There’s no getting around the sheer size and scale of the USA – it’s an absolute, supersized whopper – and the best way to see it all is via train.
The US has close to 3.8 million sq miles (10 million sq km) of sublime mountain ranges, parched desert, entire states engulfed in deep snow, you-gotta-go-see-it-to-believe-it cities, endless prairie land, six whole time zones and lakes so large you could lose whole countries down there. So while traveling around by plane might make sense from a convenience point of view – it’s not quite six hours to dart directly from New York to LA – there really is no better way to experience the sheer grandeur of the country than by taking one of these train vacations.
Considerably more relaxing than driving or flying, the best train rides in the US offer a leisurely, nostalgic sightseeing experience, often passing through pristine landscapes inaccessible by other means. The US is rich with amazing train journeys, but the routes listed below are the cream of the crop. From California to New England, here are eight epic US train trips our editors have selected, taken from Lonely Planet’s Amazing Train Journeys.
1. The Sunset Limited
Route: New Orleans – San Antonio – Tucson – Phoenix – Los Angeles
Distance and duration: 1995 miles (3211 km); 2 days
Amtrak’s Sunset Limited is the ultimate American railroad ride and one of its most famous train journeys: east to west, coast to coast, clean through from the bars of New Orleans to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve always dreamed of taking a journey across the USA, but don’t much relish the prospect of two weeks spent cooped up in an automobile, then a ride on the Sunset Limited is the answer.
Sit back and let America’s landscapes buzz by: from Louisiana’s bayous, past the high-rises of Houston, across the deserts of Texas and Arizona, over the Californian hills all the way to LA’s golden beaches. Saddle up, pardner: it’s gonna be quite a ride.
2. The Coast Starlight
Route: Seattle – Portland – Sacramento – Los Angeles
Distance and duration: 1377 miles (2216 km); 35 hours
Trace America’s “left coast” in all its varied splendor. The 35-hour (OK, it’s Amtrak, so maybe more) trip between Seattle and Los Angeles curves alongside crashing Pacific waves, cuts through America’s lushest agricultural land and passes below snowcapped mountains and towering redwoods. Of all the Amtrak routes, the Coast Starlight offers the most scenic variety in the fewest hours.
It’s also the only Amtrak service with a dedicated parlor car, open only to passengers who book sleepers. The parlor conjures old-time rail romance, with wood paneling and soft lighting, plus a special menu and wine-and-cheese tastings. Highlights of this train ride include dramatic sunrise perspectives on 14,179ft (4322m) Mt Shasta, and a gorgeous midday traverse of Oregon’s Cascade Range.
3. Metro-North Hudson Line
Route: New York City – Poughkeepsie
Distance and duration: 69 miles (111 km); 1½ hours
Depart from New York City’s iconic beaux arts Grand Central Terminal, stopping to admire the ornate astronomical ceiling painting in the vaulted main concourse and to slurp up oysters and a martini at the famous Oyster Bar.
Then roll through Manhattan and the Bronx and into the glorious green Hudson River Valley. Hugging the eastern banks of the river, New York’s Metro-North’s Hudson line travels deep into American history. The names of the stops along the way speak to the area’s origins: Native American (Ossining, Poughkeepsie); Dutch (Spuyten Duyvil, Yonkers, Cortlandt, Peekskill); English (Hastings-on-Hudson, Scarborough). It’s a land so famously beautiful an entire art movement – the Hudson River School – was once dedicated to capturing its glory. For the cost of a burger and a beer, this view can be yours for almost two hours.
4. The California Zephyr
Route: Chicago – Omaha – Denver – Salt Lake City – San Francisco
Distance and duration: 2438 miles (3924km), 51 hours 20 minutes
For soaking up the scenic grandeur of the North American continent, nothing compares with Amtrak’s California Zephyr train. This classic three-day journey travels nearly 2500 miles (4000km) across prairies, deserts, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada on its way from Chicago to San Francisco. The scenery is magnificent throughout – especially when seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the lounge car – but if you can only do one section, opt for the riveting 185-mile (298km) stretch between Denver and Glenwood Springs, where the train travels through an often roadless wilderness of deep, narrow gorges near the Colorado River’s headwaters.
Near sunset, the train emerges into the majestic red rock desert of eastern Utah, then crosses overnight into the forbidding vastness of Nevada’s sagebrush country, with salt flats and stark, arid mountains as far as the eye can see. Sunrise on day three reveals an entirely different desert: the blinding-white alkali flats and ghostly grey mountains near Winnemucca, Nevada. Just beyond the gambling-happy little city of Reno, the Zephyr climbs into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, then enters California’s imposing granite high country beyond the photogenic frontier town of Truckee.
5. Amtrak Downeaster
Route: Boston – Portland – Brunswick
Distance and duration: 145 miles (233 km); 3 hours 25 minutes
As car-free city breaks go, this train escape is hard to beat, chugging from the downtown main streets of urban Boston to Maine’s rural greens in under four hours. That’s from the seventh most densely populated city in the US to the state with the highest percentage of forest coverage, all in less time than it takes to cook an old-style Yankee plum pudding.
Even better, every stop on the Amtrak Downeaster features historic New England cities and towns, parks and seascapes, cottage arts and crafts, world-class shopping and stellar foods fashioned from farm-and-sea-fresh ingredients.
6. The New Mexico Rail Runner
Route: Albuquerque – Santa Fe
Distance and duration: 97 miles (156 km); 90 minutes
One of America’s great unsung commuter railways, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express is a regional train that runs down the Rio Grande Valley, connecting the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, with its cultural and political capital, Santa Fe.
On the way it crosses the wide, high desert, giving views of arid mountains in all directions, and even passes through several of the state’s Native American tribal lands. A no-nonsense, clean and quick journey, its highlights are the sweeping views from the upper seats of the double-decker carriages. Taken as a day trip or a scenic but practical form of intra-state transport, the Rail Runner is a wonderful introduction to New Mexico’s epic landscapes.
7. The Empire Builder
Route: Chicago – St Paul or Minneapolis – Spokane – Portland or Seattle
Distance and duration: 2764 miles (4448 km); 46 hours
The Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle glides through Wisconsin’s woodlands, Minnesota’s lake country and the North Dakota prairies en route to a western horizon swarming with snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks.
From Browning, Montana, an unforgettable 60-mile run along the southern edge of Glacier National Park leads to the park entrance at West Glacier, where nature lovers will want to break their journey before continuing to Seattle.
8. The Vermonter
Route: Washington, DC– New York City– Springfield – Essex Junction (Burlington) – St Albans
Distance and duration: 611 miles (983 km); 13 hours 45 minutes
The Amtrak Vermonter runs once daily from Washington, DC to St Albans, VT. This is the most scenic route east of the Mississippi, especially in its northern reaches, where it snakes for four hours through the bucolic green hills and photogenic villages of rural Vermont.
Starting from the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, the train runs north through one of the USA’s greatest metropolises, New York City, before bowling out through Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire en route to the bucolic Vermont countryside and St Albans.