Amtrak Empire Builder travel around US by train guide by bookonboard

Travel in the USA by Train | Top 10 routes 2020

Travel in the USA by Train – Best Scenic Rail Routes in the US

One can say, railways are the thing that built the great nation of the USA. There is a certain romance in a train journey. On a train, there is no hustle and bustle of an airport, no breakneck hurry, and no heavy responsibilities like on highways. You can sit back and enjoy the sceneries on the nice and relaxing train journies. Of which, America has a lot. Therefore, let us see the best ways to travel to the USA by Train today.

America is a huge country. As such, it has a lot of rail routes. It is impossible to choose the certain best of them. Since among the numerous different train journies you can take in the US, many have unique experiences. Therefore, instead of competing between famous train routes, we here at BookOnBoard will present just a simple list of rail routes. These were chosen because they appear most in the bucket list of tourists to the US.

List of top 10 train routes in the USA

  1. The Coast Starlight
  2. The Grand Canyon Railway
  3. The Pacific Surfliner
  4. Amtrak Cascades
  5. The Polar Express
  6. The White Pass Yukon Route
  7. Colorado Rail Adventure
  8. Amtrak California Zephyr
  9. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge
  10. Amtrak Empire Builder

Now let us look at these rail routes closely. Because these are the best ways to travel to the USA by train.

The Coast Starlight

Perhaps the most well-known train in the whole USA, the Coast Starlight is operated by Amtrak. It runs all through the beautiful coastal scenery of the west coast of America. This service started in 1971, and it was a merger of the earlier Southern Pacific trains – The Coast Daylight and the Starlight.

The Coast Starlight starts its wonderful journey in Seattle. Then you roll through 28 major stops along the coast. It finally finishes its journey in Los Angeles. Hence, it covers a huge 1377 miles of rails. You will spend around 35 hours on this train for the full journey. The Coastal Starlight is available daily each way. Besides the standard sleeper, business and coaches, it also has a dining cum cafe car and a sightseeing salon.

The Grand Canyon Railway

Chugging through the beautiful Arizona landscape, this is probably one of the most scenic rail routes in the US. It is a heritage railway, and one of the best ways to travel to the grand canyon. Every day, it carries hundreds of passengers between Williams, Arizona and the Grand Canyon Village on the south rim of the canyons. 

The silvery-gold diesel engines on the Grand Canyon Railway pulls a unique collection of historical cars. There are vintage Pullman cars, Coach, Cafe, First class and parlor cars. Not only that, the train offers you glass-domed observation cars as well. So that you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings with a panoramic view.

The Pacific Surfliner

Another famous coastal line, the Pacific Starliner carries hoards of passengers and tourists every day through the southern California coastline. It carried nearly three hundred thousand people in the last year alone! It is one of the busiest rail routes in America. Also, it is one of the most popular ways to travel to America by train. That would be a result of the grand views it offers along the way.

The Pacific Surfliner operates between San Luis Obispo, CA and San Diego, on a daily basis. Thus, it takes around 8 hours to complete each 350-mile trip. The train has bi-level Surfliner and Superliner coaches that offer great views of the coastal scenery for the passengers. There are also glass-domed cars for even better viewing.

Amtrak Cascades

The Amtrak Cascades is an internationally famous rail route in the US. The route runs parallel to the Cascade mountains in the Pacific Northwest. As such, it offers some breathtaking sceneries on the way from Vancouver to Eugene. This 418-mile journey connects 18 cities daily.

The train has one of the most unique looks owing to specially designed coaches and paint schemes. Besides the standard coaches, it also has a fancy lounge or bistro car. The articulated engineering on the cars allows the train to move along the many, many curves along the route without slowing down. This makes the cars tilt dramatically which will give you a different experience.

The Polar Express

Surely you have watched the famous Polar Express movie? The Polar Express is not a single train but multiple seasonal trains all over the country. They offer a great Christmas vacation experience in the US. Some of the best Polar Expresses are run on these lines:

  • Adirondack Scenic Railroad
  • Branson Scenic Railway
  • New Hope Railroad
  • California State Railroad Museum
  • Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad
  • Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
  • Train of Lights
  • North Pole Express
  • The Elf Limited
  • North Pole Flyer 
  • Christmas Special Dinner Train
  • Holiday Express
  • …and many more!

These rides offer many excitement and activities for kids and the whole family. Sometimes the crew re-enacts the movie or reads excerpts from the book itself. Hot chocolate or cocoa and cookies are served to guests on board as well. Most of these seasonal train routes have vintage cars. Some of them even have vintage coal engines too!

The White Pass Yukon Route

You can’t talk of American railroads without speaking about this chilling journey! In freezing Alaska, the White Pass and Yukon Route is a scenic narrow-gauge line from Skagway to the summit of the White Pass. The trains climb nearly 3000 feet on this 2.5-hour journey. The line passes through Alaskan wildlands through many cliffhanger sections and mountainsides. It has once been called the Railroad to Hell by one of the engineers.

The White Pass and Yukon Railroad are disconnected from any other rail lines. As such, there are only diesel and coal engines on this ride. Most of the trains have vintage cars with guides in them. A word of warning, though. This rail route is quite prone to accidents, as history would dictate.

Colorado Rail Adventure

As a collection, Colorado is the one state in America with the most amount of scenic train routes. The Colorado Rail Adventure is one of them. Looping through the Rocky Mountains, this 8-day long train travel starts and ends in Denver. 

In the Colorado Rail Adventure, you can see many beautiful views of many spots in the Rockies. These include Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak, Continental Divide, Ute, Trout Creek, Poncha, Wolf Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and many mesmerizing valleys, streams, and mountains.

Amtrak California Zephyr

Cross-country on a train is fun! The Amtrak California Zephyr is the longest route of the company, running 2438 miles for 52 hours. This route connects 33 major cities across the country between Chicago and San Francisco. Hence, it is one of the busiest railroads in the world. But not only that! The train goes through a lot of beautiful natural vistas and wonderful countryside. 

You can enjoy all of that from the fast-running train. For your viewing ease, they have added sightseer lounge cars to the standard mix of coaches and Superliners. There is also baggage and dining cars. Along the ride, you can see the great scenery of the upper Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge

Durango is one of the best places to spend your Christmas vacation. One of the prime reasons for that is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This beautifully scenic route runs from Durango to Silverton. The 45-miles long rail route passes through many bends, slopes, and cliffhanger sections. This makes the line rather difficult to traverse. Thus, trains on this small route run rather slowly, at a top speed of 18mph. 

The Durango-Silverton Route is a heritage rail route and a historic landmark. The leisurely but dangerous train ride offers you breathtaking views of many canyons and mountains. It becomes even more magical in the winter. In deep snow, the line runs a version of The Polar Express as well. The coaches are vintage and the dining is fine on this train. Operating since 1882, it is one of the oldest mountain railroads in the country.

Amtrak Empire Builder

Last but not least! The Amtrak Empire Builder is famous among any American who knows a thing or two about trains. Previously this line was under the Great Northern Railway, and they actually had a radio show about this train

Amtrak Empire Builder travel around US by train guide by bookonboard
Amtrak Empire Builder – Photo by Nate Beal from Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

The Empire Builder offers great sceneries along the 45-hour long journey. This 2206-mile long route is one of the USA’s busiest long-distance train routes. You can travel by the Empire Builder Train every day from Chicago Union Station to King Street Station in Seattle. It’s true that you can make the same journey in just a few hours by plane and at the same cost, more or less. But! Taking it low and slow has its own charm. Also, you get the time to enjoy the awe-inspiring natural sceneries on the way. 

Pulled by a couple of General Electric Genesis P42 engines, the trains have sightseer and dining cars along with the standard coach, baggage and sleeper cars. The chairs face the floor-to-ceiling windows in the sightseeing car. This way you can sit comfortably while watching the wonderful natural vistas.

Final thoughts

The deep-from-lungs cry “All aboard!” starts the romantic journey on a train. By no means, this was a complete list of the best ways to travel in the USA by train. There are many other great routes to travel by train in the USA. Here in BookOnBoard, we have tried to bring out some of the best of them. Hope you enjoyed it! Please let us know your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section. Also please check out some of our other tour guides.

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