Top Ten North American Train Journeys

For a front-row ticket to North America’s natural beauty, hop a train bounding over majestic mountain peaks, deep lakes, and wide-open prairies. In this case, the best view is from the most outdated seat, and the journey far surpasses the destination.
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Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire
JACOB'S LADDER: New Hampshire's Mount Washington Cog Railway makes the steep descent from the summit.  (Mount Washington Cog Railway)

Here's the thing about trains: They're not always on time, but they definitely deliver. Stunning scenery. Perks like domed observation cars and seat-side service. And plenty of opportunity for self-reflection while you're rolling across prairies and meandering along coasts.

Riding the rails has undeniable romantic allure. It harks back to an era when much of the world was undiscovered, especially North America's vast plains, deep canyons, and rugged peaks. Men laid tracks over seemingly impossible mountain passes and built trestle bridges across rivers and gorges, accessing both awesome views and unbelievable surroundings.

Some of the most spectacular rail journeys are right here in our own backyard. From front-door entry to several of North America's best national parks to the probability of spotting grizzlies, moose, and caribou en route, check out our picks for North America's top ten rail journeys. Chances are you'll be uncovering some uncharted territory of your own.

10. Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire
If August's annual bicycle race up Mt. Washington offers any indication, New Hampshire's tallest mountain is one steep climb. Riders of the Mount Washington Cog Railway get to experience the slope severity firsthand, ascending at an average grade of more than 25 percent (think San Francisco's Lombard St.) from 2,700 feet above sea level to a peak height of 6,288 feet—all in just over three miles. The one-car railway utilizes a Marsh rack system—a toothed rack running between rails that engages the train's gear-like wheels—so the ride's fairly bumpy, meant more for railway and history buffs than those looking for a laidback lift. Still, once you're on the summit looking out over New England's White Mountains, the discomfort will be worth it.

9. Agawa Canyon & Algoma Central Railway Combo Train, Ontario
Taken together, Canada's Agawa Canyon Tour Train and the Algoma Central Railway offer unparalleled access to Northern Ontario's numerous lakes and rugged wilderness. From Sault Ste. Marie train station—across St. Mary's River from the U.S. state line—a combo ticket allows you to ship luggage aboard the latter and catch the former for direct access to Agawa Canyon, a 113-mile trip that includes a brief glimpse of Lake Superior. Once the train makes the 12-mile-long, 500-foot descent into the canyon's river valley, you have a few hours to explore before rejoining your bags aboard the Algoma Central, a whistle-stop service en route to Hearst, through boreal forests ideal for kayakers, campers, and hikers. The train passes over a couple floating bridges between Franz and Oba (around the 210 mile mark), but by then you're likely to be huffing it on foot toward your own outdoor experience.

8. Coastal Classic, Anchorage to Seward
In a state already known for its natural beauty, Alaska Railway's Coastal Classic earns top props for scenery. Extreme glaciers, awesome mountain views, and the likelihood of spotting bear, moose, Dall sheep, and a Beluga whale or two are all part of the ride. This 114-mile route between Anchorage and Seward—a popular cruise ship port—often takes a backseat to the railway's Denali Star Train, perhaps because it traverses the smaller Kenai Peninsula, a stretch of land more manageable on one's own. The ride takes four-and-a-half-hours one-way, and that's at a kick-up-yer-heels pace with unplanned stops for postcard-perfect photo ops and animal sightings. Seward offers access to a variety of hiking trails, paddling outfitters, and dog sled tours—plenty to choose from before catching the evening train back to Anchorage.

7. Southwest Chief/Grand Canyon Railway, Los Angeles to Chicago
Winding through eight U.S. states en route from Los Angeles to Chicago, Amtrak's Southwest Chief is alone worth a ride: the train traverses California's sweltering Mojave Desert; slinks through an unbelievably tight squeeze in New Mexico's Apache Canyon; and stops off in Kansas' Dodge City, America's epitome of the fabled Wild West. For an even sweeter southwest experience, pair it with a round trip aboard the more-than-a-century-old Grand Canyon Railway. A shuttle delivers passengers from Amtrak's Williams Junction station to the GCR terminal, where you're treated to a campy costumed shootout before embarking on a two-hour-plus ride through Ponderosa pine forests and dry desert, culminating at Grand Canyon's south rim. Once here, stay a couple hours… or a couple days.

6. Coast Starlight, Seattle to Los Angeles
Its reputation for being tardy hasn't affected Coast Starlight's undisputed ranking as one of North America's most alluring railways. Meandering along America's west coast from Seattle south to Los Angeles, Amtrak's legendary route travels among conifer forests and offers Cascade Mountain vistas; traverses Willamette Valley's fertile wine-growing region; and skirts miles of unobstructed California coastline. With stops in Portland, Eugene, the SF Bay Area, and Santa Barbara, riders gain access to some of the West Coast's best biking, hiking, surfing, kayaking, and backcountry locales. A recent route upgrade includes coach class seat-side meal service and the guarantee of a first-class Parlour car—featuring daily wine & cheese service—on every leg. These perks won't help you arrive at your destination any sooner, though they may make you happier to stay on board.

Published: 23 Sep 2010 | Last Updated: 16 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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