From the Pacific to the Atlantic, from the mountains to the deserts, from urban to rural, scenic wonders fill the United States. And there’s no better way to see them — especially if you are on a travel budget — than by train.
Forget driving or flying. Instead, hop aboard Amtrak or take one of the abundant local rail trips across the country to really see America. Some are daytime or weekend regional trips; others will get you to your destination without the stress of navigating highways while letting you take in some of the nation’s most beautiful vistas. Whether you need to get from north to south, or from east to west, there’s a train waiting for you.
Never considered either a local or cross-country train trip? Here are some budget-friendly ideas of just where you can go, and what you can see, via rail. Fares listed are round trip for one adult.
Amtrak Coast Starlight
The Coast Starlight route traverses north from Los Angeles to Seattle, passing through Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and the San Francisco Bay Area en route to Oregon. There, the train travels through cities including Klamath Falls and Portland before reaching the end of the line at the Emerald City in Washington. Travelers who follow the entire 35-hour route will view the Pacific Ocean shoreline, forests and valleys and the snow-covered peaks of Mount Shasta and the Cascade Range.
Cost: Los Angeles to San Jose, $63 and up; Los Angeles to Seattle, $126
Along the way: The train station in Santa Barbara is an easy walk to Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wharf in the state and part of the Waterfront district. Take the train to Klamath Falls, the gateway to three national parks and two national monuments, as well as adventures that include rafting and birding.
Amtrak Ethan Allen Express
Start in New York City and head north to Rutland, Vermont. If you stay on board the entire 5 1/2-hour route, you’ll travel through the wine country of the Hudson Valley and straddle the Hudson River, into the capital city of Albany, to the horse racing mecca of Saratoga Springs and into the ripe ski area of Vermont. In the fall, the foliage is spectacular.
Cost: New York City to Saratoga Springs, from $118; New York City to Rutland, from $144
Along the way: Stop at Saratoga Springs, known for its mineral baths and, in the summer, visit the historic Saratoga Race Course. The city has the only naturally carbonated mineral springs east of the Rocky Mountains, according to the area’s visitor center. In 1999, Sports Illustrated ranked the horse track No. 10 on its list of the world’s greatest sporting venues.
Grand Canyon Railway
Travel in a refurbished 1923 Harriman-style coach car from Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon. The trip from Williams will take you through the high desert to the prairie and into the pines en route to the canyon. The trip runs 65 miles each way and lasts two hours, 15 minutes.
Cost: From $67
Along the way: Musicians will be on board to entertain you, Old West style. You might even see a great train robbery — all in good fun.
Aurora Winter Train
The Alaskan “winter” train runs weekends from mid-September through early May. It’s a 12-hour trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks on a Saturday, and you’ll see the winter sights of Alaska’s backcountry — including maybe a moose or two — and get up close with the Northern Lights and the Alaskan wilderness. Repeat the 12-hour trip back on Sunday. On a clear day, the view of Denali — North America’s highest mountain — and the Susitna River will be breathtaking. The train stops in Wasilla and Talkeetna, and some travelers disembark there on Saturday for a day of adventure and catch the train back on Sunday. Some mid-week departures are available.
Along the way: Sit back and enjoy the scenery through the large picture windows.
Amtrak California Zephyr
Heading east? The California Zephyr will take you from Northern California — past the snow Sierra Nevadas — to Chicago. You’ll traverse the Rocky Mountains and the plains of Nebraska en route to the Windy City on the 51-hour trip. You’ll ride along the Colorado River, with full views of whitewater rafters, and through the Utah desert, too. Some of the vistas you’ll take in can be seen only by train.
Cost: Emeryville, California, to Salt Lake City, from $168; to Chicago, $282.
Along the way: Stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado — known for its hiking, fishing, mineral hot springs and charming, historic downtown. Or in Helper, Utah, called “a living ghost town” that pays homage to its past as a coal mining town through the Western Mining Railroad Museum.
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Cape Cod Central Railroad
See the parts of the Cape accessible only by rail, including cranberry bogs, dunes and marshes. The train runs on select days seasonally, and the round trip is about two hours.
Cost: From $29.99
Along the way: Update your ride to a lunch, brunch, wine-tasting or dinner excursion.
Amtrak Sunset Limited
Take Amtrak’s southernmost route through the United States, from Louisiana to California, which traverses both coastal and desert landscapes. You’ll pass through the Bayou, travel along the Mexican border and through the southwestern deserts and California mountains. In season, national park guides come on board to inform passengers about the natural heritage of the region. The route runs 48 hours from start to finish.
Cost: New Orleans to El Paso, Texas, $212; to Los Angeles, $284
Along the way: Stop in San Antonio to see the Alamo, the Riverwalk and the historic Spanish missions. Or head to Palm Springs, California, to play golf, visit a spa, hang out in the eclectic downtown or take a driving tour of the neighborhoods filled with mid-century modern homes.
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