Travel Guide: Scenic Rail Trips I
Best trains in western North America
Amtrak, Via Rail Canada, & Rocky Mountaineer
However, some trains travel much more scenic routes than others. Here you find the best ones to book in western Canada and USA. (Eastern routes follow.)
Rocky MountaineerTraveling between Calgary and Vancouver, Rocky Mountaineer Vacations (formally Rocky Mountaineer RailTours) transits Banff, Yoho, Glacier (the one in Canada), and Revelstoke national parks in Alberta and British Columbia. You also travel down the rugged Fraser River canyon.
You'll see pristine forests, considerable wildlife, numerous glaciers, great rivers, and even a true desert in Canada.
Rocky Mountaineer trains also travel between Vancouver and Jasper National Park on the "Canadian" route below, which makes it possible for you to do a circle trip from Vancouver.
NOTE: As of April 7, 2012, Rocky Mountaineer has been embroiled in a very bitter labor dispute since June 22, 2011, when the company locked out its onboard employees and replaced them. You may need to cross picket lines in order to use its services. At its Vancouver station, some say the company uses a bagpiper in an attempt to drown out protesters.
Royal Canadian Pacific
Royal Canadian Pacific travels the most scenic section of the Rocky Mountaineer route through Banff and Yoho national parks.
As with the Rocky Mountaineer, Royal Canadian Pacific starts in Calgary and then takes you through stunningly beautiful Banff and Yoho national parks. Most trains return to Calgary via another Rocky Mountain pass.
The historic cars used on this train once hosted Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
With costs running some U.S. $1,000 a day, you may find the present clientele to be quite illustrious, too.
Canadian - Canadien (Vancouver - Toronto)
Via Rail Canada's "Canadian" travels nearly the most scenic route across the Canadian Rockiesat significantly less cost than Rocky Mountaineer and Royal Canadianand adds the pristine Canadian Shield.
You'll pass through outstandingly beautiful Jasper National Park in the Rockies. In combination with an easy side trip to nearby Banff National Park and Lake Louise, this route becomes truly fantastic.
Later during your rail tour, the Canadian glides by the lakes and forests ("the bush" as Canadians say) of the Canadian Shield of northern Ontario, a rugged area where the movement of glaciers left too little top soil for large-scale farming. In many areas, this train provides the only access.
You'll want to travel this route eastbound, especially during the winter, for maximum mountain scenery.
Even during the summer, a late westbound train may make you miss Jasper National Park at night. If you must travel westbound, be sure to stopover at Jasper.
In fact, you should plan time to explore both Jasper and adjacent Banff national parks. Both Hotels.com and Hotwire.com offer hotels in "Jasper, AB" and "Banff, AB." However, don't expect bargains, if you wait until the last minute in peak season.
From Jasper, Brewster offers express coach and tour buses to Lake Louise and Banff. You may take a day-long tour to Banff stopping at the Columbia Ice Field, spend several days in the Banff and Lake Louise area, and then return to Jasper using an express coach to rejoin Via Rail Canada. See the Brewster web site for more details.
California Zephyr (Chicago - San Francisco)
Don't let our number one rating of the Canadian Rockies mislead you. The Colorado Rockies are stunningly beautiful, too.
After an overnight trip from Chicago, you'll wake up east of Denver and suddenly see the Colorado Rockies rising nearly straight up from the prairie.
Because this was the last major rail route built across the United States, its surveyors got what no one else wanted, the most rugged and steepestread most scenicroute left.
Just after leaving Denver, the California Zephyr labors to climb the front range of the Rockies. The entire day reveals one spectacular sight after another.
On the last day, the Zephyr's climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of Reno is not so spectacular, although it is very pretty.
Near the end of trip, you'll travel along the shore of San Francisco Bay with the San Francisco skyline in the distance.
At Emeryville, Amtrak coaches meet your train and take you across the bay into San Francisco, where you can get off at the Ferry Building, Fisherman's Wharf, or near Union Square, depending on your hotel location.
This makes a great trip at any time of year. All seasons are beautiful.
Denver makes a good stopover. See Gray Line of Denver for sightseeing suggestions. We highly recommend its Rocky Mountain National Park tour from the Memorial Day weekend (subject to snow removal) until mid-September. After this, the trip becomes too subject to weather closures. Book in advance. Another great trip goes to Pikes Peak. Both tours can be done easily by rental car, but the Rocky Mountain route is not for timid drivers.
If you rent a car to travel around nearby Lake Tahoe, Reno also makes a good stop.
Coast Starlight (Los Angeles - San Francisco - Seattle)
Much of the Coast Starlight route between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area runs through residential and commercial developments and farmland.
However, where the train does follow the coast, the scenery becomes superb.
Highways do not reach most of the shoreline between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, where the Coast Starlight travels. Although much of this area is within the 99,000 acres of Vandenberg Air Force Base, a major missile test facility, the coastline remains nearly pristine.
Missiles fired south from Vandenberg do not pass over the U.S. or another country, which makes it an ideal testing spot. Launch times consider your schedule, however!
We urge you to book this train northbound if you are traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco (or onward to Portland and Seattle). Even during the summer, a moderately late southbound train makes you miss the best scenery.
Northbound Coast Starlight passengers also view the Cascade Mountains in Oregon during the day, as well as Mount Shasta during the summer.
Northbound, be sure to sit on the left side as you face forward.
If you must travel southbound only, plan an overnight stay in San Luis Obispo, a pleasant university town. The next morning, you can take a local (but modern) Amtrak double decker train to Los Angeles. In this way, you do not risk missing the most beautiful portion of your route.
Southwest Limited (Chicago - Los Angeles)
Not as scenic as the California Zephyr, but nevertheless an outstanding train, the Southwest Limited travels between Chicago and Los Angeles via New Mexico and northern Arizona.
This fast train follows the old Santa Fe Railroad line, and often runs adjacent to old Route 66. What you see traveling either direction is both scenic and historic.
Highlights of this route include the Navajo Reservation, the Painted Desert, and the mountains north of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Like other Amtrak western long-distance trains, the Southwest Limited uses high-level cars with big windows, which let you enjoy the countryside.
Ideal stops along the Southwest Limited route are Flagstaff or Williams Junction, the gateways to the Grand Canyon, and Santa Fe via a short van transfer from Lamy Station (which you should book with Amtrak in advance).
See Open Road Tours (Flagstaff) or the Grand Canyon Railway for Grand Canyon transfer information. Both can often be included in your Amtrak ticket at no extra fare. We urge you to stay overnight at the canyon to see its best colors at sunrise or sunset or both.
Skeena (Jasper National Park - Prince Rupert)
The truly beautiful Skeena route travels across the northern interior of British Columbia from Jasper National Park in Alberta to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast.
At Prince Rupert, you can catch BC Ferries to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island (with bus connections to Victoria or Vancouver) or Alaska’s Marine Highway (ferry system) to Ketchikan, Skagway, and other points in southeastern and southern Alaska.
Eastbound, sections of Amtrak’s Empire Builder start in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, meet, and then run along the scenic southern boundary of Glacier National Park on their way to Chicago.
Cascade (Seattle - Vancouver)
Amtrak Cascade trains run between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, along Puget Sound, a beautiful route. Currently, there are morning and late afternoon departures each way.
You enjoy outstanding views of the sound and of snow packed volcanoes such as Mount Baker (still active), if (and that's a big "if") the weather is clear.
All year, the evening departure of this train works best northbound, although it stays light enough to enjoy the trip southbound during summer evenings.
Make sure that you book the Amtrak Cascade (at least in one direction), because most Amtrak service between Seattle and Vancouver goes by much less scenic coach service along Interstate 5.
NOTE: Southbound, you clear U.S. immigration at Vancouver if traveling by train, not Amtrak bus. Be sure to allow enough time for this.
Pacific Surfliners (San Luis Obispo - Santa Barbara - Los Angeles - Disneyland -San Diego)
The Pacific Surfliner route along the southern California coast offers some pleasant sceneryspectacular between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbaraand easy access to famed tourist attractions, such as Disneyland.
These are great trains for children.
Both kids and adults enjoy a heady combination of running along the Pacific Ocean, passing by big industrial parks and rail yards, traveling through a large Marine Corps training center, and going over the concrete Los Angeles River, where an exciting portion of Terminator II was filmed.
At San Clemente (between Anaheim and San Diego), the Amtrak station sits on a fine beach. This makes a wonderful stop.
From the San Diego station, you can walk to the San Diego Zoo.