Technology makes life simpler and easier, right? We have films, TV shows, and news articles at our fingertips and we can conjure up any song we want with the touch of a button. But considering the high cost of air travel, long lines at airport security, traffic jams, and road construction, many people are eschewing modern travel options and are opting instead to ride the rails.
The road less traveled is now not a road at all – it’s our nation’s railway system. Some people believe the only type of person who rides long-distance trains nowadays is a railroad enthusiast dressed up in a conductor’s uniform. In reality, many Americans have returned to trains for their travel needs. On Amtrak rail lines alone, ridership increased 51% from 2001 to 2013. Some rail-riders prefer the hassle-free boarding, while others choose trains in order to save money. But there are still some nostalgic people looking to relive the days when trains dominated long-distance travel. For decades, train operators have been indulging those who want to see the country from the tracks, offering many cross-country treks that go in all directions. Some can be done in a few hours, others a few days, but either way you will have a great view of the majestic landscapes you’ve only seen in pictures.
Empire Builder – Chicago, IL to Seattle, WA
One of the most untraveled areas of the country is Big Sky, which includes the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. While this area might not have much in the way of monuments and attractions compared to the rest of the country, it makes up for that in natural beauty. A great way to connect and experience that nature firsthand is the Empire Builder cross-country train. Operated by Amtrak, the Empire Builder follows the trails of Lewis and Clark, taking you from one metropolis to another, all from the comfort of your own seat or sleeper car. The trip takes almost exactly two days. After falling asleep in Minneapolis you’ll wake up while the train crosses the Mississippi River and will soon pass through fields of sunflowers, picturesque lakes, towering mountains, and Glacier National Park, giving you a great view of the best scenes our country has to offer. There are many lodging options, starting from coach seats to large bedrooms with private baths. And everyone can enjoy the steak dinners and hearty breakfasts. At the end of the trip, you can choose to disembark in Portland or Seattle, although, in this case, the journey might mean more than the destination.
California Zephyr – Chicago, IL to San Francisco, CA
Another train departing Chicago, and another train following the path of the pioneers who mapped out the American West. This one is slightly longer than the Empire Builder and is equally as scenic. After departing Chicago’s Union Station, the train will take you through the Great Plains before eventually reaching the Rocky Mountains. You won’t just bend around the majestic peaks of the mountains, you’ll even go under them through the Moffat Tunnel, the longest of its kind in the United States. One of the highlights of the trip is passing above Denver, which already sits a mile above sea level. After the Rockies, you’ll hit the desert before moving onto more mountains in the form of the Sierra Nevada range. This gorgeous ride ends with a warm welcome from the vibrant Bay Area. Enjoy the beautiful American West from a coach seat or a private suite, indulge in the catered meals and get a fresh perspective on America’s natural beauty.
Cass Scenic Railway – Cass, WV to Bald Knob, WV
Despite being significantly shorter than the previous two routes, the Cass Scenic Railway packs just as much scenery in its eleven miles. Originally built to transport lumber to the company town of Cass, this train is now a perfect way to enjoy the sites of Appalachia. The trip starts in Cass, which still resembles a quaint sawmill company town, then you’ll head up into the mountains before stopping at Whittaker Station. From there you’ll head farther upwards on an open-air, turn-of-the-century steam engine. The train bends and contorts up the hilly mountain, surrounded by trees on all sides, which look particularly stunning during autumn. Four-and-a-half hours later you can be back in Cass, making this the perfect train ride for those who don’t have the liberty to spend multiple days on a cross-country train.
Coast Starlight – Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA
While the previous routes are more for scenery and experience, Coast Starlight was actually created to connect the West Coast’s biggest cities, with the scenery just an added bonus! Starting in Seattle and heading south to Portland, the train gives you the best of the rainy and green Pacific Northwest. From there you’ll head to California, then more inland until you hit the Bay Area. From there you’ll travel almost entirely down the West Coast of California, at times right on the edge of hills that drop into the majestic Pacific Ocean. It is a rare view of this magnificent body of water and a reminder of how much of our planet is dominated by blue. Thirty-five hours later the train slows into Los Angeles, a slightly jarring difference from the damp, gray climate of your departure city.
Ethan Allen Express – New York City to Rutland, VT
Due to the prevalence and proximity of major cities, the Northeast and East Coast have some of the most used commuter train routes in the country. There are few multi-day trips, but there are still trains that offer a great experience combined with great scenery. The daily Ethan Allen Express train takes a little over six hours to reach its destination and has become popular with people looking to visit Vermont's ski resorts. The route skirts around the edges of New England and cuts through the heart of upstate New York, giving riders fantastic views of the hilly farm country. Whether you’re seeing green or white, it’s sure to be an enjoyable trip that ends with a few days spent at a historic New England ski resort.