Top Ten North American Train Journeys - Page 2

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The Canadian train
GREAT NORTH: The Canadian crosses through Western Canada at twilight  (Rail Canada)
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5. Empire Builder, Chicago to Seattle or Portland
Ambling across America's northern states at a relaxed 50 mph pace, the Empire Builder—named for former railway executive James J. Hill—is one of Amtrak's most popular long-distance trains. The entire trip takes nearly two full days to complete, from Chicago's Union Station toward the Pacific Northwest through Milwaukee and St. Paul, and by way of North Dakota and Montana's pristine plains. Of course, the train's unbeatable access to Glacier National Park—home to two mountain ranges, more than 100 lakes, incredible (though quickly disappearing) glaciers, and superb hiking trails, along with grizzly, black bear, big horn sheep, mountain goat, and moose—is reason enough to ride. Stopping at both the park's southeast (Glacier Park Lodge) and southwest (Lake McDonald Lodge) corners, Empire Builder then continues on to Spokane, where it diverges into two routes: one to Seattle (2,206 miles) and the other, Portland (2,257 miles).

4. Denali Star Train, Anchorage to Fairbanks via Denali National Park
Puns aside, there really is no getting around it—America's 49th state is too big to tackle in one trip. Just one of the reason's Alaska Railway's flagship Denali Star is such a superb train. Cutting a wobbly line down the state's bulky center, the 365-mile railway connects Alaska's two largest cities—Anchorage and Fairbanks—by way of Denali National Park, a hotbed for hikers; campers; anyone looking to glimpse bear, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and (occasionally) wolf; and climbers of 20,320-foot-tall Mt. McKinley, the park centerpiece and continent's highest peak. With only three designated stops en route (Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali), the train chugs along at a slow-but-steady 30 mph average for much of its 12-hour, one-way journey, passing among birch and spruce forests, traversing watersheds, and offering an excellent intro to the largest U.S. state.

3. Chihuahua al Pacifico, Copper Canyon Journey, Mexico
Chihuahua al Pacifico, or "El Chepe," for short, links Mexico's Pacific coastal towns with its central desert through Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre), part of a massive and surprisingly fertile canyon system that's over six-times larger than the U.S. Grand Canyon. One of the world's great feats of engineering, the railway offers stunning, panoramic vistas incomparable to any North American long-distance rail line. It rattles over flora-filled gorges, along copper green cliffs, across 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels, crossing the Continental Divide at nearly 7,900 feet. The train even completes a 360-loop on top of itself as a way to gain elevation. Copper Canyon's most incredible scenery lies between Temoris and Cerocahui—accessible both by the railway's local passenger train and a first-class express train, taking about 15 hours to complete the 400-mile journey.

2. California Zephyr, San Francisco to Chicago
No railway better embodies America's pioneer spirit than Amtrak's California Zephyr, traversing an impressive 2,438 miles between Chicago and San Francisco (by way of Emeryville). Using a portion of tracks first laid for the U.S.'s original transcontinental railroad, the double-deck Superliner rolls past Iowa's small towns, along Nebraska's high plains; over the steep Rocky Mountains and High Sierra passes; and among Utah's red rock buttes and Nevada's desert; crossing a string of landscapes as diverse as the tens of thousands who once migrated across them. Expect the same dramatic scenery in both directions, though it's heading west you really get a sense of the country's magnitude—especially once the Zephyr begins its climb up Colorado's Rocky Mountains, entering a series of switchbacks and tunnels that culminates at the Continental Divide, just over 9,000 feet.

1. The Canadian, Toronto to Vancouver
Often hailed as one of the world's greatest rail journeys, VIA Rail's flagship train, The Canadian, travels an epic 4,500 miles across five Canadian provinces, linking Toronto with Vancouver via boreal forests, vast western prairies, striking mountain ranges, and bountiful lakes. Stops include Winnipeg—where passengers can catch the railway's Winnipeg–Churchill line 1,000 miles north to the world's polar bear capital—and Jasper National Park, a World Heritage Site filled with hiking trails, hot springs, towering mountain peaks, and a portion of the Columbia Icefield. From Ontario's Sudbury Junction to Winnipeg, advanced notice gives free reign to get on and off anywhere en route. If you're in it for the long haul, consider upgrading to Silver & Blue class for turndown service and access to the mural-adorned Park car lounge.

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