10 Great American Train Trips

Featured Article, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on April 29, 2013
Courtesy of Amtrak

Want to slow down and really see America? A train trip may be just the ticket.

Amtrak offers 15 long-distance trains, including many routes that existed before Congress established Amtrak in 1970 to take over some operations from railroads wanting to drop passenger service.

Here are 10 U.S. train trips recommended by experts in train travel.

California Zephyr

Considered America’s most scenic train route, the double-decker Zephyr runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco on a 2,438-mile journey traversing eight states. Traveling through Midwestern plains and the eastern Rockies with a stop in Denver, the Zephyr climbs steep grades to an elevation of 9,239 feet and crosses the Continental Divide via the 6.2 mile-long Moffat Tunnel on its way to Utah’s deserts, Nevada’s sagebrush country and California’s coastal lands.

The scenery is “spectacular!” says Jim Loomis, author of “All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide” (2011).

Coast Starlight

This popular Los Angeles-to-Seattle bi-level train winds from California through the San Francisco Bay area and Santa Barbara, stops in Portland, Ore., and travels past lush forests and Pacific shorelines.

“Lots of ocean views, the Cascade Range in Oregon and a spectacular view of Mount Shasta,” Loomis says of the scenery.

The Starlight is Amtrak’s only train with two observation lounge cars, including a Parlour Car used exclusively by sleeper car passengers. Amtrak promotes the car as a “living room on rails.”

“It’s used for congregating, wine and cheese tastings, some meal service and features a movie theater in the lower level,” explains Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds.

Empire Builder

Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route transported more than 543,000 passengers in 2012, an increase of almost 16 percent over the previous year.

Running from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest in Portland, the Empire Builder travels 2,206 miles through eight states along major portions of the original Lewis & Clark trail.

Traversing the Northern Plains, Montana’s Big Sky country, the Rockies and Glacier National Park, the train splits in Spokane, Wash., where you can continue through the Cascades Range to Seattle or head down the Columbia River Gorge toward Portland.

The original Empire Builder took off in 1929 as the flagship train of the Great Northern Railway and was named for rail tycoon James J. Hill, known during his lifetime as “The Empire Builder.”

Southwest Chief

The Chief runs up to 90 miles per hour along significant portions of its Chicago-to-Los Angeles route, making it the fastest train to the West Coast.

Traveling through eight states on a 2,256-mile route past mesas, pueblos and vistas not visible on interstate highways, passengers can see some of the same scenic wonders first glimpsed by early settlers as America extended West. The train crosses Raton Pass (elevation 7,834 feet), designated a National Historic Landmark and located on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between Colorado and Raton, N.M.

“In New Mexico, the route follows the original Santa Fe Trail, which is often visible from the train,” Loomis says.

Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle

The Sunset Limited runs three times a week from New Orleans to Los Angeles, with everything from Bayou vistas to Southwestern deserts along its route. Its name dates to 1894, making it the oldest-named train still operating in America.

The Texas Eagle runs daily from Chicago to San Antonio, crossing the Mississippi River at St. Louis, traversing the Ozarks in Arkansas into Texas, and stopping in cities such as Austin and Dallas.

“In San Antonio, the Eagle joins the Limited for the run to L.A., which passes within a few feet of the Mexican border at El Paso,” Loomis says.


Traveling 381 miles daily from New York City to Montreal, the Adirondack transported nearly 132,000 passengers in 2012 through the Hudson Valley and the Adirondack Mountains.

“The route follows the Hudson River out of New York City and swings north at Albany going toward Ticonderoga,” Loomis says. “It’s a very scenic train, especially in the fall.”

George Hoffer, a transportation economist at the University of Richmond, notes that views can be limited depending on which side you’re seated on this single-level train. “There’s no observation lounge car,” he adds.

City of New Orleans

Immortalized by the hit song of the same name, this daily train travels 921 miles through five states from Chicago to New Orleans and includes a stop in Memphis, Tenn. Citing the heritage of blues music in Chicago and Memphis and of New Orleans jazz, in addition to Elvis Presley’s contribution to rock ’n’ roll in Memphis, Amtrak promotes the train as a ride “through the heart of our nation’s musical heritage.”

Much of the journey occurs during the night, Hoffer notes, while the Memphis-to-New Orleans leg is covered during the daytime and delivers a romantic approach to New Orleans.

The City of New Orleans transported more than 253,000 passengers in 2012, an increase of 8.5 percent over the previous year.

Capitol Limited

The Capitol Limited is one of two Amtrak routes connecting Washington, D.C., to Chicago, running daily for 764 miles through eight states. (The Cardinal is the other connection, which runs on a different Chicago-to-D.C. route three times weekly.)

The double-decker train follows the route of the historic Baltimore & Ohio line, America’s first common-carrier train company and the first to transport passengers. It traverses the Potomac Valley and moves past Civil War battlefields and historic Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and the Allegheny Mountains. (Parts of Old Town in Harpers Ferry are visible from train windows.)

“This is a pretty ride, especially between Washington and Pittsburgh,” Loomis says.

“In the Northeast,” Hoffer adds, “it’s your only opportunity to experience bi-level service.”

The Crescent

Winding 1,377 miles daily between New York and New Orleans, the Crescent is a descendent of a train inaugurated in 1891. It traverses 12 states and the District of Columbia, intersecting with more states than any other Amtrak route.

“The Crescent has the most varied clientele and scenery of any train in the South,” Hoffer says, adding that passengers can experience “both the Old South and the New South.”

The route encompasses bucolic rural areas and major Southern cities such as Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., and includes stops in the Deep South in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.