Trains have always embodied the spirit of adventure, not just taking passengers from one place to another but also showing them secrets only available to those riding the rails: beautiful fjords, pristine mountain lakes and gorgeous untouched forests.
Aboard these five scenic railways in Alaska, Canada, Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico, and the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, groups can immerse themselves in history, culture and natural beauty while watching the world pass by outside their window.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Rocky Mountaineer is the premiere excursion train in Canada, with routes that connect British Columbia to Alberta, stopping in Jasper, Lake Louise/Banff, Vancouver, Whistler, Quesnel and Kamloops. The train operates from mid-April to mid-October and its luxury cars, either Silver Leaf or Golden Leaf levels, allow spectacular panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies, historic towns and wildlife along the route.
Rocky Mountaineer runs three train routes in Canada: two two-day routes and one three-day route. One of the most popular routes leaves from Vancouver, stopping in Kamloops before arriving at Lake Louise/Banff, taking groups through the legendary Spiral Tunnels of the Canadian Pacific Railway and traversing the Continental Divide. Groups usually plan an itinerary around the train’s stops with a few days spent in Vancouver and Alberta.
Another route travels from Vancouver to Jasper, via Kamloops. The train follows the Fraser River through Hell’s Gate and past Pyramid Falls. Passengers on this route will also catch a glimpse of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, Jasper National Park encompasses 4,200 square miles of beautiful scenery and wildlife.
A three-day trip travels from Vancouver to Whistler to Quesnel and then on to Jasper. Groups that can’t decide which trip to take can combine different routes into a roundtrip adventure.
“It is about the journey, getting from point A to point B and experiencing a fantastic journey along the way,” said Nicole Ford, spokesperson for Rocky Mountaineer.
Onboard hosts engage guests with stories, passing on historical tidbits and highlighting points of interest along the way. Passengers in Gold Leaf domed cars can meet their fellow travelers, enjoy gourmet meals in the first-level dining room and get a breath of fresh air on the outdoor viewing platform. Silver Leaf passengers dine at their seats but enjoy the same panoramic views as those in the Gold Leaf cars.
Alaska Railroad’s tracks cover more than 500 miles of Alaska, from Anchorage to Fairbanks in the interior and Seward on the southern coast. The railroad stops in popular destinations, like Denali, Talkeetna (a quirky mountain town), and Whittier, the gateway to Prince William Sound.
The railroad offers different train routes every day of the summer, from one-day adventures to seven-to-10 day tour packages that include lodging and sightseeing.
“It is a beautiful part of the world,” said Meghan Clemens, marketing communications manager for the railroad. “It is well worth a visit. ”I think people tend to underestimate how big Alaska is and how long it takes to travel between destinations.”
The train makes some of the long haul journeys more enjoyable for groups. Instead of being in a motorcoach seat for hours, groups can walk around on the train, visiting people, getting out on the viewing platform on the back of the train or grabbing a bite to eat or a cocktail in the dining car.
Guides on board entertain passengers with stories about the sites going by outside the window. For groups wanting a bit more luxury, the Coastal Classic Train from Anchorage to Seward does a roundtrip. The train offers a premium gold star service class featuring railcars that are two storien tall with glass-domed ceilings. There is bar service and access to an exclusive outdoor second-level viewing platform. The lower level of the train offers a full-service dining room, which is included in the train fare.
Departing from Anchorage, the Coastal Classic Train takes passengers along Turnagain Arm in the Gulf of Alaska to the backcountry wilderness, ending up in Seward, at the head of Resurrection Bay.
Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico
For a quiet small-town narrow gauge railroad, Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad has appeared in nearly two dozen Hollywood movies, including “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Wyatt Earp.” The 64-mile stretch of track between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico, takes passengers over the San Juan Mountains to the Conejos Valley. The railroad was built in 1880 as part of the San Juan Extension of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
The railroad began hauling tourists in 1971. Groups can travel the entire 64 miles of track between the two towns, which includes a one-hour bus trip, or journey between Chama and Osier or Antonito and Osier, where there is a stop for lunch at the Osier Station Dining Hall before returning back to the station where they started. From Chama to Osier, groups wind through lush high alpine forest with incredible mountain views. The train travels across breathtaking trestles before heading up a 4% grade to Windy Point and Cumbres Pass, the highest point on the line with an elevation of 10,015 feet.
From Antonito to Osier, groups will see high desert, shield volcanoes, aspen groves and travel through a mud tunnel and one carved out of rock. The train wends its way through tall pinnacle spears and pedestal rocks before crossing Toltec Gorge. Leaf peeping trips are popular in the fall, and the railroad offers geology- and wildflower-themed trains, a monthly 168 Brunch Special and 168 Dinner Special. Passengers can ride in historic coach cars or in a luxurious parlor car, as well as an open-air gondola car.
Branson Scenic Railway
The Ozark Zephyr, a vintage, diesel-powered locomotive that pulls restored train cars from the late 1930s through the early 1960s, begins its journey at the historic Branson Depot in downtown Branson. The Depot was built in 1905 and houses a ticket counter and gift shop full of train memorabilia and souvenirs.
There is no assigned seating on the train, so passengers can wander from car to car. Classic coach seating is available as well as three dome cars that boast panoramic views of the countryside and wildlife. The Silver Lake concession car serves snacks and refreshments.
Guides onboard point out historic landmarks, scenery and wildlife and relay stories about famed ghost towns, old bridges and railroad trestles. The train offers two routes: The Northern Route travels through the Missouri countryside to Galena and the James River Valley. The Southern Route heads down into northwest Arkansas and across the Barren Fork Trestle. Each route is 40 miles roundtrip and takes one hour and 45 minutes to complete.
Special excursion trains are offered throughout the year, including the Dinner Train on Saturdays at 5 p.m., which treats passengers to a four-course, candlelit meal, and the Polar Express, a Christmas-themed train ride from November through mid-December that takes guests on a trip to the North Pole with hot cocoa, Christmas carols, sweet treats and a special holiday gift.
Groups traveling in the spring and summer will see beautiful flowers and lush landscapes. Autumn excursions offer a wonderful opportunity to see the leaves changing color. The railroad’s daytime excursion train runs from March through November with multiple excursions per day.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Bryson City, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad departs from Bryson City, North Carolina, and offers two excursions. The Nantahala Gorge Excursion is a four-and-a-half-hour roundtrip ride that takes passengers 44 miles to the Nantahala Gorge and back again along the Tennessee and Nantahala rivers. The trip takes visitors across the historic Fontana Trestle across Fontana Lake. Onboard dining is available in first class or premium open air gondola.
The Tuckasegee River Excursion takes passengers on a four-hour, 32-mile roundtrip to the historic town of Dillsboro and back, running past a famous train wreck scene from the movie “The Fugitive,” starring Harrison Ford. Guests have one hour and 20 minutes to visit the shops and restaurants in town before returning to Bryson City.
One of the most popular train rides is the Polar Express, which runs in November and December and follows the book and the movie, taking families to the North Pole to pick up Santa Claus, who visits every child in each car. The Barbecue and Brews excursion travels to the gorge and back and features barbecue and craft beer. The Moonshine Experience offers one moonshine car where passengers can taste a variety of moonshine samples and eat a meal.
Smaller groups can rent out a caboose, which has its own bathroom. Guests can bring in their own refreshments. From May through October, the railroad runs its refurbished steam engine, which is very popular.
Bryson City borders the southern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the main North Carolina entrance to the park. The city has a picturesque main street with arts and crafts galleries, boutique shops, fly fishing and bike shops, a historical museum, a fly-fishing museum, an aquarium and two breweries, which make for a nice stop after the train ride.