Leaving from the magnificently restored King Street station in Seattle, the Coast Starlight is soon running beside Puget Sound on the way to Portland, one of the US’s greenest cities. Coastal views give way to farms and vineyards before the climb into the Cascade Mountains, draped with firs and braided with waterfalls. After high-tech San Jose comes the market gardens of the Santa Clara Valley and another climb through tortuous curves into the Santa Margarita Mountains. To reach Los Angeles the train hugs the ocean for mile after mile before journey’s end in the Spanish Mission style of Union station.
Route: Seattle–Portland–Sacramento–Los Angeles
Best for: Birdlife on long coastal stretches and lakes. Mountain landscapes
Duration: 35 hours
Amtrak’s longest route, at 2,424 miles (3,901km), the California Zephyr leaves the windy city and its celebrated modern architecture to thread the suburbs – a good time to check out the double-deck Sightseer Lounge/café car. Aurora – the first US city to have electric street lights – heralds the Illinois prairies and rich farm land that gradually morphs into wetlands and woodlands as the train crosses the state border into Iowa and leaps across the Mississippi River in Burlington. The Missouri River is crossed just before Omaha and its fabulous Art Deco station, housing President Lincoln’s funeral car. The mile-high city of Denver is the start of the climb into the Rockies where the line picks up the Colombia River and follows it for about 200 miles amid mountains and mesas. The Great Salt Lake, salt flats, the high sierras and Californian vineyards delight the eye before the descent to the coast, skirting San Francisco Bay.
Route: Chicago–Denver–Salt Lake City–Reno–San Francisco
Best for: Mountain landscapes, architecture, history
Duration: 51½ hours
Often following the route of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition of 1804, the Empire Builder first ran in 1929 and heads north west from Chicago’s Union station along the Mississippi River to the Twin Cities of St Paul/Minneapolis. Forest is exchanged for prairie as the train crosses Minnesota to reach North Dakota and climb into Montana’s Glacier National Park where the Continental Divide is crossed in the Marias Pass. Though 1,596m (5,236ft) high, it is the lowest rail summit in the Rockies. At Spokane the train divides, one portion heading for Portland, Oregon and the other for Seattle, taking the Empire Builder through the longest tunnel in the Western Hemisphere at 12.5km (7¼ miles). As the train descends the Cascade Mountains, passengers frequently spot elk, deer and bald eagles.
Route: Chicago–Milwaukee–St Paul/Minneapolis–Glacier Park–Seattle–Portland
Best for: Wilderness, wildlife, Big Sky Montana
Duration: 46 hours
The name of Amtrak’s most southerly train is the oldest continuously used train name in the US, having been introduced by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1894. Leaving New Orleans, the train clatters over the trestles linking causeways through the oaks and cypresses of the bayous before sugar cane and rice fields flank the line. Crossing into Texas, the train calls at Houston, but San Antonio has more to offer history buffs with its historic district and the Alamo. Rolling hills mark the start of the climb to the Paisano Pass, the highest point on the route at 1,545m (5,074ft). As the train leaves the Lone Star State for New Mexico, the train is within 9 metres (30ft) of the Mexican border. This is ‘Wild West’ country, reaching into Arizona and territory that was home to Apache Indians. After the sand dunes of the Sonoran Desert, the train crosses into California and pauses at the desert resort of Palm Springs before journey’s end at Union station in Los Angeles.
Route: New Orleans– San Antonio–Tucson–Phoenix–Los Angeles
Best for: history, wild landscapes
Duration: 48 hours
Leaving the Art Deco/Spanish Mission-style Union station, the train soon joins the famous Route 66 which it parallels to Albuquerque, crossing the Mojave Desert to reach Williams Junction where steam trains head to the Grand Canyon. For many the section beyond Flagstaff is the most scenic of the journey. Past Gallup, once a meeting place for five Indian tribes, the red cliffs of New Mexico are noted for their changing colours. Balloons may dot the air around the hot-air ‘capital’ of Albuquerque, heralding the climb through Apache Canyon to Glorieta Pass and the still higher Raton Pass at 2,313m (7,588ft). After Kansas City, the train makes impressive crossings of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers before traversing mile after mile of mid-west farms to arrive in Chicago.
Route: Los Angeles–Flagstaff–Albuquerque–Kansas City–Chicago
Best for: spectacular landscapes
Duration: 40 hours
The first all-US train set up by Canadian company Rocky Mountaineer winds alongside towering canyons that have been carved away by the Colorado River as it travels between the mile-high city of Denver and the red sandstone mountains of Moab. Only running in daylight, the train reaches the Continental Divide in the Moffat Tunnel before descending for an overnight stop in the resort of Glenwood Springs. The second day is a succession of spectacular red sandstone canyons, mesas and buttes on the way to Moab, famous for its museum of locally discovered dinosaur bones.
Route: Denver–Glenwood Springs–Moab
Best for: canyons, wildlife (deer, coyotes, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and eagles)
Duration: 1½ days
How to book: rockymountaineer.com
This remnant of the narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railway links the railway workshops town of Durango with the former mountain mining settlement of Silverton, using steam locomotives whose whistles once echoed across large parts of Colorado and New Mexico. The line cuts through the San Juan National Forest to reach the reason for the line’s tourist appeal: the spectacular passage of the narrow Animas River canyon on a sinuous ledge cut into the mountainside. Silverton, a National Historic District, is redolent of the late 19th-century days of prosperity when trains with a consist of 20 boxcars of silver ore would leave for Durango and the saloons were full of miners with money to burn.
Best for: history, spectacular scenery
Duration: 3½ hours each way
How to book: durangotrain.com
Rack railways throughout the world owe much to this railway, a world first for using a toothed bar between the rails for locomotives to grip with a cog. Opened in 1868, it enabled tourists to enjoy mountain vistas previously enjoyed only by people familiar with crampons and carabiners. Mount Washington is the highest of the peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the attraction is both the panorama that extends to the Atlantic Ocean on a clear day and the spectacular sunsets.
Route: Marshfield Base Station–Mount Washington
Best for: panoramas, sunsets
Duration: 3 hours (round trip)
How to book: thecog.showare.com
This unique railway in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia forms the centrepiece of a state park, dedicated to preserving the sights and sounds of a lumber town and complemented by the Cass Historical Theatre and Museum. The settlement is deep in the Greenbrier Valley, one of Virginia’s most beautiful landscapes and famous for its caves. The railway is operated by geared steam locomotive that once hauled lumber out of the forests over steeply graded tracks and switchbacks, or zigzags, to reach the third highest peak in West Virginia at Bald Knob. Fragrant spruce and fir trees gradually take over from hardwood forest as the train climbs to the observation platform.
Route: Cass– Bald Knob
Best for: history, industrial archaeology, panoramas
Duration: 4½ hours (round trip)
How to book: mountainrailwv.com
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