Interested in top scenery but tired of driving? Take a scenic train trip. You can watch the world go by through big panoramic windows as you pass spectacular mountains, peaceful hills, verdant river valleys and dramatic seashores. Here, my focus is on regularly scheduled trips on major national rail systems, not either expensive tourist-oriented luxury trains that can cost north of $2,000 per day for a couple or short excursion lines.
Switzerland — the World’s Best
No matter how you slice it, the very best regular-train scenic journeys are in Switzerland. Closely packed in this small country you’ll find a wealth of scenic mountains, valleys and lakes easily accessed by train — in some cases, accessed only by train. My very favorite is the Bernina Express linking Chur with Tirano, just over the Italian border. This is the line you see on so many pictures, with the train emerging from a tunnel to cross a high curving viaduct and the train going around a viaduct that makes a 360-degree loop to gain or lose altitude.
Also very popular: the Glacier Express, between Chur and Zermatt offers an all-day immersion in Alpine scenery. Both Bernina and Glacier Expresses use dedicated sightseeing cars, operating several timed daily in summer, but ordinary trains also provide frequent trips on the route. Other spectacular Swiss rail trips include portions of the main line from Geneva to Milan and the Centovalle between Locarno and Domodossola in Italy, which I haven’t taken yet. All these trains are included in the Swiss Pass. If you can move every night, you can catch the main trips with a three-day consecutive pass at $233 for second class, $371 in first, but if you want so spread your travels out a bit, consider a pass for travel any three days out of a month starting at $268. Alternatively, if you like to travel first class, a three-day first-class consecutive Eurail Global Pass that includes Switzerland costs $325. Buy at Eurail.com.
Rest of Europe
The editors of the European Rail Timetable list more than 100 scenic rail trips in 24 different countries. I’ve taken several, most recently the trip from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland, which is, indeed, a great trip. Ditto the ride on either side of the Rhine River between Mainz and Koblenz.
Here at Home
In the rail fan blogosphere, the consensus top single-day Amtrak trips are the Adirondack in the East and either the Los Angeles-Emeryville segment of the Coast Starlight or the Denver-Ogden segment of the California Zephyr in the West. The top trips are all-day rides, but some shorter segments are also popular.
— The full-day Adirondack, between New York and Montreal, includes extensive trackage along both the banks of the Hudson River and the shore of Lake Champlain. It’s good in either direction.
— The highlight of the Coast Starlight is hugging the Pacific Ocean coastline between Ventura and Vandenberg Air Force Base, including stretches without highway access. For best viewing, do it northbound and sit on the left side.
— The highlight of the California Zephyr is the Rocky Mountain segment between Denver and Glenwood Springs, but the segment through the Sierras between Reno and Emeryville has its partisans. Both are good for viewing in either direction.
Other popular Amtrak segments are the Portland-Minot (North Dakota) segment of the Empire Builder, which includes both the Columbia River Gorge and Glacier Park; the several daily Pacific Surfliner trips between Santa Barbara and San Diego for great coastline viewing; the Cardinal segment between Charleston West Virginia and Washington through the Appalachians, good in either direction; the Pennsylvanian between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia through the mountains and Horseshoe Curve, best eastbound; and the Vermonter segment through the Berkshires between St Albans/Burlington and Springfield, Mass, best southbound. Check amtrak.com for schedules and fares.
In Canada, the top trips on Via Rail are the day-plus-night Jasper-Vancouver segment of the Canadian and the two-day Jasper-Prince Rupert trip on the Skeena on which you stop at a motel overnight at Prince George. Check viarail.ca/en for schedules and fares; look for the best deals on “Discount Tuesdays.”
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at [email protected] Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)
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