The Great Escape: Touring North America by Train

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.

By James McCommons/Paintings by J. Craig Thorpe
Published: September-October 2010

The jumping-off point is Alpine, a small town established to provide water to steam locomotives. Alpine is a 23-hour ride from Los Angeles, 16 hours from Houston. You'll need to rent a car in Alpine to go exploring because there is no public transportation to nearby parks. To the south, 98 miles away, sprawls Big Bend National Park, 800,000 acres of desert, 7,000-foot mountains, and the Rio Grande. Here's a place to see roadrunners, javelinas, jackrabbits, and kangaroo rats while hiking through rock-strewn landscapes dotted with agave. The region's diverse habitats make Big Bend a phenomenal birding destination.

Learn about the flora and fauna at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, 26 miles north of Alpine at Fort Davis. Continue north to 3,000-acre Davis Mountains State Park to hike backcountry trails through the Limpia Canyon Primitive Area. If you don't want to camp, stay at the park's Indian Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

For more information: Big Bend National ParkChihuahuan Desert Nature CenterDavis Mountains State Park

Hudson River Line/Metro-North Railroad 
(New York)
Commuter trains that carry workers into New York City on weekdays also provide doorstep access on weekends for people hiking the rocky Hudson Highlands along the Hudson River.

Hikers can board at Grand Central Terminal and disembark less than two hours later and 46 miles north at the Breakneck Ridge station. The aptly named Breakneck Ridge Trail gains 1,250 feet in less than the first mile before reaching a series of exposed summits with stunning views of the river and the surrounding plateau. The trail ends 4.6 miles later at a fire tower on South Beacon Mountain; on clear days it's possible to see the skyscrapers of Manhattan from the peak.

Weekend trains also stop at the Manitou station, just a short walk from Bear Mountain State Park. Even the regular stops of Beacon and Cold Springs provide fairly easy biking or walking access to the state parks in the highlands.

For information: MTA Metro-North RailroadBear Mountain State ParkBreakneck Ridge Trail

Maryland Area Regional Commuter 
Each evening two trains run the Brunswick Line between Washington's Union Station and West Virginia. The tracks follow the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry, where John Brown's 1859 raid on the federal armory struck the spark that helped touch off the Civil War. The trip takes two and a half hours from Washington's Union Station.

The Appalachian Trail passes just 300 yards from the Harpers Ferry train station. Hikers cross a bridge to Maryland Heights and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, where they gain extraordinary views of the river valley below. Watch for peregrine falcons; since 2001 a dozen young falcons have been released in the Heights.

Consider bringing a bike to ride the towpath along the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which runs 184.5 miles from Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., through Harpers Ferry to Cumberland, Maryland. Begun in 1828 to connect the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River, the C&O Canal was never finished because of the coming of the railroad. Today it's a linear national historic park marked by old farms and patches of woods dotted with trillium, dogwood, serviceberry, and rhododendron.

For information: Harpers Ferry National Historic ParkMaryland Transit Administration

The Denali Star 
The train is a spectacular way to reach Denali National Park and Preserve. It takes about eight hours from Anchorage and four hours from Fairbanks. Running May to September, the Denali Star is popular with backpackers, rail fans, and wildlife watchers. When the weather is right, riders get impressive views of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) and typically see dall sheep, beaver, moose, wolves, and sometimes grizzlies. Caribou migrate across the tracks in fall. If you pay for an upgrade on the route from Anchorage to Fairbanks, you can get the GoldStar Service, with plush seating in custom-made observation cars that feature outdoor decks.

The Alaskan Railroad, owned by the state since 1985, is for more than tourists. It hauls freight and supplies to people living in roadless country. Anyone wanting to board can simply wave down the train. 

For information: Alaskan RailroadDenali National Park

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Author Profile

James McCommons

James McCommons is the author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding Across America.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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