The Great Escape: Touring North America by Train
Traveling by train might sound old-fashioned, but it remains one of the best, most environment-friendly ways to see some of America’s wildest places. Here are 10 trips of a lifetime.
There was a time when the railroad ran through most towns in America, when a trip to the seashore, mountains, or desert, even the wilderness, began aboard a train. Today trains can still take you to natural places where the wonders of a national or state park, a bike path, or a river are just steps away from the tracks.
Riding the rails and leaving your car at home is an environmental choice. Per passenger mile, trains are 24 percent more fuel efficient than automobiles, 17 percent more than airplanes. For the final leg of your trip, you may have to rent a car, or you might consider bringing a bike, using public transportation, if available, or simply walking.
Whether you hop aboard a short-distance tourist railroad, a commuter line, or Amtrak—the only intercity passenger railroad left in America—the following 10 routes cross some of the country’s most iconic landscapes. On long-distance trips, reclining coach seats can be comfortable enough for sleeping, or you can pay extra for a sleeper compartment, which includes meals in the dining car. Ticket and sleeper prices vary. Best advice: Do some research online, check for discounts, and plan ahead.
The Empire Builder
This train runs the “Hi-Line” route, on tracks owned by BNSF Railway, across the country’s northern tier between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. Passengers may glimpse pintail ducks, blue wing teal, and many grassland birds in North Dakota’s prairie pothole region; pronghorn antelope on Montana’s high plains; and mule deer and elk in the Cascades.
In the Rockies the train crosses the continental divide at Marias Pass and follows the southern border of Glacier National Park, where railroad history runs deep. The Great Northern Railway pushed hard for the park’s establishment in 1910 and built hotels and chalets to lure tourists to what was advertised as the American Alps. Amtrak stops at East Glacier and West Glacier, where you can catch a 1930s era “Jammer” touring coach to a nearby hotel or campground. At the park’s Essex Junction stop, you can stay at the Izaak Walton Inn, formerly a railroad barracks. Glacier Park is a 30-hour ride from Chicago and about 16 hours from Seattle.
The Algoma Central Railway
Pack a canoe onto a railroad baggage car. (It’s true—this train will carry snowmobiles and even boats.) Ride the rails into boreal forests of moose and muskeg, and step into the wilderness. Then, after paddling through lakes and rivers, head back to the tracks and flag down the next train. Just wave your arms for the Algoma Central Railway, which runs for 296 miles between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario.
Wilderness seekers head for the Chapleau Game Preserve, a 2,700-square-mile region of Crown Land (acreage owned by the British royalty and open to the public), where animals are protected from hunting and trapping. Between mileposts 184 and 245, passengers can step off directly into the preserve and embark on their backcountry trips.
Or you can get off at Fraser (Milepost 102) or Eaton (Milepost 120) to visit Lake Superior Provincial Park. If you’re just looking for a day trip, take a ride to Agawa Canyon. The canyon, which formed 1.2 billion years ago, is explorable only by train and five short hiking trails.
The Grand Canyon Railway
In the early 1900s the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway built a 65-mile spur from Williams, Arizona, to the canyon and erected the El Tovar Hotel on the south rim. The spur closed in 1968 but was resurrected in the late 1980s as a tourist railway. Year-round the Grand Canyon Railway operates a daily train of vintage passenger cars.
Leaving Williams, the train mostly steers clear of the highways and runs through the Colorado Plateau’s open desert, where blue-black mountain ranges serrate the horizon, and prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, and red-tailed hawks abound in the scrub brush and dry grasslands. As the route climbs higher, the desert gives way to picturesque ponderosa pine forest near the canyon. The Southwest Chief, an Amtrak long-distance train, stops at Williams, so it’s possible to switch to the canyon train and reach the rim by rail from Chicago (32 hours to Williams) or Los Angeles (nine hours).
The Sunset Limited
Running just three days a week between Houston and Los Angeles, the Sunset passes through the sparsely inhabited Chihuahuan Desert and the ancient volcanic mountains of southwest Texas.