Epic North American Train Journeys
The relentless coal-devouring "iron horses" that redefined land travel during the Industrial Revolution are now considered a romantic and experiential relic from the past. Aside from AMTRAK and modern commuter trains of the East coast, North America's remaining railroads are strictly scenic, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Without having to worry about things like commuter service and freight hauling, railway revivalists can find and explore those epic pockets of natural beauty, like Verde Canyon pictured here, that highways don't touch and humans can never reach on their own two feet.
By Lena Katz
Skunk Train | California
Running the "Redwood Route" since 1885, this former logging line began offering passenger service in 1911. Today, it's the best way for visitors to get a glimpse of privately owned redwood forests deep in the heart of Mendocino and Humboldt counties. It got its nickname in the mid-1920s, when locals took to calling it "the Skunk" because of the stink of the gas engine rail cars.
Mount Washington Cog Railway | New Hampshire
Not for the faint of heart, this "engineering marvel" from the 1860s is the only mountain-climbing train to run entirely on trestle tracks. It's a steep climb to the summit of Mount Washington - just three miles in each direction - but because of the gradient, the journey takes an hour each way. Several diesel trains run daily, but to get the real old-school experience, book a seat on the antique steam train, departing at 8:30 a.m. every day.
Grand Canyon Railway | Arizona
To hear train aficionados tell it, railway travel "revolutionized the Canyon," providing the masses access to this natural wonder as early as 1901. Though it was eclipsed by the automobile by the 1950s and shut down for a spell in 1968, Grand Canyon Railway now enjoys a new lease on life, transporting hundreds of tourists from historic Williams Depot to the Grand Canyon Depot within the national park 364 days a year. It's a two hour and 15 minute ride each way, with an option to overnight in the park.
Royal Gorge Route Railroad | Colorado
The Arkansas River rushes through a dramatic canyon with walls a thousand feet high - whitewater below and granite above - creating a 24-mile loop of breathtaking mountain scenery. Riders can upgrade to the refurbished Sunshine Falls "Bar Car" or the glass-topped dome car. Wine dinner service is also available.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad | Colorado
If the Royal Gorge train is a shiny yellow hardcandy zinger, then the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge is a big, husky huffing Old Faithful of a locomotive. It's been hauling passengers since 1882, and though the sort of folk who ride it may have changed (from grizzled miners to hearty rock-climbers and outdoors enthusiasts), the look of the railway really hasn't. Vintage steam locomotives cut a path through snowstorms and up steep inclines, curving through canyons and bypassing ghost towns.
Black Hills Central Railroad | South Dakota
Another memento to the frontier days is this vintage steam locomotive route that cuts through the Black Hills of South Dakota, passing through dense forests populated with whitetail deer, and chugging by many former miner lairs, including the ones along legendary Battle Creek. It's called the "1880 Train" because it evokes that particular era by design, not because of any particular historic occurrence. At just over two hours roundtrip, this is a short ride, but an intriguing one that will stir up the American history buff in many riders.
Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad | West Virginia
Regardless of the topography or the amenities or any other categories in which tourist railways these days are typically judged, this route stands out as a classic American journey because it offers fulfillment of a wish most U.S. residents first learn in grade school: the sighting of American bald eagles in the wild. According to the website, 90% of all excursions encounter a bald eagle, which are good odds, as anyone who has ever gone whale-watching would know. Unlike most scenic trains, the ones on this route offer mostly open-air cars - the better to accommodate people's jostling and craning over each other's heads one of the majestic birds is spotted.
Lookout Mountain Incline Railway | Tennessee
If you like to check extreme experiences off a list, this one's a must - and it's not even physically taxing. The sturdy little trolley cars do all the work, hauling tourists up the world's steepest passenger railway route. With a gradient of above 72% at times, this journey up "America's Most Amazing Mile" has plenty of passengers gripping their seats, white-knuckled. Once at the summit station, there's an observation tower and various Civil War landmarks to look at before making the nearly vertical descent back down to the charming historic village of St. Elmo.
Rocky Mountaineer | Canada
Specializing in multi-day "slow travel" trips through the Canadian Rockies, this high accolade rail service also offers a shorter experience, the Whistler Sea to Sky Climb. Though the process of climbing from sea level to the peak of such a famous mountain is certainly memorable, it's the longer cross-continental trips that afford breathtaking moments like the one captured above (Canyon Bridge, on "First Passage to the West" route).
Alaska Railroad | Alaska
Another rail system that can go the distance physically as well as aesthetically is Alaska's state railroad, which offers passenger service on the coast route between Anchorage and Seward, south from Anchorage to Whittier and the Spencer Glacier region, from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Denali National Park, and into the remote Alaskan wilds on the "Hurricane Turn" flagstop route. This railroad offers reasonable economy fares as well as multi-day vacation packages. Also still a freight carrier, it operates year-round.
Via Rail | Canada
Combining the scenic aspects of many Northern U.S. tourist railways with the efficiency and pricing of public transit, Canada's government-affiliated national passenger rail service is a versatile way to explore this big, rugged, surprisingly beautiful country. Some routes, like the Quebec-Toronto "Corridor" loop, are highly practical, while others, like the jaw-dropping Jasper-Prince Rupert route pictured here, are all about the journey. Same-day and multi-day itineraries are available, as well as flexible Canrailpass options.