Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America’s Most Picturesque Train Journeys
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Ride Alongside Dramatic Coastlines on the Coast Starlight
If you're looking for incredible ocean vistas, the Coast Starlight should be at the top of your train travel bucket list. This passenger train runs between Seattle, Washington and Los Angeles, California, hugging the Pacific coastline for much of its 1,377 mile journey.
Leaving Seattle, the Coast Starlight first snakes alongside Puget Sound. On a clear day, you'll be treated to postcard views of the Olympic Mountains rising majestically across the waters. Further down the tracks, the train passes right through the lush Willamette Valley, offering glimpses of rolling vineyards and small towns.
Once you reach California, that's when the true coastal scenery begins. For hundreds of miles, the Coast Starlight merges with the Pacific surf. There are few better ways to appreciate the rugged beauty of this shoreline than gazing out wide train windows. The endless beaches, sheer cliffs, and crashing waves are an unforgettable sight.
Some of the highlights along this portion of the route include views of the misty redwood forests around Eureka, California. You'll also roll right onto the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with the opportunity to witness surfers catching waves. Further south, the train snakes along the tony beach towns of Surf City and San Clemente.
The grand finale comes as the Coast Starlight approaches Los Angeles. For one spectacular stretch, the tracks are sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean on one side and sheer mountains on the other. Some of the most dramatic moments come when squeezing through tight mountain tunnels or crossing long bridges over the sea.
This route attracts everyone from first-time train travelers to avid rail fans seeking epic scenery. Many riders recommend splurging on a sleeper car so you can comfortably relax and gaze out the windows all day long. The observation car is also a hit, offering 180 degree panoramas through its floor-to-ceiling windows.
No matter where you sit, riders agree that the views along the Pacific coastline portion of this journey are unparalleled. As one passenger raved, "This was the train trip of a lifetime. I'll never forget the sun dipping into the ocean as we rolled alongside miles of beaches. It was like riding the rails through a postcard come to life."
If you have the time, consider stopping over for a night or two along the way. Some of the best spots for coastal stays include Eugene, Oregon, Eureka, California, and San Luis Obispo. That way you can further explore the beautiful landscapes you'll sample from the Coast Starlight.
What else is in this post?
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Ride Alongside Dramatic Coastlines on the Coast Starlight
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Marvel at Mountain Grandeur on the California Zephyr
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Traverse Vast Prairies on the Southwest Chief
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Behold Majestic Canyons on the Grand Canyon Railway
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Take in Pastoral Countryside on the Empire Builder
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Cross Spectacular Bridges on the Crescent
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Gaze at Gigantic Glaciers on the Alaska Railroad
- Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Immerse Yourself in History on the Adirondack
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Marvel at Mountain Grandeur on the California Zephyr
For a rail journey that immerses you in the heart of America's most magnificent mountain scenery, the California Zephyr should be at the top of your bucket list. This 2,438-mile route connects Chicago to San Francisco, taking a winding path through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada.
Leaving Denver, the California Zephyr begins its ascent into the Rockies. The steep grades and high altitudes set the stage for an unforgettable trip through the mountains. One of the highlights is crossing the Continental Divide not once, but twice, through the Moffat Tunnel. At over 9,000 feet above sea level, this tunnel provides breathtaking views of craggy peaks in every direction.
The real showstopper comes after reaching Grand Junction, Colorado. Here, the California Zephyr hugs the Colorado River, providing front-row views of the spectacular red rock canyons that make up the Western Slope region. You’ll marvel at the sheer canyon walls towering hundreds of feet above, painted in shades of crimson, ochre and burnt orange. This winding portion of track squeezes through tight corners, crosses dizzying bridges, and ducks in and out of tunnels - all while providing the most scenic introduction imaginable to the grandeur of the American West.
The terrain only becomes more dramatic as the train begins snaking its way through Utah's Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. Snow-capped peaks frosted in white rise sharply from either side of the tracks. One highlight is traversing the north rim of stunning Ruby Canyon, overlooking a 1,000 foot gorge carved by the Colorado River. Further along, you'll witness the immensity of the Book Cliffs, rising 3,000 feet above the valley floor.
By the time the California Zephyr reaches Nevada, you'll have seen mountain vistas unlike any other train journey in America. But the scenery saves one last grand finale for the approach to Reno. Here, the tracks skirt along the shores of massive Lake Tahoe, ringed by the soaring Sierra Nevadas. Gazing out at the crystal blue waters backed by snow-drenched mountains is the ultimate way to end your mountain adventures on the California Zephyr.
Many riders plan this trip specifically to experience the jaw-dropping mountain scenery not visible from highways. The slow pace of the train allows you to fully appreciate the grandeur and intricate details of the landscape. Unlike a car, you can stretch out, walk around, enjoy the lounge, and spend as much time as you want simply staring out the window.
The key is scoring a seat on the left side heading west for the most stunning canyon views. Also be sure to spend time in the Sightseer Lounge car to see mountain vistas extending in a 180-degree panorama around you. With floor-to-ceiling windows and overhead skylights, this is the prized space for photography enthusiasts.
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Traverse Vast Prairies on the Southwest Chief
For a journey that immerses you in the expansive prairie landscapes of America's heartland, the Southwest Chief should be on your must-ride list. This train runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, traversing over 2,200 miles through the Great Plains and Southwestern deserts.
After departing Chicago, one of the first highlights is skirting the edges of Kansas City. This section of track provides panoramic views over the endless tracts of farmland that earn Kansas the nickname "the breadbasket of America." Further along in central Kansas, the train rolls through vistas of gently rolling hills extending as far as the eye can see in every direction. With few trees or buildings to obstruct your view, you'll gain an entirely new appreciation for the vast scale of these prairie landscapes.
The real magic happens at night when you can gaze out at the sea of twinkling lights from distant farmhouses dotting the dark plains. You'll feel immersed in the rural heart of America, far from the noise and crowds of cities.
As the Southwest Chief continues on through Colorado and New Mexico, the scenery shifts to display the rugged beauty of the high desert. Here you'll witness crimson buttes, sandstone canyons and cactus-studded vistas. One highlight is tracing along the stunning red rock cliffs of the Glorieta Pass cutting through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Further along, the Santa Fe Loop offers views over the adobe buildings of Santa Fe with the desert mountains rising in the distance.
No matter the season, the massive sky towering overhead is perhaps the most memorable aspect of prairie landscapes seen from the Southwest Chief. Sunrises and sunsets are especially stunning, with the entire horizon igniting in brilliant hues of fuchsia, tangerine and gold. As one passenger described, "Watching the prairie sunset from the train was a spiritual experience. With the shadows growing long over the plains, it felt like the entire sky was celebrating the end of the day."
In addition to the views, the slow pace of the train allows you to experience prairie culture in a unique way. You can sample regional cuisine in the dining car, listen to live music from prairie towns during station stops, and chat with local passengers to hear stories from the heartland.
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Behold Majestic Canyons on the Grand Canyon Railway
For a once-in-a-lifetime rail journey into the heart of one of America's most magnificent natural wonders, the Grand Canyon Railway needs to be on your bucket list. This historic 65-mile train route transports you from Williams, Arizona right to the awe-inspiring South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Unlike driving yourself, the train allows you to sit back, relax and soak in the dramatic scenery unfolding outside your window. Leaving the forests around Williams behind, the landscape quickly morphs to display the stunning Technicolor geology the canyon is renowned for. The closer you get, the more the train tracks seem to be perched on the very edge of the yawning chasm ahead.
Suddenly, you enter a pitch-black tunnel burrowing right under the rim. When you emerge on the other side, the full majesty of the Grand Canyon is unveiled in an unforgettable reveal. Many riders gasp audibly as the towering buttes, sheer cliffs and deep side canyons come into view just feet from the tracks. It's a perspective of the canyon you simply can't appreciate fully from hiking trails above.
The last leg of the journey takes you on a leisurely roll along the length of the canyon itself. With windows wide open, you'll feel like you're floating effortlessly over the Colorado River as it winds over 1,000 feet below. Looking out the other side, the North Rim towers in the distance, impossibly remote across the vast expanse.
Up on the South Rim, many riders say their train trip perfectly complemented experiencing the Grand Canyon on foot. As one enthused, "Seeing the raw enormity of the canyon from the train put its vast scale in perspective before we hiked into it. The ride built up so much anticipation and gave us an unforgettable first impression."
While the Grand Canyon Railway operates year-round, the views become even more spectacular after a snowfall. The frosted canyon takes on an otherworldly beauty, with white snow contrasting vividly against the orange and crimson rock layers. Crisp blue skies overhead complete the stunning winter scenery.
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Take in Pastoral Countryside on the Empire Builder
Traversing the remote countryside of the upper Midwest, the Empire Builder provides a blissfully relaxed journey through America’s sweeping pastoral landscapes. This daily Amtrak route stretches 2,200 miles from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, showcasing the tranquil beauty of America’s heartland along the way.
Leaving Chicago, you’ll swiftly leave behind the bustling city views for serene scenes of Midwestern farmland. For hours on end, the tracks cut through oceans of cornfields and golden wheat stretching to the distant horizon. Dotted with cozy farmhouses and red barns, it’s a quintessential portrait of rural America. Rumbling across iron bridges overlooking lazy rivers, you’ll feel transported back to a simpler time.
The pace is unhurried, allowing you to truly soak up the romantic landscapes gliding by just outside your window. As the train ambles through small prairie towns, you’ll get a charming glimpse of mainstreet storefronts and locals waving as you pass. Further along, the Empire Builder skirts the edge of Minneapolis, treating you to skyline views across the Mississippi River valley.
Nighttime is when the magic truly unfolds. With the farmlands cloaked in darkness, you can gaze upward at the dazzling dome of stars blazing overhead. Shooting stars seem to appear at every turn. The only sound is the gentle rocking of the train over the rails, punctuated by the occasional far off train whistle echoing across the plains. You’ll enjoy some of the starriest night skies not visible from light-polluted cities.
Once you cross into the Dakotas, the landscape opens up into even more staggering vistas. Rolling grassy hills extend as far as the eye can see, dotted with lonely ranches and wandering livestock. Out here, you’ll traverse lands that look nearly identical to how they did when pioneers first laid eyes on them hundreds of years ago.
Further west in Montana, sparkling rivers carve through the countryside, backdropped by the mighty Rockies rising in the distance. Explorers on the Empire Builder recommend booking a room with a Viewliner Sightseer Lounge seat to fully immerse yourself in the panoramas. The comfy chairs and 180-degree views make it the perfect perch to bliss out watching rural America unfold outside.
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Cross Spectacular Bridges on the Crescent
Traversing the eastern United States between New Orleans and New York City, the Crescent offers a front-row seat to many of the region’s most impressive bridges. Crossing these iconic spans by train provides unique vantage points and photo opportunities not visible from a highway.
One highlight is crossing Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana on the nearly 24-mile long Causeway Bridge. The train tracks run alongside the highway, but the elevation provides panoramic views across one of the largest bridges in the world. Gazing down at sailboats gliding across the open waters around you creates an unforgettable sensation of floating smoothly over the lake’s surface.
Further along, the Crescent crosses the humongous Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River as it approaches New Orleans. Spanning over 17,000 feet, this is one of the longest railroad bridges in the country. From the observation car, you can photograph the intricate truss work up close and soak in views extending down the mighty Mississippi.
In Alabama, the Crescent traverses the Tennessee River on the historic Memphis & Charleston Railroad Bridge near Decatur. Built in 1929, this riveted steel through truss span stretches over 2,200 feet and rises 100 feet above the shimmering waters.
North Carolina brings the rare chance to cross the Great Smoky Mountains on the historic Fontana Trestle. At over 180 feet tall and spanning nearly 900 feet long, the views of the lush green valley floor far below are unforgettable. Constructed in 1944, the bridge required building tall support towers directly onto the steep mountain slopes.
Finally, Virginia treats passengers to breathtaking vistas crossing the James River on the 1,700 ft steel truss bridge completed in 1919. The elevated track provides unique panoramas over the historic city of Richmond. One enthusiastic passenger described it as "the most stunning way possible to make an entrance into Richmond - overlooking the city skyline and James River from the height of this iconic railroad bridge."
Beyond the bridge crossings, the Crescent also snakes across many towering viaducts that provide jaw-dropping views not visible from the road. Between Lynchburg and Charlottesville, Virginia, the train passes over the massive Yancey Viaduct spanning 1,600 feet across a steep ravine and rising over 100 feet tall. Further north, the Hundred Acre Viaduct offers a from-above perspective stretching across the Potomac River.
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Gaze at Gigantic Glaciers on the Alaska Railroad
For a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness Alaska's magnificent glaciers, a ride on the Alaska Railroad needs to be on your bucket list. This passenger train system links Anchorage, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, and ports along Alaska's southcentral coastline. Unlike driving, the train allows you to fully immerse yourself in the staggering natural beauty of America's last frontier.
One highlight is departing Whittier, Alaska for the ride to Anchorage. This leg provides stunning up-close views of several massive glaciers spilling down from the Chugach Mountains into the sea. Gazing through panoramic windows in the upper-level dining section, you'll be blown away by the endless fields of shimmering blue ice filling the valleys. Some of the glaciers you can marvel at include Spencer Glacier with its intricate crevasses and Distance Glacier, nearly 5 miles wide.
Further along, you'll skirt past forested cliffs streaked with thunderous waterfalls cascading thousands of feet down to the rocky coastline far below you. Breaching whales often make an appearance in the waters of Prince William Sound during summer. Many riders say this brief stretch provides some of the most spectacular glacier sightseeing in all of Alaska.
The ride between Anchorage and Denali National Park treats you to entirely different but equally impressive glacier views. Here, the tracks lead you through the untamed wilderness of the Alaska Range, home to Denali - the tallest peak in North America. Be sure to ride in the glass-domed observation car for unobstructed views of the towering snow-capped mountains soaring around you.
As the train approaches Denali, you'll enter an otherworldly landscape utterly blanketed by ice. Look closely and you can witness entire massive glaciers spilling slowly between the jagged mountain peaks. In the valley below, you'll see braided meltwater rivers winding through the glacial silt plains. Some glaciers like the Yanert are over 20 miles long and are actively carving new landscapes. Nothing prepares you for witnessing the immense scale and savage beauty of Alaska's icy wilderness from the train.
Many riders recommend extending your rail journey all the way north to Fairbanks during fall for an unforgettable display. Vivid red and gold forests provide the backdrop as you roll past shimmering turquoise glacial lakes dotting the tundra. Far in the distance, the snowy ramparts of the Brooks Range dominate the horizon. With long daylight hours, you'll be treated to hours of magical glacier sightseeing.
Take in Breathtaking Vistas on America's Most Picturesque Train Journeys - Immerse Yourself in History on the Adirondack
Step back in time with a ride on the Adirondack, connecting New York City to Montreal along the historic route of some of North America’s very first railroads. Traversing Upstate New York and Vermont through untouched wilderness, this journey showcases the rich railway heritage of the region.
One highlight is crossing the majestic Hudson River into the heart of the Adirondack Mountains on the massive Livingston Avenue Bridge. This 4,220-foot Victorian-era bridge soars 120 feet over the water, treating you to panoramic views in every direction of America’s largest National Park outside of Alaska.
Further along, the tracks follow the shores of glacial Lake Champlain, dotted with historic lighthouses and sailboats. Shoreline towns like Westport reflect their deep railway roots, with historic depots now converted into museums and restaurants. Be sure to try local fudge - a tradition dating back to early railway travelers.
In the Adirondacks, the line passes right through Old Forge, gateway to the Fulton Chain of Lakes. Here, you’ll see where 19th century tourists flocked to grand railway resort hotels like the sprawling Hotel Tabor. While those opulent lodges are gone, the quaint mainstreet still hints at its bygone golden era as an upscale vacation destination.
After cresting the Adirondacks, the train descends into the Champlain Valley toward Vermont. This is dairy country, and the endless green pastures dotted with contented cows are a soothing scene. Quiet farm crossings with just a flashing light and bucolic general stores straight out of a postcard highlight the relaxed pace of life.
At Rutland, you’ll join the original 19th century Rutland Railroad route through the Green Mountains. Marvel at the labor required to construct tracks over such rugged terrain entirely by hand. Tunnels burrow directly through solid marble and granite cliff faces, a testament to the sheer willpower of early Vermonters.
The highlight is crossing the thrilling 345-foot tall Sunderland Viaduct trailing high over the Batten Kill River Valley. This iron bridge built in 1905 provides breathtaking views over patchwork farms and glowing autumn hills.