Train travel is one of the oldest ways to get around, and the idea of a journey on the rails conjures up the past. Despite those notions, most trains are modern, fast, and efficient ways to get around.
Some of the scenic rides we describe here were created mainly to take passengers through beautiful, perhaps inaccessible locales. Others connect cities and towns, replacing air travel for shorter trips with convenient downtown stations and frequent schedules. On some trains, the beauty of the interior décor rivals that of the passing scenery. Many train stations are destinations in themselves, with art, vintage architecture, gourmet dining, and classic cocktail venues.
Our ideas include a West Coast Amtrak route with stops at popular tourist towns, a commuter train that happens to pass through some of New York State’s most beautiful areas, and a trip through America’s most popular national park. We suggest a ride through the Scottish Highlands in a magical steam train that appeared in major films, a gourmet dining and wine experience, and adventurous journeys through Mexico, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and New Zealand.
Each excursion is unique, but all offer the opportunity to sit back, relax, and relish the passing landscape.
This Amtrak route hugs the Pacific Coast starting from San Luis Obispo where you can explore the lively college town or venture out to nearby wineries or a historic mission. From there, ride in comfort for 350 miles of ocean views with beaches, rocky coastline, quaint towns, and little between you and the blue Pacific. In San Diego, visit Balboa Park museums or dine in Little Italy or the Gaslamp Quarter. If time allows, take advantage of train stations along the way that are within walking distance of local attractions. In Santa Barbara, head to the nearby beach or Funk Zone, an artsy collection of boutiques, restaurants, and cafes, or sample California wines as you stroll and sip through the Urban Wine Trail. Union Station in Los Angeles is a destination in itself with historic art and décor, or venture out to Downtown L.A. or the Mexican markets on Olvera Street. Dine or enjoy a cocktail at Traxx while you wait to board for your next adventure.
Jacobite Steam Train
Starting in the Scottish Highlands town of Fort William near Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, this 84-mile round-trip train journey winds through green hills, crystal blue lochs, deep valleys, and quaint villages. A highlight of the trip is the crossing of the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct with its graceful curves and towering columns, overlooking Loch Shiel and the Jacobite monument. Harry Potter fans will recognize this view as well as the steam engine and carriages which became the Hogwarts Express, courtesy of West Coast Railways which operates the Jacobite. The train stops briefly at Glenfinnan Station and then passes the lovely towns of Lochailort, Arisaig, and Morar. At the last stop in Mallaig on Scotland’s west coast, passengers have about an hour and a half to explore before the return trip to Fort William. Some travelers will go on to the Isle of Skye, a ferry ride from Mallaig. The Jacobite Steam Train runs from May to October, with morning and afternoon departures. Advance ticketing is recommended.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Riding through rows of grapevines, across farmland, and past picturesque wineries with a backdrop of green hills is one of the pleasures of the 36-mile round trip from Downtown Napa to St. Helena. Board in an industrial section of Napa and enjoy views of the town’s outdoor contemporary art with murals, sculpture, landscaping, and parks promoted by Rail Arts District Napa. Continue through the towns of Yountville, Rutherford, and Oakville with gourmet meals and wines to enhance the journey. It’s a convenient and safe way to explore and taste wines, with a variety of stops and winery tours available. The train cars themselves are part of the fun, adding to the vintage feel of train travel. Mahogany paneling, polished brass, opulent fabrics, and etched glass partitions were just a few additions in the extensive renovation of the historic cars.
Grand Canyon Railway
This 130-mile round trip begins about 30 miles west of Flagstaff in Williams, Arizona and heads north to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. On the way, passengers are encouraged to get into the Old West spirit with musical entertainment, cowboy characters, and other surprises while the terrain changes from the Ponderosa pine forest of Williams to open prairie and back to Pinion pines near Grand Canyon. In addition to the spectacular landscape, guests might spot wildlife that includes elk, mountain lions, deer, bald eagles, owls, and California condors. The daily departure time is 9:30 a.m., and the trip takes two hours and 15 minutes. Visitors have about three hours to explore the South Rim, starting with the historic Grand Canyon Depot dating back to 1909. Guests can enjoy ranger programs, a scenic walk along Hermit Road or the Rim Trail, the El Tovar Hotel, and magnificent views in every direction. Grand Canyon National Park is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2019 with special events during the year.
Copper Canyon Railroad
This journey crosses some of Mexico’s most spectacular terrain, much of it inaccessible by other means. Said to be four times the size of the Grand Canyon, Copper Canyon in the northwest state of Chihuahua is actually several canyons, the deepest at 6,167 feet. The length of the ride depends on where you board, but the trip on the Chepe Express from Los Mochis near the west coast to inland Creel will be about nine hours. Opened in 1961 after several decades of construction, the train crosses 37 bridges and passes through 86 tunnels. The landscape includes rugged terrain, mountains, gorges, deep ravines, and even agricultural areas. The Sierra Madre Mountain Range is home to the reclusive, semi-nomadic Tarahumara natives who may be seen in the towns along the way selling handmade items. A few tips: Book your trip in advance or use a tour company to arrange your visit. When heading eastward, sit on the right side of the train for the best views.
Hudson Line – Metro North
This commuter train originates in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and travels along the eastern shore of the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie. The trip takes about two hours and passes through historic towns with views of the river, forests, and stately mansions. While daily commuters might take the scenery for granted, sightseers can enjoy the stunning round-trip journey for less than $50. Heading north out of Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal — a must-see destination in itself — the train passes Yankee Stadium in the borough of the Bronx and continues along the river through towns well worth the time to stop and visit. Beacon is a walkable artist community offering galleries, boutiques, and the Dia:Beacon contemporary art museum. The river and its lush surroundings attracted wealthy individuals to build fabulous mansions, many of which are open for tours. These include Boscobel in Garrison, Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow, Springwood in Tarrytown, the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, and Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie. Check tour hours before stopping, and for the best views, sit on the train’s left heading north.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
This journey takes guests through one of the world’s oldest rainforests in Queensland, Australia. The two-hour trip begins in Cairns and passes scenery that includes flowering plants, trees, waterfalls, mountains, and ravines. Barron Gorge, one of Queensland’s most popular national parks, can be viewed from the train or by driving a short distance from Kuranda at the end of the train line. In Kuranda, guests can shop for locally made art and handicrafts or stop at a café. A bird aviary, butterfly sanctuary, and reptile park are other attractions. Historic Kuranda Station, over 100 years old, is part of the experience as the description of the railway’s construction, considered an extraordinary engineering achievement, with 37 bridges and 15 hand-dug tunnels. Some visitors choose to take the railway in one direction and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in the other to fully experience the Wet Tropics World Heritage area.
This train travels between Zermatt and St. Moritz, Switzerland, through the Swiss Alps with breathtaking views of mountains, streams, and quaint towns. Starting in the mountain village of Zermatt near the Matterhorn, the journey continues past rocky peaks, crossing the Rhone into the Upper Rhone Valley. The Oberalp Pass, source of the Rhine River, is the highest point of the trip at nearly 7,000 feet. From there, the train descends along the Rhine Valley with one of the most dramatic views of the trip, the Rhine Gorge, sometimes called the “Swiss Grand Canyon.” Continuing south through a narrow valley and through the Albula tunnel, the eight-hour journey ends in St. Moritz, Switzerland’s elegant vacation resort city. The train’s panoramic windows make viewing easy, and headphones are provided for narration. Several classes of service are available, and there’s a snack trolley, full meals, and on-board bar. With an Excellence Class ticket, exclusive amenities include premium multi-course lunch with local wines and special seating area.
The four and a half hour journey between Christchurch and Greymouth on New Zealand’s South Island is run once daily by KiwiRail as one of their Great Journeys of New Zealand. Departing Christchurch at 8:15 a.m., the train passes through farmland, past sheep and cattle, and then on towards the Southern Alps. After about an hour, the climb into the mountains begins, across steel bridges over deep gorges and through short tunnels and over the highest viaduct, 240 feet above the spectacular Waimakiriri River Gorge. There’s a short stop at Arthurs Pass station and then a trip through one of New Zealand’s longest tunnels, over a deep valley and across another river with views of waterfalls. After a one-hour stop in the small town of Greymouth, the train returns to Christchurch, making the coast-to-coast round-trip about a 10-hour journey. Reclining seats, panoramic windows, and skylights make the ride comfortable and rewarding. The café-bar offers food, snacks, beer, wine, and spirits. Heading to Greymouth, the best views are on the right side of the train, and unlimited rail passes are available for Kiwi Rail Great Journeys.
Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka
This seven-hour trip takes passengers through remote villages, past waterfalls and lush green hills, and through the tea plantations for which the country is perhaps best known. Originally built by the British in the late 1800s, Sri Lanka’s rail system was originally used to transport tea and coffee for export. Now, the train is a favorite way to explore the country, view the varied scenery, and observe villages and local people along the way. The train stops at stations where riders can purchase fresh fruit and local snacks from vendors anxious to share their wares. Ella is a hill country village, worth exploring before you board or when you arrive. Kandy, located in central Sri Lanka, is larger with sacred Buddhist shrines and scenic Kandy Lake. Most of the trains offer first class observation cars with air conditioning, and some provide sleeping berths and reserved seats. From Kandy, the better views are on the right side. Tickets are available at train stations throughout the country, and the schedule can be checked online.
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