There’s no getting around the sheer size and scale of the USA – it’s an absolute, supersized whopper. Close to 10 million km² of sublime mountain ranges, parched desert, entire states engulfed in deep snow, you-gotta-go-see-it-to-believe-it cities, endless prairie land, six whole time zones and lakes so large you could lose whole countries down there.
So while traveling around by plane might make sense from a convenience point of view – it’s not quite six hours to dart directly from New York to LA – there really is no better way to experience the sheer grandeur of the country than by rail.
Considerably more relaxing than driving or flying, many trains in the United States offer a leisurely, nostalgic sightseeing experience, often passing through pristine landscapes inaccessible by other means. The US is rich with amazing train journeys, but the routes listed below are the cream of the crop. From California to New England, these are the 9 best train trips in the United States.
You’ll see two suns disappear on the 48-hour Sunset Limited train ©Kris Davidson/Lonely Planet
1. New Orleans to Los Angeles on the Sunset Limited
Route: New Orleans – San Antonio – Tucson – Phoenix – Los Angeles
Distance and duration: 2764 miles (4448 km); 48 hours
Amtrak’s Sunset Limited is the ultimate American railroad ride: east to west, clean through from the bars of New Orleans to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve always dreamed of crossing the States, but don’t relish the prospect of two weeks spent cooped up in an automobile, then a ride on the Sunset Limited is the answer.
Sit back and let America’s landscapes buzz by: from Louisiana’s bayous, past the high-rises of Houston, across the deserts of Texas and Arizona, over the Californian hills all the way to LA’s golden beaches. Saddle up – it’s gonna be quite a ride.
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2. Seattle to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight
Route: Seattle – Portland – Sacramento – Los Angeles
Distance and duration: 1377 miles (2216 km); 35 hours
Trace the “left coast” in all its varied splendor. The 35-hour (OK, it’s Amtrak, so maybe more) trip between Seattle and Los Angeles curves alongside crashing Pacific waves, cuts through America’s lushest agricultural land and passes below snowcapped mountains and towering redwoods. Of all the Amtrak routes, the Coast Starlight offers the most scenic variety in the fewest hours.
Another reason this train is special: it’s the only Amtrak service with a dedicated parlor car, open only to passengers who book sleepers. The parlor conjures old-time rail romance, with wood paneling and soft lighting, plus a special menu and wine-and-cheese tastings.
Highlights of this ride include dramatic sunrise perspectives on 14,179ft Mt Shasta, and a gorgeous midday traverse of Oregon’s Cascade Range.
Hugging the eastern banks of the Hudson River, New York’s Metro-North Hudson Line travels deep into American history © Kenneth Sponsler / Shutterstock
3. New York City to Poughkeepsie on the Metro-North Hudson Line
Route: New York City – Poughkeepsie
Distance and duration: 69 miles (111 km); 1.5 hours
Depart from New York City’s iconic beaux arts Grand Central Terminal, stopping to admire the ornate astronomical ceiling painting in the vaulted Grand Concourse and to slurp up oysters and a martini at the famous Oyster Bar. (Amtrak trains use Penn Station, which is a decidedly less glamorous depot.)
Then hop on the Metro-North’s Hudson line, roll through upper Manhattan and the Bronx and into the glorious green Hudson River Valley, getting off at any number of charming historic towns along the way, including Tarrytown near Sleepy Hollow and Beacon, which is home to a world-class art museum.
The California Zephyr crosses nearly 2500 miles from Chicago to San Francisco © Amtrak
4. Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr
Route: Chicago – Omaha – Denver – Salt Lake City – San Francisco
Distance and duration: 2438 miles (3924 km), 51 hours 20 minutes
For soaking up the scenic grandeur of the North American continent, nothing compares with Amtrak’s California Zephyr train. This classic three-day journey travels nearly 2500 miles (4000km) across prairies, deserts, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada on its way from Chicago to San Francisco.
The scenery is magnificent throughout – especially when seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the lounge car – but if you can only do one section, opt for the riveting 185-mile (298km) stretch between Denver and Glenwood Springs, where the train travels through an often roadless wilderness of deep, narrow gorges near the Colorado River’s headwaters.
Near sunset, the train emerges into the majestic red rock desert of eastern Utah, then crosses overnight into the forbidding vastness of Nevada’s sagebrush country, with salt flats and stark, arid mountains as far as the eye can see.
By noon the next day, you’re climbing into the granite grandeur of California’s Sierra Nevada, where you can stop off in the appealing 19th-century railroad town of Truckee, or continue over Donner Pass into San Francisco.
The Downeaster travels between Boston and Brunswick, Maine © Amtrak/Downeaster
5. Boston to Brunswick on the Downeaster
Route: Boston – Portland – Brunswick
Distance and duration: 145 miles (233 km); 3 hours 25 minutes
As car-free city breaks go, this train escape is hard to beat, chugging from the downtown main streets of urban Boston to Maine’s rural greens in under four hours. That’s from the seventh most densely populated city in the US to the state with the highest percentage of forest coverage, all in less time than it takes to cook an old-style Yankee plum pudding.
Even better, every stop on the Amtrak Downeaster features historic New England cities and towns, parks and seascapes, cottage arts and crafts, world-class shopping and stellar foods fashioned from farm-and-sea-fresh ingredients.
New Mexico Rail Runner locomotive in Santa Fe © LizCoughlan / Shutterstock
6. Albuquerque to Santa Fe on the New Mexico Rail Runner
Route: Albuquerque – Santa Fe
Distance and duration: 97 miles (156 km); 90 minutes
One of America’s great unsung commuter railways, the New Mexico Rail Runner is a regional train that runs down the Rio Grande Valley, connecting the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, with its cultural and political capital, Santa Fe.
On the way it crosses the wide, high desert, giving views of arid mountains in all directions, and even passes through several of the state’s Native American tribal lands. A no-nonsense, clean and quick journey, its highlights are the sweeping views from the upper seats of the double-decker carriages.
Taken as a day trip or a scenic-but-practical form of intra-state transport, the Rail Runner is a wonderful introduction to New Mexico’s epic landscapes.
The Empire Builder train rolls past the mountains of Montana © Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
7. Chicago to Portland or Seattle on the Empire Builder
Route: Chicago – St Paul or Minneapolis – Spokane – Portland or Seattle
Distance and duration: 2764 miles (4448 km); 46 hours
The Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle glides through Wisconsin’s woodlands, Minnesota’s lake country and the North Dakota prairies en route to a western horizon swarming with snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks.
From Browning, Montana, an unforgettable 60-mile run along the southern edge of Glacier National Park leads to the park entrance at West Glacier, where nature lovers will want to break their journey before continuing to Seattle.
Now calling at our final destination, Washington, DC ©f11photo/Shutterstock
8. Washington, DC to St Albans, Vermont on The Vermonter
Route: Washington, DC– New York City– Springfield – Essex Junction (Burlington) – St Albans
Distance and duration: 611 miles (983 km); 13 hours 45 minutes
The Amtrak Vermonter runs once daily from Washington, DC to St Albans, VT. This is the most scenic route east of the Mississippi, especially in its northern reaches, where it snakes for four hours through the bucolic green hills and photogenic villages of rural Vermont.
Starting from the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, the train runs north through one of the USA’s greatest metropolises, New York City, before bowling out through Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire en route to the bucolic Vermont countryside and St Albans.
Is there any place better to end a journey than New Orleans? We don’t think so © Philip Gould / Getty Images
9. Chicago to New Orleans on The City of New Orleans
Route: Chicago – Memphis – New Orleans
Distance and duration: 921 miles (1482 km); 19 hours
The City of New Orleans Amtrak train, made famous by the song of the same name, offers a romantic approach to one of America’s great cities. Following the flow of the Mississippi river, it cuts across the green wheat and golden corn fields of Illinois and Nebraska.
After traveling overnight from Chicago to Memphis, its daylight run through the morning mists of Mississippi and Louisiana make a perfect introduction to the Deep South. Once in New Orleans, things are very much up to you.