There's something about train travel that feels distinctly romantic and nostalgic. Sure, a quick flight (and in some cases, even driving) could get you from A to B a heck of a lot faster, but that's not really the point.
In addition to being a unique experience, pretty affordable, and a more sustainable form of transportation, many routes are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Sounds intriguing, right? Check out eight of the best scenic train rides in the US.
Most Scenic Train Rides in the US
1. Pikes Peak Cog Railway - Colorado
Colorado has nearly 60 "14ers," mountains exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One of them in particular, Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, is so iconic that it's well-known as "America's Mountain."
And with a ride on the Pikes Peak Cog train (officially the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway), you can go all the way to the 14,115-foot summit without hiking a single step.
The Pikes Peak Cog is unquestionably one of the most scenic train rides in the US, but it's also one of the most unique. Check out these fun facts:
- "The Cog" is one of just two cog railways in the US (the other is the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire, which was also the world's first cog train!) and about 40 worldwide.
- The train is the highest in North America and among the highest in the entire world.
- This scenic train has been operating since 1891! It shut down completely from 2017-2021, when both the track infrastructure and the train itself was overhauled and updated.
At the summit, browse the Pikes Peak Visitor Center and be sure to try a doughnut. The only ones in the world made over 14,000 feet, we guarantee you've never had a treat like this!
2. Amtrak Coast Starlight Train - Seattle to Los Angeles
Running nearly 1,400 miles between Seattle and Los Angeles by way of Portland and San Francisco, the Amtrak Coast Starlight is far and away one of the most scenic train rides in the US.
The trip takes 35 hours and passengers can choose to ride straight through or make it a multi-day adventure and get off the train somewhere along the way. Note: it isn't a hop-on, hop-off train like the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic, but could make for an interesting transportation mode with the right logistics.
Epic West Coast excursion options near the train route include hiking to Oregon waterfalls, wandering through the famous Redwoods, exploring the dramatic cliffs and beaches near Big Sur, or going wine-tasting in California's Wine Country.
Depending on what type of trip you're hoping for, the Amtrak Coast Starlight has several accommodation options. You can book a straightforward, no-frills passenger fare or book varying tiers of sleeper cars, which include meals, semi-private or private restrooms, and, of course, a place to sleep.
3. Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad - Ohio
One of just a handful of scenic train rides in the US that operate inside a national park, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (CVSR) is a bucket list experience. Best (and most surprising!) of all, it's located in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio!
One especially cool thing the train offers is hop-on, hop-off service for hikers and bikers. Explore Cuyahoga Valley on a trail one direction, then hop aboard the train to get back for just $5!
In addition to the daily "National Park Scenic" rides, the CVSR offers specialty and themed evening rides, such as Ales on Rails and the riveting Murder Mystery. Once a year, there's also Steam in the Valley, a beloved local tradition when an authentic, historic steam-powered locomotive actually powers the train.
4. Grand Canyon Railway - Arizona
How many scenic train rides in the US take passengers to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World? Just one: the Grand Canyon Railway.
Before passengers even board the vintage rail cars, they're treated to a Wild West shootout in tiny Williams, Arizona, an equally Wild West town. Once on the train, you're whisked straight to the Grand Canyon's South Rim, the most developed and popular entrance with the most accessible ooh-ahh worthy views, where you'll have about three hours to explore.
Along the way, you'll see several sides of Arizona. The classic desert and high desert most people associate with the Southwest, of course, but also high alpine forest, rushing rivers, and expansive prairieland.
The Grand Canyon Railway runs year-round and also operates special trains seasonally, including the wildly popular Polar Express.
5. Aurora Winter Train From Anchorage to Fairbanks - Alaska
Do scenic train rides in the US get any better or bucket list-worthy than this?! Hint: probably not.
In the winter, the Alaska Railroad operates the Aurora Winter Train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, a 12-hour journey (it departs on a Saturday and returns on Sunday, stopping in Talkeetna and iconic Denali National Park).
Fascinatingly, passengers have a much better view of the scenery on the winter nighttime train than in the summer. This is because the bright glow in the Alaska winter sky casts an ethereal glow on the snow.
The view of massive Denali is especially awe-inspiring, but don't forget to look up for the Northern Lights — not so elusive in this part of the world.
6. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad - North Carolina
Arguably one of the most picturesque parts of the country, the Great Smoky Mountains, affectionately called simply "the Smokies," have a little of everything for even the most discerning passengers.
There are the mountains, of course, but the Smokies also have countless rivers, lakes, waterfalls, caves, wildlife, historic buildings...we could go on and on. It makes perfect sense that the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is one of the most scenic train rides in the US.
Somewhat unique to the GSMR, there's a variety of cars, including open-air for the best panoramic views. Most of the cars are restored vintage models (many coming up on a century old!), and like the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic, the GSMR offers an authentic steam locomotive experience several times a year.
7. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad - Colorado
Yes, Colorado claims two spots for scenic train rides in the US. They're both that unique!
As implied in its name, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) operates on a narrow track of just three feet. Although there are just a few remaining narrow gauge railroads today, in the 1800s they were popular in Colorado — and in particular, the Rockies.
The narrow track allows the train to hug tight curves and keep a lower profile. This is especially useful in the incredible San Juans, one of the most rugged and spectacularly beautiful sub-ranges in the Rockies.
8. Cass Scenic Railroad - West Virginia
We're finishing our list of the best scenic train rides in the US with arguably one of the most unique. The "Cass Scenic Railroad" is actually a historic state park (appropriately but admittedly not creatively named Cass Scenic Railroad State Park) and a heritage train.
The Durbin Greenbrier Valley Railroad operates the scenic train, running from downtown Cass to spectacular Bald Knob, West Virginia's third-highest point. The route has been the same since 1901, cutting through the legendary Appalachian Mountains in a part of the country that's remarkably (and fortunately) changed very little in the last century.
This scenic train operates from May through October and features historic open-air cars with wooden bench seating. Arrive early to snag the seats you want!
Is anyone else feeling inspired to take the long way home — literally — or is that just us? These scenic train rides in the US really are dreamy!
There's one way to make them even better, though: commemorate your trip with a unique, customizable travel souvenir. Many people don't necessarily think of getting souvenirs for train travel; it's perhaps not as obvious as something like Hawaii souvenirs.
With Travel Tokens from The Wander Club, attached to a Wanderchain or another one of our Token Holders, you can create your very own, one-of-a-kind travel souvenirs. And for a trip as unique as a scenic train ride in the US, we can't imagine anything more fitting!