Travel Guide: Scenic Rail Trips II
Best trains in eastern North America
Amtrak & Via Rail Canada
However, some trains travel much more scenic routes than others, so here are the best ones to reserve in eastern Canada and USA. (Click here for western routes.)
Adirondack (New York City - Montreal)
Traveling on the Adirondack between New York City and Montreal is remarkably scenic, and surprisingly the beauty starts before you leave New York City, as you glide along the Hudson River, with views of Palisades Park.
In fact, you often follow the edge of the wide Hudson River on the way to Albany.
Beautiful Bear Mountain Park and historic West Point military academy are visible across the Hudson. Former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Hyde Park estate and other mansions overlook the rails.
The Adirondack train works best northbound. However, if you cannot do that, you still see great scenery.
Unless you are traveling roundtrip on this train, whether you are departing from Montreal or New York City, sit on the left side (as you face in the direction the train is traveling) for best scenery. Later, at Albany midway through your trip, switch sides.
This train is very highly recommended. The only complaints are that 1) Amtrak is not able to offer its high-level cars with extra large windows on this route due to inadequate tunnel clearances, and 2) there are just snacks available.
Capitol Limited (Washington, DC - Chicago)
The Capital Limited runs between Chicago and Washington, D.C., through the scenic mountains of southern Pennsylvania, western Maryland, and a bit of West Virginia.
Eastbound works best for the Capitol Limited all year, because westbound trains pass through much of the most scenic area at night. However, you may enjoy either direction.
Because of tunnel height restrictions on many eastern routes, the Capital Limited is one of the few trains east of the Mississippi River to offer high-level viewing, which makes it especially worth traveling.
From Washington, there are convenient connections to and from New York City and Philadelphia. Allow ample time.
Cardinal (Chicago - Washington - New York City)
Operating just three times a week, the Cardinal offers a much slower, but very scenic route between Chicago and New York City.
The Cardinal passes along the famous New River Gorge National River (part of the national park system) in West Virginia and through a beautiful area of mountains along the Virginia and West Virginia border.
This train works much better eastbound for maximum scenery during the day all year, although you'll see nice scenery in both directions during the summer.
Lake Shore Limited (New York or Boston - Chicago)
The first rails from New York City to Chicago followed the Hudson River Valley northbound to Albany, the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo, and then the southern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan to Chicago.
As you can tell, this route was and remains flat and fast.
Nevertheless, the very first part of your Lake Shore trip out of New York City follows one of the more scenic routes in the U.S., also used by the Adirondack.
The Boston to Chicago section of this train (which joins the NYC section near Albany) passes through the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, also a very scenic region especially during the summer and fall.
Amtrak moved the Lake Shore Chicago departure much later, which can easily make you miss the best scenery on an eastbound trip to NYC, even if the train is just a bit late. And, during the winter, you always miss the best scenery into Boston.
Pennsylvanian (Pittsburgh - New York City)
The Pennsylvanian between Pittsburgh and New York City serves up fine mountain scenery traveling through the mountains of Pennsylvania. During winter, the eastbound train works best for maximum scenery.
At Pittsburgh, you can connect to Chicago using the Capitol Limited.
Via Rail (Montreal - Quebec City)
Not very scenic in themselves (although these trains do cross the St. Lawrence River twice), Via Rail's Montreal to Quebec City fast trains allow you to quickly access one of the most appealing vacation environments in North America, Quebec City.
In contrast to Montreal, a large commercial center, where you often have to seek out charm and history, the historic heart of Quebec offers you the environment of the best small European cities.
Be sure to allow significant time to explore the old walled city.
These trains make a great addition to your Canadian holiday at any time of year.
Chaleur (Montreal - Gaspé)
Via Rail's Chaleur heads overnight from Montreal toward Gaspé, passing through the lovely village of Percé and along the often beautiful coastline of the Baie des Chaleurs in the morning.
This is one of the most scenic areas of Canada, and one often missed by visitors.
NOTE: Still as of July 2013, buses have been substituted on the scenic portion of this route, with no end date mentioned.
Vermonter (Washington - NYC - Burlington, VT)
Not as scenic as the Adirondack, but nevertheless quite enjoyable, the Vermonter passes through classic New England countryside.
From New York City or Washington, you'll travel through rural areas of northern Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. If you can time it right, the autumn colors along this route are fantastic.
Except during the summer, only the southbound train lets you see all the best scenery. Do not worry about traveling by day between DC and Hartford, CT. That portion of the trip passes through mostly urban areas.