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As Seen From a Train

In this lightning-fast age of technology, taking a train on an extended vacation or for one-day leisure travel may seem as archaic as dialing a rotary phone or mailing a handwritten letter. But millions of Americans take pleasure trips by rail every week to gaze at some of the most spectacular scenery America has to offer. Routes include exciting cities, rolling valleys, prominent rivers, remote vistas, ocean coastlines, mountain peaks and historic places.


Alaska Railroad

Adventurous groups ride the rails of the Alaska Railroad to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere and to be awed by the astonishing vistas of the 49th state.

“We’re a very scenic railroad,” said Megan Melvin, the railroad’s group sales coordinator. ”You’ll see sights you simply can’t see from the highway.”

The railroad’s three routes are the Denali Star, the Coastal Classic and the Glacier Discovery. The Coastal Classic, which runs from Anchorage to Seward on the Coastal Classic, is the railroad’s most popular route.

“Many groups use this route to connect to cruise ships,” said Melvin. “People often book one way to get to the ship they’re taking out of Seward on down to Vancouver, British Columbia, which also includes the Inside Passage.”

The trip winds through wilderness with glaciers visible from the tracks. Key features along the way are primeval forests, pristine rivers and glacial lakes, towering mountains and numerous train trestles. Passengers encounter Moose Pass, Placer River Valley and Chugach National Forest on the trip to Anchorage, 114 miles away.

Another popular route is Anchorage to Talkeetna to Fairbanks onboard the Denali Star, the railroad’s flagship train.

“This route is usually round-trip so people can go into Denali National Park to spend a couple of nights there and then return to Anchorage,” Melvin said.

Anchorage is the railroad’s home base. One route gives passengers their first glimpse of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, about 70 miles out. The first stop is Talkeetna, a former mining town and now a takeoff point for mountain climbers. The train continues along the Susitna River toward Indian River Canyon, Hurricane Gulch and Broad Pass, the railroad’s highest point, at 2,363 feet.

“Our train services go above and beyond what customer service means,” said Melvin. “We have onboard tour guides and still use full-uniformed train conductors.”



Amtrak is much more than a commuter railroad: It runs more than 300 trains a day with more than 500 destinations nationwide. Many of its riders are pleasure travelers, often in groups.

“There are scenic routes all over the country,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “It depends on your travel commitment. Do you want to a one-day or two-day trip? You’ll be more comfortable on Amtrak than on any other surface mode of transportation. We have more leg, shoulder, head and foot room.”

Amtrak trains show you America. For example, the Coast Starlight train is one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes, travelling up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Seattle through mountains and within sight of the ocean.

“The Empire Builder is the busiest overnight route from Seattle and Portland to Chicago” said Magliari. “It glides through two mountain ranges — the Cascades and the Rockies — and hugs Glacier National Park.”

The famed California Zephyr has more miles of scenery than any other Amtrak route. It spends most of a day in the Rocky Mountains out of Denver and connects Chicago with suburban San Francisco.

The Southwest Chief rolls through Raton Pass, the highest point that rails cross in the Rockies. The Chief also skirts the Grand Canyon.

A couple of limited-run Amtrak trains are popular. The Cardinal runs three days a week from New York City to Washington, D.C., to Chicago. Two days a week, the Sunset Limited breezes travelers from New Orleans to Los Angeles through, among other panoramas, the Painted Desert.

The Adirondack (New York City-Albany-Montreal) and the Vermonter (Vermont-New York City-Washington, D.C.) fills East Coast riders with pleasant memories. The Capital Limited (Washington, D.C.-Chicago) has overnight runs through historic territory like the Potomac Valley, the Allegheny Mountains and Harpers Ferry.

“Highways all look the same with chain gas stations and restaurants,” said Magliari. “You’re better off in our train’s rolling restaurant. We get you somewhere overnight without you driving all night.”


Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad was founded in 1970 when the states of Colorado and New Mexico decided to buy the most beautiful portion of the soon-to-be abandoned Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. It’s a narrow-gauge rail line, meaning the track’s gauge is narrower than that of standard-gauge railways. The railroad uses special steam engines and train cars outfitted to travel on this narrow track.

The railroad, a National Historic Landmark, connects both states, crossing back and forth over the state line 11 times on its journey. Passengers can enjoy a full-day trip, May to October, as trains depart from both Antonito, Colorado (westbound), and Chama, New Mexico (eastbound). The two trains meet in historic Osier, Colorado, in time for lunch. There are also half-day and sunset travel options available.

“This is rugged, undeveloped country,” said railroad president John Bush. “We’re a long way from anyplace. We like to say, ‘This is not the end of the earth, but on a clear day, you can see it from here.’”

Along the way, there are no roads, homes, businesses or people. It’s a chance to experience this American wilderness as it existed when the rails opened in 1880.

The trip includes a very steep grade for 14 miles to the top of Cumbres Pass at an elevation of 10,020 feet, Bush said.

“It goes over two big steel trestles, through two tunnels and winds along the top rim of a canyon overlooking water 600 feet below,” he said. “It’s very impressive country.”

Bush said that taking the train trip is a welcome change from long days on a motorcoach.

“We travel at just 10 to 15 miles an hour,” he said. “We have an open car you can ride in to smell the air and see the flowers. On a motorcoach, unless you have a window seat, you don’t see much. With train travel, people slow down and become more communal and social.”


Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad

In West Virginia, the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad offers excursions on both diesel- and steam-powered trains, operating out of Elkins, Durbin and Cass.

“Our patrons come from all over the country and world to take in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia, to experience history and culture and to enjoy the hospitality of the residents,” said Matt Scott, who handles railroad group sales.

Trips can be booked April to October and last between 90 minutes and nine hours. One route on the New Tygart Flyer out of Elkins transports passengers through a spectacular S-curve tunnel as they climb mountains and dip into canyons. There’s a 30-minute stop to enjoy High Falls, an 18-foot-high, 150-foot-wide waterfall. A lunch buffet is served on board

Another route is on the steam-driven Durbin Rocket, which hugs the Greenbrier River. This two-hour ride offers both open-air views and closed-car comfort.

“You’ll see beautiful West Virginia wilderness, from budding rhododendrons [the state flower] in spring to lush summer greenery to stunning colors in fall,” said Scott. “When you get in these higher elevations, my favorite thing to do is just breathe in the fresh West Virginia mountain air. There’s really nothing like it.”

The Durbin and Greenbrier recently took over the historic Cass Scenic Railroad, which chugs up to Bald Knob, a breathtaking area located 4,843 feet above sea level.

In November and December, the railroad switches gears and offers a Polar Express-themed trip for the holidays. Other special-event trains are the murder-mystery dinner theater train; the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day dinner trains; and the Great Train Race, in which it is determined whether a diesel-powered train can beat a steam-powered train down a mountain.


Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Another portion of the old Denver and Rio Grande Railroad has been preserved and is now the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Operating out of the original 1882 depot in Durango, Colorado, the railroad is lovingly maintained and operated using some of the original equipment.

“Ours is a scenic, historic railroad,” said Carrie Whitley, the railroad’s sales manager.

The train experience begins in the heart of Durango, a picturesque town nestled in the foothills of the Rockies next to the Four Corners, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico touch. “The railroad came first, and then the town followed,” said Whitley.

The train leaves in the morning and travels 37 miles north to Silverton, rolling through the San Juan National Forest and unspoiled wilderness. Part of the route is up the canyon and against the cliffs. Down below is the Animas River.

The train arrives in Silverton for a lunch and shopping break in this old mining town.

“There are many cute little restaurants in historic buildings. It has a Wild West atmosphere,” said Whitley. “It’s not very often you get to ride a historic steam train into country that you would not ordinarily be able to reach except by foot or train.”