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Railroad renaissance


Courtesy Grand Canyon Railway

The train sways gently back and forth, shifting its weight from rail to rail as it moves along the tracks. You may not notice the motion rocking you from side to side, though, because the scenery on the other side of the window captures your full attention.

There was a time when railroads moved everything in America, transporting passengers and freight from one side of the country to the other in grand style. Although the days of widespread rail travel have passed, train excursions around the country give visitors opportunities to experience this great American tradition.

Many of today’s tourist trains travel through some of the country’s most scenic landscapes. From the Grand Canyon and Southwestern deserts to heartland valleys, Maryland mountains, the North Carolina Smokies and the famous woods of New England, these scenic train rides combine beauty and history for great group-travel experiences.

Grand Canyon Railway

Williams, Ariz.
Trains have traveled the Arizona desert toward the Grand Canyon since 1901, when rail lines were first built to transport the product of area mines. During the early 20th century, the Santa Fe Railroad became a famous way for travelers to reach the canyon, with first-class train service and an accompanying luxury hotel.

After closing for several decades, the railroad opened in 1989 as the Grand Canyon Railway, taking passengers from a depot in Williams to the canyon’s south rim. Today, the tourist train includes four classes of service and a variety of entertainment.

“We start with a Western shootout at the Williams depot at 9 o’clock, with the Cataract Creek Gang entertaining you,” said Bruce Brossman, Arizona regional director of sales and marketing for Xantera Parks and Resorts. “They also return on the southbound trip, ride up on horses and rob the train.

“We have musicians and Western entertainers in every class of service, playing banjo, fiddle, accordion and harmonica.”

Many passengers find that the scenery is the most fascinating part of the ride. From the depot in Williams, the train descends through a pine forest into high prairie desert, then into Coconino Canyon. The railroad then climbs again through pine and maple forests on its way to the Grand Canyon.

“The train doesn’t go along the rim, but you do get a brief glimpse of the Grand Canyon,” Brossman said. “You stop at the 1910 depot, which is the oldest log depot still in operation in the United States. You’re literally 100 yards from the south rim.”

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
New Mexico and Colorado
It took a special government effort for the people of New Mexico and Colorado to rescue a 64-mile section of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Built in 1880, the railroad cut through the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

“The two states purchased the railroad in 1970 and saved it from abandonment,” said Nick Quintana, public relations manager for the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. “The two states own it jointly. It actually took an act of Congress for each state to be able to own assets in the other state.”

Today, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad preserves many aspects of the classic Rock Mountain train experience.

Authentic coal-fired steam locomotives power all of the train rides, which run on narrow-gauge tracks. As it enters the Toltec Gorge, the train crosses a steel trestle, where passengers can look down 700 feet to the river valley below.

In addition to the historic equipment, the railroad earns high marks for its impressive scenery.

“That’s our No. 1 compliment — there are miles and miles of views,” Quintana said. “At Cumbres Pass, you can look down to the mountain and river valleys; then you go up the mesas into Colorado. The Colorado terminal is in the high desert, which is pretty unique.”

The six-and-a-half-hour one-way trip includes a midway stop with a buffet lunch for groups.

Conway Scenic Railroad

Conway, N.H.
Trains have been running in the North Conway area of New Hampshire since 1874, when rail lines connected the area to Maine and Boston. Since 1974, they have carried passengers of the Conway Scenic Railroad, who come to experience the area’s mountainous beauty and typical New England scenery on three different routes.

“The spectacular scenery is found on the Notch Train,” said marketing and events manager Susan Logan. “It’s a five-hour roundtrip that goes through Crawford Notch. It’s a gain of 1,623 feet in elevation.

“There are two trestles that overlook the valley and the surrounding mountains. You’ll see waterfalls and steep cliffs — it’s very ruggedly spectacular.”

The Notch excursion regularly sells out during fall foliage season, one of the most popular times to visit New England. In September, the railroad hosts a Rail Fans Weekend, with historic displays and exhibitors selling train-themed art, collectibles and memorabilia.

Another special event, Steam in the Snow, uses a 1921 steam locomotive to give passengers a January treat.

“There’s a ride on the train for almost two hours; and then on the way back, there are photo stops,” Logan said. “So we get a lot of folks that like trains and like photography. The steam in the winter is just absolutely stunning.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.