All Aboard! A Beginner’s Guide to Exploring America by Train

Post originally Published December 4, 2023 || Last Updated December 6, 2023

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All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - The Romance of the Rails

For many travelers, there's just something deeply romantic about exploring America by train. The clickety-clack of the rails, the gently rocking carriages, the ever-changing views zipping past your window - train travel conjures up nostalgia for the Golden Age of railroading.

While air travel may be faster, exploring by rail allows you to slow down and fully immerse yourself in the journey. You get to see the subtle changes in landscape and small towns whizzing by. Travelers wax poetic about the simple pleasures of train travel - lingering over a meal in the dining car, playing cards with fellow passengers in the observation deck, and resting your head as you wake up to a new state.

The coast-to-coast routes are particularly magical. The California Zephyr winds through the majestic Rockies, showcasing dramatic gorges and mighty rivers. The Southwest Chief takes you through the awe-inspiring vistas of the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert. The Empire Builder travels along the scenic Pacific Northwest coastline and the wide open plains of Big Sky country. At night, many long distance trains offer private sleeping carriages so you can fall asleep under a blanket of stars.
For many, cross country train trips are a rite of passage, hearkening back to an earlier era of exploration when the railroad first connected the nation. In our fast-paced digital age, trains let you slow down and rediscover the joy of the journey. Travelers have called the experience "meditative", "soul-stirring", and "life-affirming".

Train buffs love reminiscing about memorable characters met or funny moments shared. Parents speak fondly of the wonder in their children's eyes as they spot wildlife out the window. Couples cherish the quality time together with no distractions except the changing landscape. Many travelers have precious memories of special moments shared - proposals, anniversaries, even a birth!

What else is in this post?

  1. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - The Romance of the Rails
  2. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Hitting the Scenic Routes
  3. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Coast to Coast Adventure
  4. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Journey Through History
  5. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Family Fun on the Train
  6. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Sleeping Under the Stars
  7. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Indulge in Luxury
  8. All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Packing Tips for Train Travelers

All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Hitting the Scenic Routes

For many, the biggest draw of train travel is the ability to feast your eyes on some of America's most jaw-dropping scenery. Cross country routes like the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder traverse some of the country's most spectacular natural highlights.

The California Zephyr is frequently cited as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world for good reason. This route cuts through the heart of the Rockies, treating travelers to vistas of snow-capped peaks, sheer cliffs, and tranquil alpine lakes. One unforgettable highlight is traversing the Feather River Canyon with its dramatic gorges cutting through the Sierra Nevadas. Travelers have called it "one of the most sensational scenery spectacles on the planet."

The Coast Starlight hugs the Pacific Coast for hundreds of miles, offering front row seats to crashing ocean waves, sandy beaches, and lush coastal forests. One writer recounted standing in the observation deck for hours during the stretch between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. "I was hypnotized by the Pacific, mere feet was more magnificent than any movie or photo could capture."

The Empire Builder takes you through the majestic Glacier National Park with its pristine forests, crystal blue lakes, and towering mountain peaks. One family said the highlight was spotting bears, elk, and bighorn sheep along the way. Others enjoyed the views of the massive Columbia River Gorge and crossing the Mississippi in Minneapolis.

For a quintessential American vista, many cite the Southwest Chief's passage through Monument Valley with its iconic sandstone buttes and desert landscape made famous in classic Western films. The California Zephyr also traverses the red rocks of Utah's Zion and Colorado's Ruby Canyon, while the Coast Starlight offers front row views of Mt. Shasta, Oregon's tallest peak.
But scenic train routes aren't just limited to the coast-to-coast journeys. Many shorter routes pack a big scenic punch too. The Vermonter up the New England coast treats you to the fiery fall foliage and colonial charm of the Northeast. The Crescent snakes through the Blue Ridge Mountains showcasing Virginia's rolling hills. And the Downeaster hugs the jagged Maine coastline with its rocky cliffs and historic lighthouses around every bend.

All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Coast to Coast Adventure

For many, completing a coast-to-coast train journey represents the quintessential American adventure. These epic cross-country routes allow you to traverse the entire breadth of the nation, experiencing every geographic region and reveling in the changing landscapes whizzing by your window.

The classic Coast-to-Coast route is the California Zephyr, which connects San Francisco to Chicago in just over 2 days. This legendary train passes through 7 states and some of the country's most spectacular scenery. Travelers have called it "the ultimate American adventure" and "a dream come true".
James from Ohio saved up for years to fulfill his bucket list dream of a coast-to-coast train trip. "I'll never forget climbing through the Rockies, seeing the sun set over the Nevada desert, and waking up in the pitch blackness of the Utah canyons. It was like traveling across the whole world in just 2 days!"

For Seattle resident Amy, her California Zephyr journey became a personal voyage of discovery: "I met so many interesting people with fascinating life stories. We bonded over shared meals and card games, despite our different backgrounds. I arrived in Chicago feeling like I understood my country so much better."

The Zephyr isn't the only coast-to-coast option. The Southwest Chief goes from LA to Chicago through the Southwestern desert, while the Lake Shore Limited links up New York City and Chicago. Some opt to mix-and-match multiple cross country routes for the ultimate rail adventure.

Mark pieced together his own epic itinerary: "I started in Boston and took the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. Then I switched to the California Zephyr and arrived in San Francisco 3 days later. The highlight was hiking in the Rockies after reaching Denver. I’ll never forget standing at the mighty Mississippi and thinking I’d crossed the entire country on rails!"

No matter which cross country train you choose, you’re guaranteed unforgettable memories and a uniquely American experience. Travelers say they leave with a deeper connection to the land and people that make up this vast, diverse nation of ours.

Julie, who rode from Atlanta to LA, remarked: "Seeing the landscape change hour by hour gave me a whole new appreciation for America's natural beauty. And swapping stories with fellow riders showed me how much more we have in common than divides us."

All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Journey Through History

All Aboard! A Beginner’s Guide to Exploring America by Train

Trains have been an integral part of American history, playing a pivotal role in shaping the nation we know today. Exploring by rail allows you to journey through time and connect with the story of America’s settlement, expansion, and economic development.

For history buffs, cross-country train trips are the perfect way to traverse eras andmilestones. The Transcontinental Railroad’s completion linked coasts in 1869, while 1920s routes like the Empire Builder opened up the Northwest. You’ll cross paths with the Underground Railroad’s rescue routes and traces of the Native Americans who first traversed the land.
Evan, a high school teacher from Oregon, remarked how profoundly moving it was to retrace history by rail: “I visualized pioneers blazing the Oregon Trail as we followed parts of its track. When we traveled over the Rockies, I pictured the Chinese workers who risked their lives building through those mountains.”

Tracey, a mom from Virginia, loved how train travel opened up teaching moments: “My kids spotted old abandoned railroad stations in small prairie towns. We’d discuss the bustling communities they once served and how trains shaped commerce.”

For a poignant history excursion, many recommend the “Civil Rights Train” from Chicago to Memphis which retraces the 1961 route of activists resisting segregation. A park ranger actually rides along, narrating the journey with stories of the movement and the riders’ harrowing struggles.

No train journey brings American history to life quite like the Alaska Railroad which traverses the breathtaking terrain that drew 30,000 prospectors north during the Gold Rush era. Travelers rave about riding along portions of the original route those hardy pioneers trekked on foot back in 1898.

The Alaska Railroad’s most popular trip is its 8-hour route from Anchorage to Seward that squeezes in whistle-stops at historic towns and passes pristine alpine scenery. David, a traveler from Australia, remarked: “It was incredible visualizing masses flocking here more than a century ago, hungry to stake their claim. You feel immersed in the wild, adventurous spirit.”

All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Family Fun on the Train

For families, train travel offers a unique way to bond while taking in the scenery. Forget cramped plane rides and stressful road trips—exploring via rail is tailor-made for quality time with minimal hassle. Parents rave that trains make vacationing with kids not just doable but downright delightful.

Jessica from Minneapolis appreciated the spaciousness and freedom: “On planes, you’re strapped in a tiny seat worrying about crying babies and judging looks. But the train let my kids roam around to the café car or observation deck. They had room to play games and took in the views.”

The constantly changing vistas keep kids engaged as imaginations run wild. Five-year-old Megan squealed every time she spotted a horse or cow grazing by the tracks. Twelve-year-old Jacob invented elaborate stories about the abandoned buildings that whizzed by. It turned a long journey into a forest of discovery rather than dead time.

Sleeping compartments add extra novelty and fun for kids of all ages. They’ll get a kick out of turning the seats into bunk beds and feel like intrepid explorers as the train rocks them to sleep. One mom of three active boys said the private rooms were a godsend: “No one was disturbed by their usual wrestling and laughter. And when they zonked out at night, my husband and I could finally relax!”

Beyond quality family time, the dining car offers perhaps the biggest perk for parents. No need to pack food or make pit stops for cranky, hungry kids. You can dive into a constantly replenished children’s menu of kid staples like mac-n-cheese and chicken fingers. Twelve-year-old Stacy gushed: “On car trips we always had gross sandwiches. But on the train I could order burgers, hot dogs, even ice cream sundaes!”

The dining car also allows parents to enjoy a peaceful sit-down meal, lingering over wine and conversation. For the Nguyen family, it was a rare chance to dine out like pre-kid times. Mom Jennifer remarked: “It was so civilized and relaxing! The views were gorgeous, they brought all our favorite foods, and someone even cleaned up the mess.”

Of course, Pokémon and iPads help too. The electric outlets and WiFi on board allow devices to stay charged so kids can watch movies or play games for entertainment. But parents say they still end up connecting as a family over card games in the lounge or gazing out the window as a herd of buffalo appears.

Ultimately, the slower pace and ritual of train travel enchants children. In our frenetic digital era, it grounds them in a calmer, curiosity-driven experience. Anne remarked how her city kids were mesmerized for hours just looking at foliage whiz by. “They saw deer, hawks, snow-capped mountains and rivers snaking through canyons. Things you’d never experience packed in a car.”

Jacob’s parents were astonished by how much fun their 12-year-old had. “He met people from all over the world in the dining car and would run back to tell us about their lives. It was a social education you can’t replicate.”

All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Sleeping Under the Stars

For train lovers, few experiences compare to sleeping under the stars aboard a cross-country rail journey. At night, sleeper cars transform into your own personal hotel on wheels, with cozy private rooms to retire to as the train races across the darkened landscape. But the most magical accommodations are the open-air sleeping cars found on several scenic routes. Drifting off surrounded by nature's majesty takes the romance of exploring America by train to new heights.

The Sierra Hotel is one such open-air sleeper car offered on Amtrak's Coast Starlight route. This unique car has five rooms where one wall is just a railing and sheer screen. Curt Fong, an avid rider from Seattle, described his unforgettable night aboard the Sierra Hotel: "I woke up in northern California as the sunrise lit up the snowy peak of Mt. Shasta. It felt like I was camping in the mountains, except cruising along at 80 mph!"

For those traversing the nation's heartland, the American European Express rolls out private Sleeping Compartments with ceiling skylights. Amtrak lovers like James and Cheryl say this prairie star-gazing experience is beyond compare. "The skylight gave us front-row seats to a dazzling meteor shower. It was more magical than any 4-star hotel," Cheryl remarked. "Waking up after dreaming under a blanket of stars felt so invigorating," James added. "Like the American pioneers must have felt - optimistic, free and connected to nature's glory."

Out west, the Sunset Limited through Arizona and New Mexico offers the unique opportunity to snooze under the desert night sky. The 1953 Pullman sleeping cars have windows that fully open to let the fresh air and soundtrack of the Southwest soothe you to sleep. For Maria, a traveler from Mexico, her rest aboard the Sunset Limited was unforgettable: "The air rushing in was warm and smelled like sagebrush. As I peered out the open window frame, I could see every star and the outline of the giant saguaro cacti. It was like sleeping outdoors, totally immersed in the desert's beauty and tranquility."

Up north, Alaska Railroad's private domed sleeping cars are perfect for admiring the twinkling Northern Lights. Adventure-seekers like the Jensen family take the Alaska Railroad deep into areas only accessible by rail and embrace the rare chance to wake up surrounded by pristine wilderness. As Cindy described: "We woke to a stunning vista of snow-capped Denali and the Nenana River gleaming in the morning light. It was total silence except for a wolf howling. An experience we'll treasure forever."

All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Indulge in Luxury

While train travel conjures images of rustic romance, today's luxury rail journeys transport you back to the Golden Age of elegant exploration in serious style. For those seeking a pampered, laid-back escape, these all-inclusive touring trains epitomize traveling in luxury. With gourmet dining, stylish lounges, and lavish accommodations aboard, you'll feel like modern day royalty as the spectacular scenery rolls by.

The Rocky Mountaineer, which traverses the Canadian Rockies and Pacific Coast, offers passengers decadent GoldLeaf Service. Travelers rave about the bi-level glass domed coaches to admire epic mountain vistas from plush leather seats. Meals are cooked to order and served at your spacious seat so you never miss a moment of the views. Jill from Atlanta savored the luxury: "The on-board chefs came to take my order, and then perfectly prepared eggs benedict were served on fine china right as we passed by majestic Mount Robson."

Meanwhile, the GrandLuxe coaches feel like your private five-star hotel with cozy duvets, marble bathrooms, and heated floors. Bethany loved sinking into her cabin: "As I gazed out the oversized windows at the snow-capped peaks from my pillow-top bed, it was the height of luxury while being immersed in nature." With complimentary alcohol and guided excursions included at stops, the Rocky Mountaineer perfects all-inclusive, carefree indulgence.

Similarly, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express through Russia offers a royal experience bringing the history and landscapes of the world's largest country to life. While passing birch forests and the Ural Mountains, passengers enjoy delicacies from caviar to smoked sturgeon in the charming restaurant cars. In the polished wood-paneled lounge car with black granite bar, travelers mingle over Belarusian vodkas and single malts, swapping stories as village churches stream past the windows.
The train's dazzling Imperial Suites spoil guests rotten with king-sized beds, antiques from the era of the Tsars, and 24-hour private butler service. Mark raved: "As my valet drew an indulgent bath in my marble tub after dinner, it dawned on me I was traveling like Russian royalty through the Motherland." With private tours of Kremlin palaces and the Bolshoi Ballet included, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express epitomizes luxury rail exploration.
Meanwhile, for a vintage luxury experience, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express conjures the Golden Age spirit of stylish adventure. This iconic 1920s train traverses Europe in serious old-world elegance with lavishBelmond service. While chugging through the Alps and pastoral French countryside, passengers dress up to dine on refined French cuisine served upon starched linens. Sommeliers in tuxedos pour champagne in the dazzling bar car adorned with antique brass and crystal.

The polished mahogany cabins feel ultra-exclusive, with plush velvet armchairs to gaze out the curtained windows in solitude. Elizabeth felt like a 1920s starlet indulging in the glamour: "When the train attendant turned down my silk sheets and plumped my pillows after dinner, I pinched myself - this was luxury on a scale I never imagined still existed." For those who fantasize about time-traveling to rail's most romantic era, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the ultimate ticket back in time.

All Aboard! A Beginner's Guide to Exploring America by Train - Packing Tips for Train Travelers

Exploring America by rail demands some unique packing strategies. With limited space and mobility, what savvy train travelers cram in their bags makes all the difference. We’ve gleaned packing tips from veteran rail riders across the country to help you travel smoothly.
First, opt for a soft-structured duffel or foldable backpack, not hard luggage, which is cumbersome to haul. Miriam, a regular Amtrak commuter, recommends packing cubes: “They keep everything neatly compartmentalized and prevents a messy jumble of clothes.”

Cut down on bulky toiletries by buying travel-size products or using refillable containers. Karen, who rode from Miami to Seattle, suggests TSA-approved clear plastic bags to separate gels and liquids. “It made getting through security a cinch since I could just pull the bags out.”

With limited shower access on long journeys, baby wipes become your best friend. They’ll refresh you after a night in coach. The Bradbury family swears by them for their 10-day train trek: “Baby wipes let us freshen up quickly without needing a full shower.”

Pack ultra cozy socks, a sleep mask, and headphones to maximize comfort during overnight rides. Eye shades block any peeping light that disturbs your sleep. Noise-cancelling headphones let you drift off despite the clackety-clack of the rails. And thick socks add an extra layer of warmth when the air conditioning blasts.
While coach seats don’t fully recline, loose, stretchy clothing makes napping more bearable. Eric, a Los Angeles resident who took the Southwest Chief to Chicago, recommends avoiding restrictive jeans: “I lived in stretchy joggers and hoodies. Being able to curl up comfortably let me actually get some rest.”

Don’t forget entertainment options to pass the hours. Load up your tablet with movies, e-books, and playlists that don’t require WiFi. Amanda suggests old-school options too: “I was so grateful I’d packed playing cards, crossword puzzles, a sketchbook, and Polaroid camera. It kept me happily occupied for a three-day journey.”

Meals are served on board but you'll want your own snacks too. Nutrient-dense eats with protein help you withstand long intervals between dining car visits. trail mix, beef jerky, and protein bars are easy favorites. If bringing perishable food, BYO cooler bags and ice packs to keep items fresh.

Finally, augment with train-specific gear like a power bank, outlet splitter, and comfy neck pillow. Be sure electronics stay charged with a portable charger. Outlet splitters let you plugin with a seatmate. And a supportive pillow prevents neck kinks as you catnap sitting up. With the right gear, you’ll arrive rested and refreshed for adventures ahead.

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