Travel Ideas

10 Most-Scenic Train Trips Through the U.S. (With Views That’ll Instantly Make You More Relaxed)

Photo: Stocksy / Kayla Johnson
Train travel has long held a romantic place in many adventurers’ hearts. Maybe it’s the fantasy of climbing aboard with a pillbox hat on your head and a vintage vanity case in your hand, like something out of an Agatha Christie novel (minus all the murder-y parts, of course). Or maybe it’s the slow and steady pace of riding the rails, turning a trip into a true voyage. For many Europeans, it’s all about the environmental impact, as scenic train trips have lower carbon emissions compared to flying. In Sweden, flygskam (flight shame) and tagskryt (train bragging) have become big buzzwords.

But vacationing by locomotive has another benefit: all those breathtaking landscapes speeding past your window have been scientifically proven to reduce stress. According to research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, simply looking at a picture of natural scenery for 40 seconds is enough to relax the brain. Now imagine how restorative a 46-hour train journey, with views of mountains, alpine valleys, and a national park would be.

With this in mind, here are 10 scenic train trips in the U.S. with unparalleled sightseeing. Some of them take days, while others last only hours. So if all you can manage is a daytrip, you can still reach railway relaxation.

10 most scenic train trips through the U.S.

1. Anchorage to Seward, Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic Train

scenic train trips
Photo: Getty Images / prospective56

Keep your nose pressed to the window for views of towering glaciers and sky-high waterfalls in coastal Alaska. This roundtrip ride from Anchorage to Seward (with a stop in Girdwood) takes a full day, thanks to a seven-hour layover in Seward. Use your time to stretch your legs and let your jaw drop during a wildlife and glacier cruise of Kenai Fjords National Park.

2. Napa to St. Helena, Napa Valley Wine Train

scenic train trips
Photo: Getty Images / Billy Hustace

Soak up California wine country—both with your eyes and taste buds. This 36-mile, round-trip journey, which takes six hours total, includes a four-course meal, winery tours, tastings, and some of the Golden State’s most lush landscapes. Plus, the train features an open-air car for top-notch vineyard views.

3. Durango to Silverton, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

scenic train trips
Photo: durangotrain.com

Unplug from the modern world the moment you climb aboard this steam engine from the 1800s. For one, there’s no WiFi or cell service for much of the route, but also the sights of the San Juan National Forest and Animas River will make you forget whatever’s on your phone. This journey is roundtrip, with a two-hour stop in the historic mining town of Silverton. Hunt for precious metals or, you know, just a good hamburger during your layover.

4. Chicago to Portland, Empire Builder

scenic train trips
Photo: Getty Images / Feng Wei Photography

Forget the great American road trip. The great American rail trip has some of the country’s most dazzling sights, and you don’t even have to keep your eyes on the road. Clocking in at 46 hours for the full voyage, you’ll trace segments of the Lewis and Clark Trail, spot the Mississippi River and Minneapolis skyline, traverse the North Dakota plains, and pass Glacier National Park before heading toward Portland to ogle Mount Hood.

5. San Luis Obispo to San Diego, Pacific Surfliner

scenic train trips
Photo: Amtrak

Catch ocean views and glimpses of surfers hanging 10 right from your seat on the aptly named Pacific Surfliner. The train’s full route takes nearly six hours, but if you’re pressed for time, you can still get a feel for the beach-hugging tracks on the Los Angeles to San Diego portion, which takes half the time. Plus, this abridged version leaves from LA’s landmark Union Station, a favorite filming location and must-see for movie buffs.

6. Moab to Denver, Rocky Mountaineer

scenic train trips
Photo: Getty Images / Jan Zwilling

If “enchanting hoodoos” don’t set your mind at ease, it’s hard to say what geological formation will during this scenic train trip. In addition to rock spires that look like sandcastles built by a giant, the “Rockies to the Red Rocks” route glides over canyons, through mountain tunnels, and along the Colorado River as you make your way from Moab, Utah to Denver, Colorado over two days.

7. Williams to the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon Railway

Photo: Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel

Over four million Instagram posts can’t be wrong. That’s how many times #GrandCanyon has been tagged on the social media platform, making it the most picturesque viewpoint in America, according to a study by ParkSleepFly. Soak up these superlative scenes for yourself on the Grand Canyon Railway, which travels from Williams, Arizona to the famous formation’s South Rim over the course of a day. On board, cowboys and banjo players will entertain you as you chug along. Can't get enough of the canyon's scenic offerings? Keep the trip going by booking a night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.

8. Durbin, Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad

Photo: Getty Images / John McQuiston

Don’t just pass through stunning scenery, get marooned in it on a Castaway Caboose Overnight in West Virginia. After boarding the caboose of a steam locomotive in Durbin, you’ll travel miles into the wilderness along the Greenbrier River. Then the train will cut you loose, literally detaching your car from the rest of the locomotive. You’ll spend the night in your train car, stepping off as you please to hike the surrounding riverbanks or tell tales of your travels around a bonfire. The next morning, your steam-powered steed will return to pull you back to civilization.

9. Trego and along the Namekagon River, Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad

Photo: Spooner Train Ride

Check in to a bed and breakfast on tracks. The overnight excursion on the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad travels from Trego to the deep woods, along the meandering Namekagon River, and back again. You’ll have your own private sleeping cabin so you can watch Northwest Wisconsin wiz by from bed.

10. Blue Ridge to Copperhill, Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Photo: Getty Images / Dermot Conlan

Adventure through the Appalachian foothills aboard tracks that date back to the early 1900s. It’s only an hour each way from Blue Ridge, Georgia (aka the state’s “antique capital”) to the sister towns of McCaysville, Georgia and Copperhill, Tennessee, but that’s plenty of time to absorb the sights of the surrounding mountains and Toccoa River. You’ll also have time for some retail therapy, as the train stops for two hours in the sister towns before making the return trip.

 

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