9 Best Train Rides for Exploring National Parks

An Amtrak train running along the pacific coast


Even in the age of low-cost airlines and increasingly comfortable automobiles, some people still prefer to travel by rail, and rightfully so. One of the best aspects of rail travel in America is that you can sit back and watch some of the country's most beautiful scenery roll past right outside your window.

This is why trains are still an attractive way to travel in rural regions. Amtrak and its peers are fond of marketing train travel as "an experience" instead of as "just another mode of transport." Even if you ignore this PR effort, the romance and the access to scenery make train travel an ideal option for getting to and going through America's best national parks and natural areas.

Here are trips that combine train travel with sightseeing in some of America's most scenic and wild places.

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California Zephyr and Yosemite

Photo: Amtrak

Regional services can certainly put people in touch with the kind of scenery that makes train travel special, but for true aficionados, a real rail adventure has to involve cross-country travel. Some travel companies embrace this idea by offering rail vacation packages. Vacations by Rail, for example, has an itinerary that uses Amtrak's California Zephyr to go from Chicago to the Bay Area and Yosemite National Park.

Because it passes through the Plains, the Rockies, rural Utah and the Sierras, the Zephyr, which makes the 2,400-mile east-west trip daily, is a good train for sightseeing. Even if they don't take a guided tour, Zephyr riders can easily get to Yosemite from the Bay Area. Once inside the park, visitors can take a totally different kind of journey: a four-mile steam train trip on the the Sugar Pine Railroad. This route was formerly used to haul lumberjack-chopped logs down the mountain.

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The Pacific Coast on the Coast Starlight

Photo: Loco Steve/flickr

Amtrak's Coast Starlight runs daily between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California. It passes through some of the West Coast’s biggest cities: Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. It also runs along the Cascade Range, the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest and California's Central Coast.

Two on-board programs that are part of the Trails and Rails partnership between Amtrak and the U.S. National Park Service are offered on the Coast Starlight. Volunteers from Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail give presentations and information between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo (pictured), while Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park hosts a similar program between Seattle and Portland. Travelers who want to get off the Starlight in San Francisco can get to Bay Area sites like Muir Woods National Monument with relative ease.

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Ethan Allen Express

Photo: Steve Ostrowski/Amtrak

The Ethan Allen Express is an Amtrak train that travels between New York City and Rutland, Vermont. The 241-mile journey takes just over five hours one way. The route passes through the Catskill Mountain region, the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, so there is plenty of scenery beside the rails.

During the winter, skiers use the Ethan Allen to get to Killington, Vermont, which is widely considered one of the best ski destinations in the Eastern U.S. During the summer, nature-seekers can use the train to get from New York City to upstate destinations like Albany and Lake George. The scenery starts right outside of the New York City metro as the train enters the heart of the Hudson River Valley.

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Alaska Coastal Classic

The Alaska Coastal Classic, which travels between Anchorage and Seward, is considered the most scenic train ride in the 49th state. During the 114-mile trip, the train passes the Cook Inlet and goes through the Kenai Mountains. Both the Kenai Fjordlands National Park and Chugach National Forest are accessible from Seward.

The train has two cabin classes, a viewing "dome" car and dining and lounge areas. There are guides aboard to provide insights into the wild scenery that the train passes. Much of Alaska is still roadless wilderness, so Alaska Railroad trains like the Coastal Classic are the only way to see the landscapes without having to fly.

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Grand Canyon Railway

Photo: Michael Quinn/Grand Canyon National Park/flickr

The Grand Canyon Railway has been in operation for more than a century. The Train, at it is sometimes called, took its first passengers to the South Rim in 1901. It replaced stagecoaches as the main mode of transportation for canyon visitors and started a travel boom. The firm that built the rail line, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, helped to develop the South Rim of the Canyon for tourism.

The current Grand Canyon Railway train features six cabin classes, including an observation dome and a luxury parlor. Though the train started the tourism rush to the Grand Canyon, it is now helping to temper the traffic at the famous landmark. This is because a number of people take the train instead of driving to the South Rim. The train runs round-trip once per day, with passengers given several hours after the morning ride to explore the canyon before they return to Williams, Arizona, in the late afternoon.

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Trains to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Photo: Mark Baldwin/Shutterstock

Volunteers from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore ride Amtrak's Blue Water route between Chicago and Port Huron, Michigan, and the Wolverine route between Chicago and Detroit. They provide information about this beautiful but often overlooked natural area, which is only a short distance from the Midwest's largest city.

Though the Amtrak trains are great for getting information about the Dunes, another train service might actually be more practical for visiting the National Lakeshore. The South Shore Line is a commuter service running between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. Passengers can access Indiana Dunes on this line, and they are able to bring their bicycles with them when they ride. Other beaches and parks, including Indiana Dunes State Park, are also accessible via the South Shore Line.

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Alaska Denali Star

Photo: Len Turner/Wikimedia Commons

The Denali Star travels through rural Alaska between Anchorage and Fairbanks. This journey takes 11 hours and includes a stop at Denali National Park. Like its sister train, the Coastal Classic, the Star travels through Alaskan landscapes that are usually only seen from the windows of a bush plane.

Another Alaska train, the McKinley Explorer, features domed cars that offer even better views of the surroundings. The Explorer does not make the entire trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks like the Denali Star. Instead, it only travels as far as Denali National Park. It is popular among cruisers and is actually operated by Holland America and Princess Cruises.

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Durango and Silverton

Photo: FloridaStock/Shutterstock

The Durango and Silverton Railroad is certainly not one of the longest or fastest of America's scenic train trips, but it just might be the most breathtaking (in more ways than one). The trip on this historic narrow-gauge railway starts in Durango, Colorado, at 6,500 feet above sea level. Over the 45-mile line, the early 20th century steam engine climbs almost 3,000 feet to the town of Silverton.

The Durango and Silverton inches along at less than 20 miles per hour, so the slow speed just means that there is more time to take in the scenery of some of the tallest mountains in the Colorado Rockies and the trees of the Rio Grande National Forest.

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Great Western Limited

Photo: Uncommon Journeys/Facebook

Some rail lines focus on offering classic train trips. That is the case with Uncommon Journeys, a specialty travel company that offers luxury rail vacations on private trains outfitted with all the elements you've seen in old movies. For example, the Great Western Limited, a classic streamliner, has a dining car, sleeper cars and an open air car.

On one particular trip, the Limited carries passengers from Chicago to the West. Guests get to stop at many of the most well-known national parks in the country along the way: Yellowstone, Arches National Park in Utah and Glacier National Park. On the final leg of the journey, passengers board their classic streamliner in Glacier and ride all the way to Chicago.