Travel

3 Incredible Train Vacations Across America

‘Get the inside track on exploring America by train with these three incredible itineraries.’

from – Country Living – by Everett Potter

The Scenic Route

 

“See the USA in your Chevrolet” will always have a certain ring to it, but traveling by rail affords the chance to take in sights the interstate doesn’t deliver. Plus, loosening your grip on the steering wheel frees up your hands for a cocktail! (Though trains no longer possess the glamour they held in North by Northwest, most still have café cars.)

We’ve mapped out three amazing Amtrak adventures: All boast beginning and end points in cities worth exploring, and we’ve also suggested stops along the way. You’ll need a new ticket each time you board—a simple task thanks to the multicity planner on amtrak.com. And remember, with these trips, the journey is the destination.

All prices are correct at time of publication, but the prices listed may be altered at any time. 

The Weekend Getaway: San Luis Obispo to San Diego

 

THE ROUTE: Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner traces Southern California’s coast—so near the Pacific that, at times, it feels as if you’re cruising on the beach. Stunning all year long, the full run takes nine hours; with our three recommended destinations, tickets start at $61.

ON BOARD: Embark at the route’s northern depot, San Luis Obispo; seats in coach aren’t reserved, so guarantee a plush recliner by upgrading to business class for $31 more. For stellar ocean views, claim a spot on the western side of the train.

 

WHERE TO STOP: About seven hours into the trip, hop off at San Juan Capistrano to wander the ruins of the town’s famous Spanish mission, nicknamed the American Acropolis. For artifacts of a more recent vintage, hit The Old Barn Antiques (949-493-9144), a 10,000-square-foot space packed with everything from advertising signs to Victorian flatware. Before skipping out, nosh on spicy crab-cake salad at The Ramos House Café. Ride the train for 10 minutes more to San Clemente—the station is right at the pier, where you can watch surfers catch waves or go for a swim in the Pacific yourself. Later, check in to the Always Inn, a bed-and-breakfast with private gardens just off the rooms (from $149 a night). Meander the next day: San Diego, the finish line, is only 80 minutes away.

The Day Trip: Manhattan to Hudson, New York

 

THE ROUTE: Running on the east bank of the Hudson River, the Empire Service promises eye-popping foliage in October. A full run takes two hours; with our two recommended destinations, tickets start at $35.

ON BOARD: The ideal scenario? Leave New York City’s Penn Station around 10 A.M. and score a seat on the train’s western side. An hour later, keep your eyes peeled for Bannerman Castle(pictured): The crumbling manse, an abandoned military munitions storehouse, suggests something from a fairy tale.

 

WHERE TO STOP: You’ll land in Hudson in time for lunch. Located on Warren Street, the town’s main drag, Swoon Kitchenbar sources its ingredients—for dishes such as braised-short-rib panini topped with caramelized onions and pickled chiles—from local farms. After you eat, browse some of the street’s nearly 50 antiques shops; Red Chair carries a moderately priced selection of old hotel silver, French linens, and other treasures. On your way back to Manhattan, get off at the Croton-Harmon stop. First on the agenda: a quick cab ride to Ocean House for fresh seafood—don’t miss the lobster rolls. Then jaunt over to Van Cortlandt Manor, a 1732 landmark that, each fall, hosts the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, a display of more than 5,000 elaborately carved pumpkins. Tickets sell out, so buy yours early online.

The Weeklong Vacation: Chicago to Portland, Oregon

 

THE ROUTE: The mighty Mississippi, the Northern Plains, Mount Hood—the Empire Builder allows you to see America as Lewis and Clark did on their westward expedition. Prime season is summer, for the lushest scenery imaginable. The full run takes 46 hours; with our two recommended destinations, tickets start at $263.

ON BOARD: Before you head out from the Windy City, spend the extra $1,053 to bunk in a Superliner Bedroom—the space is small but offers a sofa, a chair, two foldout beds, and a private bathroom with shower; plus, meals are included. Be sure to study the Empire Builder guide on trainweb.com for tons of info about what you’ll see and when you’ll see it (for example, 3½ hours in, look for Camp Douglas’s striated sandstone rock formations). Views are spectacular from both sides of the train.

 

WHERE TO STOP: Definitely add on a couple days at Montana’s breathtaking Glacier National Park. Grab a shuttle from the West Glacier station to Lake McDonald Lodge(406-888-5431), a stone-and-gable inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places (from $79 a night). Glacier is home to 700 miles of walking trails, but to cover the most ground, tour the park in one of its 17-person convertibles, dating to the 1930s. Finally, continue on the train to Portland, soaking up the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge as you roll.


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Judith Wind
7 years ago

I wish you would print the dates of these trips. Also, I thought they were escorted. Why not a trip to Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Canada’s Banf National Railway. I’m not keen to travel on Amtrak’s antiquated rails.

The OLD Warhorse
8 years ago

If you stop at San Juan Capistrano there is an excellent little café right at the AMTRAK station. You can watch the trains roll through and have a great meal or just a snack.
Nice little place.

Jeanne
8 years ago

Traveled from Denver to Elko, NV once for Christmas. I think train travel is much more comfortable than flying. I loved seeing all the sights that you wouldn’t get to see if you drove (canyons etc,). I always check train travel first. I just wish you didn’t have to go clear to CA from these places in order to go north.

Harriet Curry
8 years ago

I have taken the trip from Denver to San Francisco and others, They were enjoyable. However, the trains
should keep their windows cleaner, especially the dome car. Also, the public bathrooms need better care.

Flavia
8 years ago
Reply to  Harriet Curry

airline trvael is 20% less.. and AMEX but, I have United club card so I get free bags do you book trvael with Chase or AMEX for the 20% discount.. and is it really. AND When you buy United Tickets they always offer you more miles for an additional price. Am I supposed to take that or no? Do those miles count for miles in the seat or just bought miles.. I’m so confused and can’t wait till FTU just to ask a million questions I think it’s going to be overwhelming. Thanks

Brenda
8 years ago

Take the empire builder one or 2 times a year as I refuse to fly anymore. Love the trip. Would not be as nice without the bedroom they spoke of. Love the observation car. Scenery is great. Beautiful also at christmas/wintertime also. So relaxing. Usually read 2 books each way. Not much room for luggage though. Better to pack smaller bag with items needed on train. Other bag can be checked. They actually kick people off who are misbehaving like drinking too much or smoking. Happy to see that as it is a long trip to put up with people like that. Highly recommend the train. As with anything government is involved in, they do not maintain trains as well as they should.

Malcolm Torgerson
8 years ago

Train trips mentioned are stupid.They should begin and end at same place such as Galesburg, (sp) Illinois, or Galena, Illinois, etc. Took Empire Builder several years ago–needed 3 hands to use lavatory, sleep accommodations–room was just size of bed, no lavatory or John. I thought I was getting a roomette which I had used earlier, but all I got was a room that was bed size. While in geed I had to squeeze my shoes under the bed or put them in aisle
. If a person rents a bedroom, it costs a small fortune.

Alan
8 years ago

Just took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Glacier Park (round trip) two weeks ago. Spent a week in the park including a night in the Lake McDonald Lodge pictured above. Include time to travel (with passport) into Canada’s adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park and stay at the Prince of Wales Lodge. Had a Superliner Bedroom as described in the article. It is well worth the extra money. This was a wonderful trip that was made special by the train. We would travel by train again in a minute.

Note: This year Amtrak is warning of delays (we were delayed about three hours each way) in the Great Plains because of the high volume of freight traffic on the BNSF tracks due to the boomtown oil and gas business in ND. We could see considerable track construction being done by the BNSF that Amtrak says will be done by the end of 2014. Amtrak says this will help the Empire Builder express through next year.

Don
8 years ago

My favorite train trip is Vancouver, BC to Seattle, WA with a stop in Bellingham, WA. Sit on the west side and enjoy the spectacular sunset over Puget Sound.

R Klehr - Duluth
8 years ago

My wife and I recently traveled round trip from St. Paul to Washington DC for our 50th. Wedding Anniversary ( for the Cherry Blossom Festival) via Amtrak, and the service and food was great! Comfortable sleeping compartment, great food, scenic views, and very friendly service! Amtrak put us in touch with one of their travel agent companies and she did a great job of making all the hotel reservations in Washington, the sightseeing tours, tickets to events, and everything! We had a choice of numerous hotels and ended up staying at the very historic Willard Intercontinental Hotel on DC, right across the street from the White House. This agent arranged, and we received discounted rates and the service and ambiance was fantastic! Will soon do this again with a trip from St. Paul. MN. out to Seattle and back via the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and all other sites, that this same agent can also work out for us. We had the best time, no worries about car travel, parking, hotel reservations, deadlines, stress free, and seeing more country then you will ever see by plane, car, or tour bus! And, the cost was very affordable! The rock of the train (without motion sickness) relaxes you, and puts you to sleep at night. Deborah Mitchell Avoya Travel is now highly recommended by us!. Amtrak did us great favor!

Bob Grantham
8 years ago

Recently tried to book Amtrak, Baltimore to San Antonio. Here’s itenirary: Board in Baltimore to Chicago, catch bus to SA. I’m not kidding, south bound tracks under repair. Flew.

Jean
8 years ago

I would like more info on the week long trip beginning in Chicago. OR did I miss the info some where? Thanks

Chuck
8 years ago
Reply to  Jean

See below website mentioned or maybe contact that travel agent mentioned by the folks from Duluth above your comment…

Dan Carro
8 years ago

The Empire Builder would be a great trip. Coach class is far more economical. You get wide, comfortable reclining seats but no shower facilities. You could, however, break-up the trip by staying over en-route once or twice.

Chuck
8 years ago
Reply to  Dan Carro

Great suggestion. A long ride is more enjoyable if broken up in segments. Better yet, no TSA hassles!!

Bruce G.
8 years ago

Canada has great scenic trips through the rockys!

Ivan Berry
8 years ago

Who in their right mind would want to start from Chicago (unless trying to escape) to wind up in Portland? Aren’t there other places to start and to end a trip that avoids those two excuses for cities while at the same time offering scenes just as interesting, if not more so?

JOAN SLOAN
8 years ago
Reply to  Ivan Berry

I would like full details of the week long train ride please thanks

Ed
8 years ago
Reply to  JOAN SLOAN

Awhile ago I tried to get details on the Amtrack website. Ugh! Good luck. No wonder it’s another gov. loss. Too bad.

Dan
8 years ago
Reply to  Ivan Berry

Well said, Ivan. I have visited Sickago on several occasions on business with the Army. It’s not a friendly city downtown, and I did not leave anything I need to go back for. Oregon is one of two states I have not visited, North Dakota being the other. If the Empire Builder goes through Madison, WI, we (I couldn’t go without the wife) could get on there and hit them both. Happy trails!

Will
8 years ago
Reply to  Ivan Berry

This inrfamotion is off the hizool!

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