach fares.

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