Did you know Amtrak can be much more than just a business commuter train? Railroad journeys make up some of the best sightseeing adventures in the world, but especially in North America. You’ll pass through spectacular mountain ranges, along rugged coastlines, and beside legendary rivers. And it’s a comfortable adventure; sit back and enjoy the window view—or, some Amtrak routes offer glass-dome cars for 360-degree sightseeing.
While Switzerland is considered by many to be the world champion when it comes to scenic train trips and there are glass-dome travel trains all over the world, some of the best Amtrak routes can take you to the most scenic areas the United States—with some routes some stretching into Canada.
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Most Scenic Amtrak Routes in North America
This compilation is focused on scheduled Amtrak routes that operate mainly in daylight—so you won’t miss sights. These routes complete their itineraries in a single day, or in long daylight segments on an extended overnight trip.
East Coast: The Adirondack
The general consensus for the best of the scenic Amtrak routes in the east is service on the Adirondack, between New York and Montreal. The 11-hour day trip operates daily in both directions, and gives you a double-header of great views: It travels along the east bank of Hudson River between New York and Albany, where you pass the Palisades, West Point, and wooded hills. It also travels along the West bank of Lake Champlain, a popular summer activity lake-valley area nestled between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains.
The northbound trip is daylight through the scenic areas throughout the year. The southbound trip sees more daylight in summer; in winter you hit the Hudson valley after dark. In the fall foliage season, Amtrak usually adds a dome car to the train between Albany and Montreal, which operates every other day in each direction. And if you want off before getting to Canada, you can still see all the highlights by starting or ending your trip at Rouses Point, in New York.
Elsewhere in the east, several other Amtrak one-day trains operate through scenic areas:
Empire Service: Three daily trains and between New York and Buffalo give you the Hudson Valley plus some very attractive areas of Upstate alone the Mohawk valley as soon as you get out of the heavily industrialized areas near Albany. The Lake Shore Limited New York section does this trip too, as does the Maple Leaf. And nine shorter Empire trips plus the Ethan Allen Express between Rutland and New York all run the Hudson segment, too.
The Vermonter: Service runs daily between St Albans, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.; the scenic portion between St Albans and New Haven passes through nice mountain scenery in the Berkshires and Connecticut. Daylight hours are best going northbound. You can access the North end most easily through Essex Junction, just a few miles from Burlington. Forget the New Haven-Washington segments unless you like urban landscapes.
The Pennsylvanian: This Amtrak route operates daily between Pittsburgh and New York, but the scenic areas are over the former Pennsylvania main line between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. This trip includes the famous Horseshoe Curve; daylight viewing is best eastbound.
Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, and Cardinal: Three overnight long-distance Amtrak trips to/from Chicago go through the Appalachian range during daylight hours. They carry coach seats along with sleepers for folks who want to do the full trips.
The Boston section of Lake Shore Limited between Albany and Boston includes the Berkshires in western Massachusetts along with the Mohawk valley; daylight is good in both directions. The Capitol Limited operates daily between Chicago and Washington, but the scenic area is between Pittsburgh and Washington. Daylight viewing is best eastbound, although that means a 5:20 am departure from Pittsburgh.
The Cardinal operates three days a week between Chicago and New York, but the important scenery is between Cincinnati and Washington on the former C&O main line. Daylight viewing is best eastbound. The schedule isn’t great in either direction, with 1:30 am arrival and 3:30 am departure at Cincinnati. You can get most of the good stuff beginning or ending in Charleston, or you can take the overnight to/from Chicago.
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The California Zephyr
Rail enthusiasts generally rate the California Zephyr between Chicago and Emeryville (San Francisco) as the best of the Chicago-to-coast Amtrak routes. It passes daily through two different areas of top mountain scenery: Denver to Grand Junction through the Rockies, and Reno to Emeryville through the Sierras including the infamous Donner Pass. The entire three-day, two-night trip is timed for good daylight viewing through both scenic areas in both directions. The daytime run between Chicago and Omaha is forgettable, but many opt for the full journey. Again, you have a choice of comfortable coach or sleeper accommodations.
Three other long-haul train routes that span from east to west are popular with railfans:
The Empire Builder: A daily two-night, three-day trip from Chicago to Portland or Seattle, the Empire Builder skirts Glacier National Park as it passes through the northern Rockies. The Portland section adds the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. The trains are timed for daylight in the Glacier Park area, at least in summer, with eastbound schedules good all year, but the best segment is between two remote stops: Shelby and Whitefish Montana. Spokane might be a logical place to start or end the trip on the West end, but the arrival and departure times are 1:25 and 1:45 a.m. Spokane would also seem to be logical for the Portland section, but the best eastern end for the Columbia Gorge is Pasco, Washington, and the best daylight viewing is westbound. Many go for two overnights between Portland or Seattle and Minneapolis-St Paul.
The Southwest Chief: Daily service is between Chicago and Los Angeles, traces the route of the famed Super Chief and almost matches its former two-night, one-day schedule. The best scenery is between La Junta Colorado and Albuquerque, in both directions.
The Sunset Limited: Service is three times a week. It links New Orleans and Los Angeles through the bayou country between New Orleans and Houston with the best daylight viewing westbound, and West Texas and New Mexico desert and mountains between El Paso and Tucson with good daylight viewing in both directions.
If you’re trekking along North America’s most scenic routes, capture the momentous journey with the world’s most prolific and easy-to-use video camera, the GoPro.
West Coast: Coast Starlight
The daily Coast Starlight links Los Angeles and Seattle on a two-day, one-night itinerary, and it’s another consensus favorite. The top scenery is between Los Angeles and San Jose, a stretch formerly known as the Daylight route, where the track hugs the spectacular California Coast between Oxnard and San Luis Obispo, including some more isolated sections. Timing for daylight is good in both directions. The other daytime segment, between Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Portland crosses some nice mountain areas: It’s no match for the California Zephyr, but it makes a good bookend on the two-day trip.
Two other short West Coast Amtrak routes offer good scenic potential:
Pacific Surfliner: Two daily trips duplicate the Coast Starlight itinerary between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles, and they add 11 daily runs on the coast-hugging Los Angeles-San Diego segment as well.
Amtrak Cascades: Service runs between Eugene, Oregon, through Portland and Seattle, to Vancouver, B.C., including some nice scenic spots. No train makes a through trip between Eugene and Vancouver, but five operate daily between Portland and Seattle; two extending to Eugene and two different trains run to Vancouver.
Long-Haul Land Cruises
If you’re interested in a long-haul “land cruise,” most railfans would recommend the two-night California Zephyr or the Empire Builder between Chicago and the West Coast, and the one-night Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle. They would also recommend sleeper accommodations, which include all meals, access to showers, and other first-class benefits. Sleepers are a lot more expensive than sit-up coach seats: A couple occupying a roomette on the California Zephyr for early June, for example would pay $779, compared with $276 in Coach. But if you’re a real rail freak, the sleeper is part of the whole experience. Amtrak has in the recent past offered two-for-one sleeper tickets as flash sales—which are probably more likely in the off-season, or winter.
Off-Amtrak Bonus: VIA Rail’s Canadian
And I couldn’t complete this report without mentioning North America’s premier rail land cruise: VIA Rail’s The Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver. The four-night marathon route includes spectacular mountain scenery in Alberta and British Columbia and interesting isolated country between Winnipeg and Toronto. This train operates twice weekly over the entire routes, with an additional section added on the same schedule between Edmonton and Vancouver from May to October. It sells out early, especially for summer travel. Summer fares are generally a lot higher than winter ones; check ViaRail for promotions, especially on its regular Discount Tuesdays.
What to Wear When Traveling this Season
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More from SmarterTravel:
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.