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 in the winter; during the summer both directions are fine.
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 Amtrak is not able to offer its high-level cars with extra large windows on this route due to inadequate tunnel clearances, and there are just snacks available.
Capitol Limited (Washington, DC - Chicago)
The Capital Limited runs between Chicago and Washington, D.C., through the beautiful mountains of southern Pennsylvania and western Maryland.
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 Chicago 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.
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'll 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 use the Capitol Limited to connect to Chicago.
Via Rail (Montreal - Quebec City)
Not very scenic in themselves (although they 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 sometimes have to seek out charm and history, the historic heart of Quebec and its surrounding region lack neither.
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: As of April, 2012, buses have been substituted on the most 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.
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.
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, travel elsewhere.
Using high-level cars with big windows, including a sightseer lounge, you'll travel (once the full route is restored) via Jacksonville, Mobile, Biloxi, New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, and Palm Springs.
Near El Paso, you'll glide so close to the Mexican border that you'll almost feel that you can touch colorful buildings on the other side.
In addition, you'll travel via Alpine, Texas, but don't let its name fool you. It merely means that you are a bit higher than in most Texas cattle country and that there are some hills.
You'll also often travel late. For years, the Sunset Limited has been Amtrak's most notoriously delayed train. This is not a train for "type A" personalities.
Press reports blame terrible operational problems and congestion, as well as lots of trackwork, on the Union Pacific Railroad, on whose tracks the Sunset runs most of the way. In fairness, this is mostly a single track line, where trains cannot so easily pass each other.
In 2005, Amtrak added an amazing eight hours to the eastbound already padded schedule and three-and-a-half hours to the westbound one, but the train still operated late. Nevertheless, the Sunset has been operating more on schedule lately.
In New Orleans, the Amtrak station adjoins the French Quarter.