The Great Escape: Touring North America by Train

Traveling by train might sound old-fashioned, but it remains one of the best, most environment-friendly ways to see some of America’s wildest places. Here are 10 trips of a lifetime.

There was a time when the railroad ran through most towns in America, when a trip to the seashore, mountains, or desert, even the wilderness, began aboard a train. Today trains can still take you to natural places where the wonders of a national or state park, a bike path, or a river are just steps away from the tracks.

Riding the rails and leaving your car at home is an environmental choice. Per passenger mile, trains are 24 percent more fuel efficient than automobiles, 17 percent more than airplanes. For the final leg of your trip, you may have to rent a car, or you might consider bringing a bike, using public transportation, if available, or simply walking.

Whether you hop aboard a short-distance tourist railroad, a commuter line, or Amtrak—the only intercity passenger railroad left in America—the following 10 routes cross some of the country’s most iconic landscapes. On long-distance trips, reclining coach seats can be comfortable enough for sleeping, or you can pay extra for a sleeper compartment, which includes meals in the dining car. Ticket and sleeper prices vary. Best advice: Do some research online, check for discounts, and plan ahead.

The Empire Builder 
This train runs the “Hi-Line” route, on tracks owned by BNSF Railway, across the country’s northern tier between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. Passengers may glimpse pintail ducks, blue wing teal, and many grassland birds in North Dakota’s prairie pothole region; pronghorn antelope on Montana’s high plains; and mule deer and elk in the Cascades.

In the Rockies the train crosses the continental divide at Marias Pass and follows the southern border of Glacier National Park, where railroad history runs deep. The Great Northern Railway pushed hard for the park’s establishment in 1910 and built hotels and chalets to lure tourists to what was advertised as the American Alps. Amtrak stops at East Glacier and West Glacier, where you can catch a 1930s era “Jammer” touring coach to a nearby hotel or campground. At the park’s Essex Junction stop, you can stay at the Izaak Walton Inn, formerly a railroad barracks. Glacier Park is a 30-hour ride from Chicago and about 16 hours from Seattle.

For information: AmtrakGlacier National ParkIzaak Walton Inn

The Algoma Central Railway 
Pack a canoe onto a railroad baggage car. (It’s true—this train will carry snowmobiles and even boats.) Ride the rails into boreal forests of moose and muskeg, and step into the wilderness. Then, after paddling through lakes and rivers, head back to the tracks and flag down the next train. Just wave your arms for the Algoma Central Railway, which runs for 296 miles between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario.

Wilderness seekers head for the Chapleau Game Preserve, a 2,700-square-mile region of Crown Land (acreage owned by the British royalty and open to the public), where animals are protected from hunting and trapping. Between mileposts 184 and 245, passengers can step off directly into the preserve and embark on their backcountry trips.

Or you can get off at Fraser (Milepost 102) or Eaton (Milepost 120) to visit Lake Superior Provincial Park. If you’re just looking for a day trip, take a ride to Agawa Canyon. The canyon, which formed 1.2 billion years ago, is explorable only by train and five short hiking trails.

For information: Algoma Central RailwayChapleau Game Preserve

The Grand Canyon Railway
In the early 1900s the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway built a 65-mile spur from Williams, Arizona, to the canyon and erected the El Tovar Hotel on the south rim. The spur closed in 1968 but was resurrected in the late 1980s as a tourist railway. Year-round the Grand Canyon Railway operates a daily train of vintage passenger cars.

Leaving Williams, the train mostly steers clear of the highways and runs through the Colorado Plateau’s open desert, where blue-black mountain ranges serrate the horizon, and prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, and red-tailed hawks abound in the scrub brush and dry grasslands. As the route climbs higher, the desert gives way to picturesque ponderosa pine forest near the canyon. The Southwest Chief, an Amtrak long-distance train, stops at Williams, so it’s possible to switch to the canyon train and reach the rim by rail from Chicago (32 hours to Williams) or Los Angeles (nine hours).

For information: Grand Canyon RailwayGrand Canyon National Park

The Sunset Limited
Running just three days a week between Houston and Los Angeles, the Sunset passes through the sparsely inhabited Chihuahuan Desert and the ancient volcanic mountains of southwest Texas.

The jumping-off point is Alpine, a small town established to provide water to steam locomotives. Alpine is a 23-hour ride from Los Angeles, 16 hours from Houston. You’ll need to rent a car in Alpine to go exploring because there is no public transportation to nearby parks. To the south, 98 miles away, sprawls Big Bend National Park, 800,000 acres of desert, 7,000-foot mountains, and the Rio Grande. Here’s a place to see roadrunners, javelinas, jackrabbits, and kangaroo rats while hiking through rock-strewn landscapes dotted with agave. The region’s diverse habitats make Big Bend a phenomenal birding destination.

Learn about the flora and fauna at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, 26 miles north of Alpine at Fort Davis. Continue north to 3,000-acre Davis Mountains State Park to hike backcountry trails through the Limpia Canyon Primitive Area. If you don’t want to camp, stay at the park’s Indian Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

For more information: Big Bend National ParkChihuahuan Desert Nature CenterDavis Mountains State Park

Hudson River Line/Metro-North Railroad 
(New York)
Commuter trains that carry workers into New York City on weekdays also provide doorstep access on weekends for people hiking the rocky Hudson Highlands along the Hudson River.

Hikers can board at Grand Central Terminal and disembark less than two hours later and 46 miles north at the Breakneck Ridge station. The aptly named Breakneck Ridge Trail gains 1,250 feet in less than the first mile before reaching a series of exposed summits with stunning views of the river and the surrounding plateau. The trail ends 4.6 miles later at a fire tower on South Beacon Mountain; on clear days it’s possible to see the skyscrapers of Manhattan from the peak.

Weekend trains also stop at the Manitou station, just a short walk from Bear Mountain State Park. Even the regular stops of Beacon and Cold Springs provide fairly easy biking or walking access to the state parks in the highlands.

For information: MTA Metro-North RailroadBear Mountain State ParkBreakneck Ridge Trail

Maryland Area Regional Commuter 
Each evening two trains run the Brunswick Line between Washington’s Union Station and West Virginia. The tracks follow the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry, where John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal armory struck the spark that helped touch off the Civil War. The trip takes two and a half hours from Washington’s Union Station.

The Appalachian Trail passes just 300 yards from the Harpers Ferry train station. Hikers cross a bridge to Maryland Heights and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, where they gain extraordinary views of the river valley below. Watch for peregrine falcons; since 2001 a dozen young falcons have been released in the Heights.

Consider bringing a bike to ride the towpath along the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which runs 184.5 miles from Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., through Harpers Ferry to Cumberland, Maryland. Begun in 1828 to connect the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River, the C&O Canal was never finished because of the coming of the railroad. Today it’s a linear national historic park marked by old farms and patches of woods dotted with trillium, dogwood, serviceberry, and rhododendron.

For information: Harpers Ferry National Historic ParkMaryland Transit Administration

The Denali Star 
The train is a spectacular way to reach Denali National Park and Preserve. It takes about eight hours from Anchorage and four hours from Fairbanks. Running May to September, the Denali Star is popular with backpackers, rail fans, and wildlife watchers. When the weather is right, riders get impressive views of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) and typically see dall sheep, beaver, moose, wolves, and sometimes grizzlies. Caribou migrate across the tracks in fall. If you pay for an upgrade on the route from Anchorage to Fairbanks, you can get the GoldStar Service, with plush seating in custom-made observation cars that feature outdoor decks.

The Alaskan Railroad, owned by the state since 1985, is for more than tourists. It hauls freight and supplies to people living in roadless country. Anyone wanting to board can simply wave down the train. 

For information: Alaskan RailroadDenali National Park

The Adirondack 
Running daily between New York City and Montreal, this train skirts the eastern edge of six-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest tract of land protected by a U.S. state. The Adirondack makes six stops at communities in the park’s eastern region. The trip takes about six hours from Montreal and five hours from New York.

Local transit shuttles at the Fort Edward and Westport stations run to Glens Falls, Lake George, and Lake Placid. At Port Kent passengers can board the seasonal ferry to Vermont, a passage popular with bikers along Lake Champlain. Motorcoach connections are possible at other stops, although you’ll need to taxi over to the local bus station. Otherwise, you may want to consider renting a car to tour the park.

You can find cappuccino and gourmet coffee on the road, and dine at grand old hunting lodges—all the while stopping at trailheads for hikes into big tracts of roadless country. As the land has healed from logging, extirpated species, including moose, fisher, beaver, marten, osprey, and lynx, are making comebacks.

If you prefer to stay on the train and enjoy the scenery, onboard docents, working in partnership with the National Park Service, narrate the journey with tidbits about nature and the region’s Revolutionary War/War of 1812 history. In the fall foliage season, Amtrak adds a vintage domed observation car, which allows passengers stunning 360-degree views.

For information: AmtrakAdirondack Park

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway 
(Alaska and Canada)
Starting in Skagway, Alaska, at sea level, this train climbs 2,865 feet in 20 miles up steep grades to reach its high point at White Pass in the Canadian Yukon. This was the route of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, hailed by miners as the “last great adventure.” The railroad isn’t long—just 110 miles to Whitehorse—but the route leads through dense old-growth forests, glacier fields, and a colorful past. At first the miners hiked to the gold fields carrying their provisions on their backs. A railroad was needed, but such rugged country required a narrower gauge of track, tunnels, trestles, and carving the roadbed out of sheer mountains. Today the picturesque ride takes about three hours one way.

 For day hikes, trekkers can get off at two locations, Laughton trailhead and Denver Glacier, where the U.S. Forest Service has renovated an old caboose into a cabin for overnight stays. Follow in the footsteps of gold rushers with a challenging hike on the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail, which begins near Skagway and ends up at Lake Bennett, where you can catch the train back down. 

For information: White Pass & Yukon Route RailwayTongass National Forest

The Cardinal 
Three days a week the Cardinal runs a circuitous route from New York to Chicago via Washington, D.C. The train is so named because six states—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—it passes through have designated the Northern cardinal as their state bird.

The Cardinal is a mom-and-pop sort of train with just one sleeping car (shared with the crew) and a single server/cook in the diner. Passengers often board at unstaffed stations and buy their tickets from the conductor.

The West Virginia portion of the route runs along the New River Gorge National River, a linear national park that protects 70,000 acres of land and 53 river miles. The rugged gorge is as much as 1,000 feet deeper than the surrounding Appalachian Plateau. Hikers and birders can detrain at Hinton, Prince, and Thurmond. The latter is about a seven-hour ride from Washington. Within a short distance are primitive campgrounds, trails for hikers and bikers, and whitewater for rafters and kayakers.

For information: AmtrakNew River Gorge National River