In selecting the ten best train trips in North America, we followed the advice of fabled newspaper editor Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man.” While some of our picks lie east of the Mississippi, most veer toward the left coast, reflecting the railroads’ large role in opening the western frontier. Today, western rails continue to thrill riders with mountain peaks, desert vistas, spiral tunnels, unnervingly steep grades, and narrow-gauge tracks. So forgive our western bias, knowing that all ten of these rail experiences are among North America’s most memorable.
Peak Experience: Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Route: Durango to Silverton, Colorado
Duration: 3½ hours
In 45 miles, this narrow-gauge railway—with rails just three feet apart—climbs from Durango at 6,512 feet above sea level to Silverton at 9,305 feet. That 3,000-foot elevation gain, not to mention the views of 14,000-foot peaks out the windows, can make you catch your breath. On this historic line, the 1920s steam locomotive pulls 1880s-era passenger rail cars at a leisurely 18 miles per hour along tracks originally constructed to carry gold and silver ore. Noteworthy: Rounding the high line curve 250 feet above the Animas River; crossing the wooden deck of the 190-foot-long High Bridge; adding a day to your trip to glide through the treetops on 22 spans of zipline, ranging in length from 50 to 1,400 feet and accessible only via the train or a helicopter.
Revolutionary Railway: Ethan Allen Express
Route: New York City to Rutland, Vermont
Duration: 5½ hours
Leave the hassles of the Big Apple behind for some of the East Coast’s most mood-altering scenery as this Amtrak train travels 241 miles north from the city, taking in the Catskills in upper New York State and the Green Mountains in Vermont. The train departs in mid-afternoon, leaving enough daylight for sightseeing (sit on the left side facing the front for the best views) before you arrive in Rutland shortly after dark. Stops such as Rhinecliff-Kingston and Albany-Rensselaer (both in New York) feature hiking, biking, boating, museum-going, and all manner of dining. Stop in Saratoga Springs…
Read more: Randall H. Duckett, National Geographic