The railroad boom that began in the 1830s in North America opened up a continent. Railways not only made it possible to carry goods and freight across the country, but it also gave those with adventurous spirits access to the North American frontier. Those previously landlocked in rural mountain towns now had access to a whole new world.
From the East Coast to the West, journey through railroad history on a vintage caboose or an open air passage car as you explore this list of North America’s most beautiful railways curated for train fanatics, history buffs or those who’re just looking for a unique view into America.
The Café Lafayette Dinner Train is one of only 12 moving dinner trains in North America. Enjoy a meal and an unhurried ride in a restored railcar along the Pemigewasset River through the White Mountains. Or explore New England’s many historic railways, from the Conway Scenic Railroad to the Cape Cod Central Railroad. Ride the vintage Essex Steam Train through the Connecticut River Valley, or chug along the shores of sparkling Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Then head to Lincoln, New Hampshire to visit the Flying Yankee, one of only three Depression-era diesel-electric steamliners.
The Strasburg Railroad is America’s oldest operating railroad, founded in 1832 to carry freight to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The railway was almost destroyed by storms in the 1950s, when a group of “rail barons” banded together to save it. They rounded up authentic steam trains from across America to carry passengers through the lovely Amish countryside and Lancaster County farmland and the rugged Allegheny Mountains. Swing by the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania to learn the history behind their collection of over 100 priceless locomotives.
Experience a 1915 passenger train as you ride through 20 miles of pure wilderness aboard the Cheat Mountain Salamander to High Falls. Try a Climax or Heisler steam engine as it pulls the Durbin Rocket’s open air passenger cars and 1920s caboose along the Greenbrier River and through Monongahela National Forest. Or ride along the Cass Scenic Railroad behind the oldest operational Shay steam engine on the same rails it first ran on in 1905. Climb the switchbacks for panoramic views of surrounding farmland, mountains and the ghost town of Spruce. Then stop at the steam engine repair shop in the lumber town of Cass to watch mechanics work on a Climax engine and learn how they operate.
Take a ride on the Murphy Branch of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, constructed in the 1880s, and experience the raw beauty of Western North Carolina. Take in views of fertile valleys, river gorges and Great Smoky Mountains National Park as you roll along 53 miles of track, through 2 tunnels and over 25 bridges. Then visit the historic Black Mountain, Old Fort and Apple Valley railroad depots to learn more about how the railway provided access to the outside world for this previously isolated rural area.
Climb aboard a vintage steam locomotive on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railway, built in 1882 to carry silver and gold ore. The train has been in continuous operation since 1882 and today employs 1920s locomotives powered by coal! Board at the original depot and ride at a leisurely pace as you take in the spectacular landscape of the San Juan Mountains and the Animas River, with narration from the conductor. Then expand your railroad knowledge at the Durango Silverton Train Museum, or head up the road to the Ridgway Railroad Museum.
Take the last train to Clarkdale on the Verde Canyon Railroad and experience Arizona’s “other Grand Canyon.” From your open air passenger car, marvel at the picturesque red rock pinnacles and Indian ruins, as you follow the 40-mile route along the wild and scenic Verde River. Scan for wildlife along the way, like the more than 30 eagles that spend their winters in the area.
Starting at an original 1870 depot and museum, travel back in time to the bonanza days aboard the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Ride through the rugged, snow-dusted Sierra Nevada Mountains with commentary from your conductor. Keep an eye out for silver ore veins as you ride through Comstock mine sites and Gold Hill, where gold and silver strikes began in 1859. Railroad junkies will want to take a trip to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento to see restored locomotives and cars and learn about the “Last Spike.”
A journey along the 470-mile historic Alaska Railroad will take passengers from Fairbanks to Seward through Denali National Park. This train ride is a wildlife lover’s dream. Not only will you witness the Alaska Range and Mt. Denali, but you’ll have a perfect front-row seat for glimpses at the Denali wildlife from the train car. Stop in the charming town of Talkeetna where you can learn all about the town’s mountaineering history.
We had to mention at least one of the amazing train rides in Canada. Though it’s hard to choose a favorite, we’ve settled on a ride on the Rock Mountaineer. Travel from Jasper to Kamloops and onto Vancouver along the Thompson River and through the Monashee Mountains. From your glass-dome coach, you’ll see sparkling lakes and snow-tipped mountains and race across trestle bridges and through tunnels carved right through the rock, all while enjoying Gold Leaf Service. Learn about the history of the 1885 Canadian Pacific Railway and the glacial history of these stunning landscapes along the way.
Explore Road Scholar’s Train Treks around the world!
JoAnn Bell, Senior Vice President of Program Development, develops and manages more than 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states.
There is a train that goes daily to Grand Canyon Village and El Tovar from Williams AZ...the round-trip is an all day event with time at the top of the south rim to sightsee, eat, and shop. When I have taken it, the train was boarded by "robbers" who were caught by the sheriff and they sang some Western songs to the delight of the children on board. Not much scenery but pines between Williams and the train station below El Tovar, but an easy way not to have to park a car and relax coming and going...
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