Our Favorite Scenic Train Rides Across North America
BY MAIREAD KELLY
From modern amenities to train cars designed precisely for taking in epic scenery, here are our favorite routes in North America when looking to take in a super scenic (and unforgettable!) ride.
West Coast Day-Ventures
Skip the morning rush and grab your breakfast on rail. Image Courtesy of Amtrak.
Amtrak describes its Pacific Surfliner route as “hugging the coast,” which makes sense given its pathway along California, but also for views along the way that are so good, you just might feel the feels. If life on two wheels is your thing, you have the option to experience your favorite stops along the way by bike—just make sure you plan ahead. All in all, these trips will have you packing a bike and lunch, then getting to an outdoor location with scenery all of its own.
A trip from San Diego to Los Angeles is a mere three hours, giving you more than ample time to experience cinematic sites, flower-carpeted hillsides, or sunset strolls on the beach. And remember, Zipcars live at Union Station (and all over the city!), and are yours for easy access to any L.A. destination, from the Hollywood sign to Huntington Botanical Gardens.
Make your escape even greater with a service to Santa Barbara that clocks in at under six hours from San Diego. Destinations don’t get much more ideal than this one, where dream-like weather, Spanish-inspired architecture, and activities for all personalities and budgets run rampant. Stretch your legs with a self-directed Red Tile walking tour, an easy (and free!) introduction to downtown’s Santa Barbara’s historical highlights. The option to see sights slightly outside Santa Barbara—Universal Studios, Santa Ynez Valley, quaint Morro Bay—are all within reach, with Zipcars waiting around the corner.
If you’re not too distracted by Amtrak’s amenities (we love a good cafe car), jump off at Saint Luis Obispo to experience a low-key town with a high quality of life. Look for the Moon Tree, a coast redwood grown from a seed that journeyed on board Apollo 14’s lunar mission; people watch along San Luis Obispo Creek; or slip behind the wheel of a Zipcar and head out on Chorro Street, which passes the city’s 1772 mission, through a neighborhood of lushly landscaped Craftsman and Spanish-style homes.
East Coast Day-Ventures
The Downeaster has something for everyone along the way. Image courtesy of Amtrak.
New Englanders, take note! Amtrak's Downeaster offers five roundtrips daily between Boston and Portland, and two roundtrips to Freeport and Brunswick. Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly day trip, culinary adventure, or romantic weekend away, this route has something for everyone, with history of poets, philosophers, and progressive thinkers; endless outdoor adventures; cutting-edge culture; and arguably the country’s best seafood.
With far less sprawl on this side of the country, the Downeaster only takes two-and-a-half hours from Boston to Portland, a quirky port town with redbrick warehouse buildings, Victorian mansions, and one-off vintage and record shops. Start with a walk down to the water, and from there head southwest to the extravagantly decorated Victoria Mansion for an inside peek at Portland’s Victorian history. Then it’s onto the Old Port neighborhood, whose brick sidewalks and tall, stately buildings lining the streets will make you feel like you touched down in Europe.
Make it to more northern Brunswick in three hours, home to storied homes tucked along treelined streets, and historic Bowdoin College. Hit the farmers markets, stroll down Main Street, or hop in a Zipcar for Topsham, where you can visit the nature preserves at Cathance River and hike along the wetlands at Bradley Farm.
And how could we forget about the Great Dome Car? From August 11 to September 23, 2018, Amtrak will once again be rolling out its Great Dome Car for eager leaf peepers, fall lovers, and foliage freaks—at no extra cost. With an upper level boasting windows on all sides (even the roof!), it’s the perfect setting for taking in panoramic views of New England’s villages and coastlines in all their seasonal glory.
Let off some steam and enjoy the good views. Image courtesy of CultureTripper.com.
Plan a getaway to another city and ensure constant travel excitement by making multiple stops along the way. Enjoy beautiful scenery and sights, and soak up culture as you travel from one city to another.
Amtrak’s ten-hour route from NYC to Montreal just might be one of the most scenic rides in America. Rumble into Albany to hike, kayak, spot regional birds, or revisit history at Fort Ticonderoga, site of the first significant American victory of the Revolution. When the train crosses the border, indulge in a taste of Europe when you reach Montreal. Find irresistible patisseries, English pubs, Jewish delis, and magnificent food markets that rival those of Paris. If you’re up for a stroll, take in the photogenic 18th-century facades of Old Montréal, or a wander through the glittering shops and restaurants of downtown before ending at the inviting terraced cafes of Plateau Mont-Royal.
Go from big city livin’ to all things southern charm with Amtrak’s Carolinian/Piedmont line from NYC to Virginia and North Carolina. Richmond is an ideal stop for laidback tourists and adventure-seekers alike. Get your history fix at the nation’s first museum of its kind: The American Civil War Center; browse unique shops in Carytown; or even take a whitewater rafting excursion on the James River. From here, it’s onto Charlotte, North Carolina’s vibrant commercial center. Zipcars live just an eight-minute bus ride from the train station you’ll roll through. Use ‘em to make a stop at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Plaza Midwood’s funky boutiques and restaurants, and hip NoDa, where former textile mills have been converted into breweries and cafes.
Looking for some extensive city-hopping? Look no further than Amtrak’s Silver Service/Palmetto line, which offers roundtrip service from New York to Washington, D.C., Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. Ride the whole way or come to a full stop at the destination of your choice. This route is a great way to see a good portion of East Coast life, from Washington, D.C.’s political pulse to Miami’s Latin-influenced food and music.
Go the Distance
Constantly be on the move when your hotel is on wheels. Image courtesy of Amtrak.
Turn train travel into a whole vacation by staying out on the rails for several days or more. Catch views across North America like travelers of yesteryear, when flying was just a dream and cars weren’t equipped to make such a long journey.
Clocking in at just under 52 hours in length, Amtrak’s California Zephyr line crosses seven states and the Continental Divide, and boasts a pretty wild 33 stops from start to finish. This route is definitely for sightseeing at a distance; for passengers making the complete trip, stops only last about 20 minutes. But if watching the world from a window sparks your fancy, this is a great way to see America’s heartland at a slow pace. Noteworthy views include the valleys and towering peaks of the Rockies, the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, Nebraska’s stoic plains, and so much more. A plus? Zipcars live at both ends of the journey, giving you options to explore Chicago and the Bay area exactly as you please.
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line is a wonderful reminder of the appeal of train travel and is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes. The Starlight travels overnight to Seattle and takes about 39 hours in total. After a quick stop in San Jose, the train proceeds along the east side of San Francisco Bay to Oakland. Then it is onto Sacramento, Klamath Falls, Portland, and Seattle—with epic mountain and Pacific Ocean views all the while. Whether you choose to make your final stop in Santa Barbara, Portland, Seattle, or even Vancouver, know that Zipcars are waiting nearby to help continue the adventure from rails to road.
O, Canada! Go the distance between two modern cities as you marvel at forests, prairies, lakes, and views of the Canadian Rockies in-between with VIA Rail Canada’s Great Western Way line. The 2,792-mile journey between Toronto and Vancouver is an excellent way to grasp a sense of the changing topography of five provinces, especially when watching the passing landscape from a “vistadome” car. The three-day, four-night journey crosses four time zones and breathtaking contrasts, from lush forests to vibrant cities, fields of wheat, and soaring mountains. Journey’s end is at Vancouver’s CNR terminus, where you can find a Zipcar within walking distance to continue seeking out the ideal Canadian experience.