By Amy Marturana Winderl | Martha Stewart
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Trains in the United States aren’t exactly known for being the most idyllic form of transportation. Most people turn to them for their utility—they can get you places if driving isn’t an option, and they are typically much more affordable than flying. While many European countries have been busy building high-speed railroads to help people zip all around the continent with ease, the railways in the U.S. have gotten little attention in recent years. One thing we do have in the good ol’ U.S. of A., though? Some very scenic railroads that wind through lush forests, up mountainsides, and around river bends.
Some of the scenic rides described here were designed mainly to take passengers through beautiful, otherwise inaccessible natural wonders. Others connect cities and towns, replacing air travel for shorter trips with convenient downtown stations and frequent schedules. On some trains, the beauty of the interior décor rivals that of the passing scenery. Many train stations are destinations in themselves with art, vintage architecture, gourmet dining, and classic cocktail venues.
Instead of thinking of a train as simply a way to get from one place to the next, try thinking of it as a way to explore all of the beauty and history our country has to offer. From the breathtaking Grand Canyon to the wine-soaked Napa Valley, these scenic train trips around America may actually make you appreciate the oft-forgotten mode of transportation once again. Each excursion is one of a kind, so sit back, relax, and relish the vistas on view.
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Grand Canyon Railway
After departing from Williams, Arizona, in a restored vintage train car, the Grand Canyon Railway will bring you 65 miles north through Kaibab National Forest to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Throughout the ride, you’ll pass through unique natural landscapes including ponderosa pine forests, open prairies, and pinion and juniper forests. Live music and staged cowboy train robberies add some extra fun to an already-epic journey.
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Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
During the trip from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado, you’ll pass rolling meadows and aspen-lined hills before ascending all the way to the top of Cumbres Pass, which stands at 10,015 feet and is the highest mountain pass accessible by rail in the U.S. There the scenery changes to alpine meadows, green conifer trees, and wildflowers—and incredible views of the valley below. Long tunnels and narrow ledges eventually lead back down to an open plain with views of Colorado’s magnificent high peaks all around. You can also ride the train in the opposite direction if you’d prefer.
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Adirondack Scenic Railroad
Explore New York’s beautiful Adirondack State Park on rides ranging from one and a half to two hours long. You’ll pass through forests, over rivers and streams, and around lakes, traveling from either Tendara Station or Utica Station. Go in the fall to get your fill of impressive yellow, orange, and red foliage.
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Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Travel from Bryson City, along the Tennessee River and Nantahala River, through the Nantahala Gorge, and back again on this 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion. Whether you choose the steam or diesel train, you’ll enjoy views of the towering Great Smoky Mountains in the distance, framed by lush green forests. If you’d prefer a ride through the quiet countryside, opt for the 32-mile Tuckasegee River Excursion instead, where you’ll enjoy a one-and-a-half-hour layover in the historic town of Dillsboro, North Carolina.
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Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad
Choose from a handful of train trips throughout the West Virginia mountains and forests. The Cass Scenic Railroad was originally built in 1901 to haul lumber. Today, it brings passengers from Cass Depot to the overlook at the top of Bald Knob, the third highest point in West Virginia. At 4,842 feet, you’ll be able to see the lush green valley below and take advantage of a scenic photo opp. If water features are more your speed, try the New Tygart Flyer ride, which takes you through the mountains, over a high bridge with a river below, ending at High Falls of Cheat, an 18-inch high, 150-foot wide waterfall.
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Conway Scenic Railroad
The Notch Train will take you along tracks built in the 1870s from North Conway Village, New Hampshire, to Crawford Notch, a major mountain pass in the White Mountains. Along the way, you’ll get to admire sheer mountain bluffs, steep ravines, babbling brooks and streams, and epic mountain vistas. After crossing an old trestle and bridge, you’ll finish half of the 50-mile trip at Crawford Station (some trips in September and October take you to Fabyan Station instead).
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Cape Cod Central Railroad
This two-hour excursion will give you time to take in the beauty of classic Cape Cod scenery, including woodlands, sand dunes, cranberry bogs, salt marshes, and the Cape Cod Canal. If you’re into craft beer, consider the Rails & Ales Beer Tasting Train instead. Local beer tastings are paired with appetizers, so you can sip and taste while you pass through the towns of West Barnstable and Sandwich, and along and across the Cape Cod Canal.
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Napa Valley Wine Train
Scenic ride plus wine… need we say more? This 36-mile round-trip ride takes you from downtown Napa to St. Helena and back, with the gorgeous backdrop of wine country and its famous and expensive farmland. You’ll also pass through the towns of Oak Knoll, Yountville, Oakville, and Rutherford. The renovated train cars feature mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions, and velveteen fabric armchairs—the perfect setting to sip a local red as you take in the views.
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Rio Grande Railroad
Starting in Alomosa, Colorado, this scenic train trip takes you through the Southern Rockies over La Veta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In the summer, there’s a concert series at Fir Summit at the top of La Veta Pass, called Mountain Rails Live. You can only get there by train, so why not plan a scenic trip that ends with a night of music with gorgeous vistas?
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Heber Valley Historic Railroad
Take in sweeping views of Mount Timpanogos and the Provo Canyon on the Provo Canyon Limited Train. After departing from the Heber Valley Railroad Station, you’ll travel around Deer Creek Reservoir and along the banks of the Provo River before stopping for a short break at a riverside park. You could also check out the Deer Creek Express route, which offers views of the Wasatch Mountains, Deer Creek Reservoir, and Heber Valley. Either way, you’ll enjoy the beautiful glacier-carved mountain and lake scenery Utah has to offer.
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Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad
The signature Oregon Coastal Excursion takes you on a ride along Tillamook Bay and the Oregon Coast from Garibaldi and Rockaway Beach. The trip includes a 30-minute layover at Rockaway Beach, but you can opt to stay longer and take a different train back later in the day. If you’d rather soak in the gorgeous fall colors of Oregon, go for the Fall Splendor Excursion, which winds along the Nehalem River so you can enjoy the vivid blue skies and water, and changing leaves the season has to offer.
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Explore Alaska from mountains to sea on Alaska Railroad’s Coastal Classic Train. Starting in Anchorage, the train winds along Turnagain Arm in the Gulf of Alaska and eventually dips into the backcountry wilderness. The ride ends in the town of Seward at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. You’ll have the day to explore the area: Cruise around the bay, visit Kenai Fjords National Park, head to a remote island lodge for lunch, visit Exit Glacier, or take a dog sled ride. Other train routes include the Denali Star Train, which features epic views of Denali mountain; and Glacier Discovery Train, which takes you to Whittier for a day cruise in Prince William Sound or explore the backcountry at Spencer Glacier.