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Travel Guide: Scenic Rail Trips I

Best trains in western North America

Amtrak, Via Rail Canada, & Rocky Mountaineer

Both Amtrak and Via Rail Canada offer beautiful routes, some of the most scenic in the world. Several tour trains also provide outstanding scenery.

However, certain 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 Mountaineer

Traveling between Vancouver and Calgary, Rocky Mountaineer 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 enjoy pristine forests, considerable wildlife, numerous glaciers, great rivers, and even a true desert in Canada.

In my opinion, the Rocky Mountaineer route between Calgary and Vancouver delivers the most scenic rail journey in North America.

In order not to miss anything, Rocky Mountaineer prices include a hotel room midway in Kamloops ... it's a vacation package.

These private trains (not part of the Amtrak or Via Rail systems) offer both deluxe (better viewing) and regular coaches. Both have large windows.

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 and enjoy all the national parks.

The company also operates Vancouver to Jasper via Whistler. We've done portions of this route by now discontinued BC Rail trains and by car and it is spectacular.

Canadian - Canadien (Vancouver - Toronto)

Via Rail Canada's "Canadian" travels the second most scenic route across the Canadian Rockies—at significantly less cost than Rocky Mountaineer.

You 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 trip, 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 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, all travelers should plan time to explore both Jasper and adjacent Banff national parks.

California Zephyr (Chicago - San Francisco)

Do not let our number one rating of the Canadian Rockies mislead you. The Colorado Rockies are beautiful, too.

Amtrak's California Zephyr travels through the heart of the Colorado Rockies. It does so with big windows and all high-level equipment for great viewing. The meals don't match the view, but with this scenery we hardly care.

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 steepest—read most scenic—route left over the Continental Divide.

Just after leaving Denver, the California Zephyr labors to climb the front range of the Rockies.

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.

NOTE: Westbound works best for maximum scenery during daylight, although eastbound gives you considerable scenery, if the train is not late.

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 timid drivers may wish to avoid the Rocky Mountain National Park route.

If you rent a car to travel around nearby Lake Tahoe, Reno also makes a good stop. Especially if traveling with children, Glenwood Springs, CO is a fine stop.

Coast Starlight (Los Angeles - San Francisco area - 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.
You'll actually hear "ah's" from your fellow passengers when you almost touch the waves.

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. Even during the summer, a moderately late southbound train makes you miss the best coastal 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 very 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).

At Williams, you can transfer to the Grand Canyon Railway to visit the national park. We urge you to stay overnight at the canyon to experience its best colors at sunrise or sunset or both.

Skeena (Jasper National Park - Prince Rupert)

The beautiful Skeena route travels across the northern interior of British Columbia from Jasper National Park in Alberta to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast.
 
Because passengers do not want to miss a moment of this trip, the Skeena now makes an overnight stop midway at Prince George, BC. You have to book a hotel there. (Try "Prince George, Canada" in Hotels.com for a discount.)

The Skeena works equally well east or westbound for enjoyment of great scenery.

During the summer, Via Rail offers an expensive deluxe car on this train, which gives you better viewing.

At Jasper, you can continue on Via Rail's Canadian to Vancouver, Edmonton, or eastern Canada. You can also go on to Banff National Park.

At Prince Rupert, BC Ferries takes you to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island (with limited bus connections to Victoria or Vancouver) or Alaska’s Marine Highway (ferry system) to Ketchikan, Skagway, and other points in southeastern and southern Alaska.

The Skeena, although not well known, offers an outstanding travel experience.

Empire Builder

January 2015 update: The "Builder" has become more ontime but 2014 was just awful—the worst Amtrak train. Track work on its line an dfreight congestion have been the greatest problems, but the worst of former ends soon.

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.

After passing Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Empire Builder glides along a beautiful portion of the Mississippi River Valley.

During the summer, you experience the very scenic Columbia River Gorge after leaving Portland or a bit of Puget Sound and the thick forests of the Cascade mountain range after departing Seattle. Portland passengers enjoy great views of Mount Hood on clear days.

Unfortunately, except during summer but always when just a bit late, the westbound Empire Builder to Portland and Seattle passes the Glacier National Park area after dark, an example of poor Amtrak scheduling. Throughout the year though, you enjoy the Mississippi River eastbound.

Cascade (Seattle - Vancouver)

Amtrak Cascade trains run between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, along scenic Puget Sound. Currently, there are morning and late afternoon departures each way.

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 travels by much less scenic coach service along Interstate 5.

NOTE: Southbound, you clear U.S. immigration at Vancouver if traveling by train. 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 scenery—spectacular between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara—and 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.

Sunset Limited (New Orleans - Los Angeles)

Traveling three times a week from New Orleans to Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited was Amtrak's sole transcontinental train.

Still as of January 2015, Sunset Limited service remains suspended east of New Orleans to Orlando. Hurricane Katrina was not kind to its route and even with the track now repaired budget concerns prevent its reopening.

If you enjoy desert scenery as I do, the Sunset Limited is your train. If you want majestic mountains and water views, travel elsewhere.

Using high-level cars with big windows, including a sightseer lounge, you travel from New Orleans to Los Angeles via Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, and Palm Springs.

Near El Paso, you glide so close to the Mexican border that you almost feel you can touch the colorful buildings on the other side.

In New Orleans, the Amtrak station adjoins the French Quarter.

Go to most scenic eastern trains

Pages in this section:

Amtrak and Via Rail Tips and Important Cautions
Most scenic Amtrak and Via Rail routes II (eastern)
Hotel bidding tips to help you save

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