9 Best Train Rides for Exploring National Parks

Alaska Railroad train traveling through green forests en route to Denali National Park
During the summer, Alaska Railroad makes the eight hour journey from Anchorage to Denali daily.

Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

Even in the age of air and automobile travel, many people still prefer to travel by rail. One of the best aspects of train travel is that you can sit back, relax, and watch some of the country's most beautiful scenery roll past right outside your window. Trains are a particularly attractive way to travel in more rural areas, and are an ideal option for getting to and going through America's best national parks and natural areas.

Here are 9 trips that combine train travel with sightseeing in national parks and scenic places.

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California Zephyr and Yosemite National Park

California Zepher traveling through the Colorado Rockies

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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 involves cross-country travel.

Because it passes through the Plains, the Rockies, rural Utah, and the Sierras, the Zephyr, which makes the 2,400-mile east-west trip three times per week, is a good train for sightseeing. 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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Coast Starlight and the Pacific Northwest

Northbound Coast Starlight crossing Stenner Creek trestle in California

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

Trails and Rails, a partnership between Amtrak and the U.S. National Park Service, has guides on select routes, including the Coast Starlight. These local guides provide onboard programs about national, state, and local parks. 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 and Green Mountain National Forest

Green Mountain National Forest in fall colors reflecting on water

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The Ethan Allen Express is an Amtrak train that travels daily 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 New York City as the train enters the heart of the Hudson River Valley.

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Alaska Coastal Classic and Kenai Fjordlands National Park

Alaska Coastal Classic train with green foliage all around

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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 trains like the Alaska Coastal Classic are the only way to see the landscapes without having to fly.

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Grand Canyon Railway and the South Rim

Grand Canyon Railway train at Grand Canyon Village

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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 and 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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South Shore Line and Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes National Park shoreline of Lake Michigan

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The South Shore Line, a commuter train line that runs between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, is a great way to get to Indiana Dunes National Park. The 15,000-acre park became the nation's 61st national park in 2019. It has everything from shoreline and beaches along Lake Michigan to hiking trails through forests, wetlands, and prairies.

The South Shore Line has four stops throughout the national park. One station — Dune Park Station — allows passengers to bring bicycles on the train.

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Alaska Denali Star and Denali National Park

Alaska Railroad Denali Star rounding a curve near Denali Alaska

Len Turner / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The Denali Star travels through rural Alaska between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The journey takes 12 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 360 degree 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 Railroad and the Colorado Rockies

Durango and Silverton train traveling through the maountains

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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. 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. 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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Empire Builder and Glacier National Park

The Empire Builder train in Glacier National Park with green trees on both sides of the tracks

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In addition to making its way to Glacier National Park, the Empire Builder train follows a portion of Lewis and Clark’s route in North Dakota and Montana. On the journey from Chicago, riders can spot a variety of terrain, from expansive plains to stunning mountain ranges.

The overnight trip runs three days a week. The station in Whitefish, Montana is less than 30 miles from the park. After departing Montana, Empire Builder continues on to Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington.