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The 10 best scenic winter train rides in North America

The 10 best scenic winter train rides in North America
Posted at 11:46 AM, Jan 12, 2024

Winter landscapes can be truly gorgeous, especially when snow is cascading down and the icy ground shimmers in the light. But let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier to enjoy these scenic landscapes when you’re not driving through treacherous road conditions.

If you’d like to take in some snowy grandeur while remaining safe and warm, a winter train ride is the perfect solution. And if you need to travel during the winter — and have some extra time to do it at a more leisurely pace — one of these train rides could upgrade the experience to an exciting adventure.

Amtrak Vermonter (between Washington, D.C. and St. Albans, Vermont)

If, like Robert Frost, you like the idea of “stopping by woods on a snowy eventing,” then take a ride on the Vermonter. It departs from Union Station in Washington, D.C., then passes through nine states on its way to St. Albans, Vermont near the shore of Lake Champlain. The entire journey, which takes about 13 hours, will take you through both big cities and small New England towns.

Take the trip during a snowy month and you’ll see a glistening white wooded landscape as you pass through cozy Vermont hamlets like Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Waterbury and Essex. It also stops near Camel’s Hump State Park in Montpelier, a majestic place for hiking.

You can book your trip on Amtrak.

The southbound Amtrak Vermonter arrives at the station in Waterbury, Vt., during a snowstorm on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. The train was traveling during a winter storm

MORE: This train ride stops in 37 cities on the way from New York to New Orleans

Amtrak Coast Starlight (between Los Angeles and Seattle)

The Coast Starlight, which runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, is known for its observation cars (aka sightseer lounges), which provide gorgeous views through floor-to-ceiling windows. In other words, this is a train designed for sitting back and taking in the cinematic landscape.

Anyone with a ticket has access to these cars, which are especially coveted as the train passes the town of Oxnard and hugs the coast for the next three hours. For the best views, try to get a seat on the left side of the train.

The scenery in Oregon will also knock you out, as you wind through glistening forests, white-capped mountains and numerous lakes. The train leaves L.A. every day at 10 a.m. and arrives in Seattle 34 hours later, getting in at around 8 p.m. the next day. Book tickets here.

Amtrak Coast Starlight dining car

Amtrak California Zephyr (between Chicago and San Francisco)

The California Zephyr passes through seven states on its daily, 2,437-mile journey from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area. You can ride the train for just one portion of the trip or stick around for all 51 hours and 20 minutes.

While the Zephyr will take you through some major cities (Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City) and smaller ones (Naperville, Illinois, Lincoln, Nebraska, Glenwood Springs, Colorado), the main attraction here is the mountains.

You’ll pass through both the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas, with stunning, wintry views you wouldn’t get if traveling by car. There’s also a cool, historical aspect to this train ride: You’ll pass over a stretch of hand-built railroad in the Sierras that was built during the Civil War as part of the transcontinental railroad route. Book tickets here.

In this photo taken on on Jan. 26, 2017, two women take photos of the Sierra Nevada mountains

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway (between Skagway, Alaska, Fraser, British Columbia, Carcross, Yukon and Whitehorse, Yukon)

Would you like a side dish of history as you gobble up spectacular views? Then head to the Alaskan seaport town of Skagway, and take one of the excursions on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. (The White Pass Summit Excursion is the most popular. The 40-mile trip takes about three hours.)

This historic railroad, which was built in the late 1800s during the Gold Rush, features vintage parlor cars. One of them (the car named Lake LeBerge) carried Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Whitehorse during their tour of Canada and the United States in 1959.

Of course, the main attraction is the stunning views as the train climbs 3,000 feet past gorges, waterfalls and glacial rivers. For the best views on the way up, sit on the left side of the car. Book tickets here. TikTok user @ethoventures offers a taste of what you’ll see in their video:

@ethoventures Bucket list train ride in Alaska 🚂 The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway was such an unforgettable experience in Alaska! The amazing scenery makes this train ride definitely worth adding to your travel list🏔 Here is everything you need to know about this train ride: • Located in Alaska’s seaport town of Skagway, this town is filled with old-world charm. • It was built in 1898 during the Gold Rush • There are a few different train ride excursions you can choose, but the White Pass Summit Excursion is the most popular • The White Pass Summit Excursion costs $134/adult and $67/child • You’ll spend 2.75 – 3 hours on the train covering 40 miles and taking in the most BEAUTIFUL views • INSIDER TIP: Hop in the last train car, so you have no obstructed views from the back of the train 🎥: olenalymar_, katya_kazmina #alaska #canada #yukon #train #scenictrail #nature #travel #usa #train ♬ оригинальный звук – Никита Райков

MORE: 9 trains you can spend the night in, starting at $70 a night

Amtrak Empire Builder (between Chicago and either Portland, Oregon or Seattle)

For a leisurely and scenic tour of America’s Northwest, you can hop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder in one of two spots: King Street Station in Seattle or Union Station in Portland, Oregon. The two forks meet in Spokane, Washington and go on to Chicago’s Union Station, passing through seven states in total.

From Seattle, it’s a 2,255-mile journey and from Portland, it’s 2,205 miles. You can ride the whole line or get on and off at dozens of stops along the route, but the whole excursion would take you about 46 hours to complete.

Along the way, you’ll take in the raw beauty and picturesque charm of snow-spackled woods, icy rivers and magnificent mountain ranges. There’s not a bad seat on this train, with Glacier National Park on the left and the Flathead National Forest on the right. Book tickets here.

Amtraks Empire Builder approaches the Cascade Tunnel as night falls on the Seattle to Chicago sleeper train.

Cascade Canyon Winter Train (from Durango, Colorado to Cascade Canyon, Colorado)

Southwest Colorado has more than its fair share of soaring cliffs, snow-covered mountains and roaring waterfalls. And the Cascade Canyon Winter Train is an excursion designed to give you some of the best views possible.

Traveling between Durango and Cascade Canyon, which is 52 miles round-trip, you’ll take in both the white-capped Animas River and the icy peaks of the Rocky Mountains for a total ride of five hours and 25 minutes. You’ll also have a 60-minute layover at Cascade Canyon, where you can eat lunch by a roaring fire and walk along the river. Book tickets here.

Durango Train

Amtrak Seattle and the Canadian Rockies Winter Discovery (between Seattle and Alberta, Canada)

If you want to immerse yourself in a magical nine days of wintery exploration, this train trip from Seattle to Calgary will hit the spot. You’ll travel through the Canadian Rockies in areas where cars are prohibited, and there are incredible views of Vancouver from soaring heights. TikTok user Tiffany Lo captured the experience in a video:

@tlo.travels This is one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen! It was on a train ride through the Canadian Rockies. 🚊 Looks like a winter wonderland ❄ #banffnationalpark #yohonationalpark #canadianrockies #rockymountains #winterwonderland #trainride #rockymountaineer #banff ♬ These Memories – Hollow Coves

Part of the excursion is a visit to Jasper National Park, which is known for wildlife like caribou, moose, bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and wolves. In Banff, you can step inside a gondola that will take you to the top of Sulphur Mountain for stunning views of the snowy landscape. Book tickets here.

MORE: 7 memorable train trips that are perfect for families

Napa Valley Wine Train (between Napa and St. Helena in California)

The Napa Valley Wine Train is basically a winery tour by train. In refurbished vintage cars, you’ll travel 36 miles round-trip from Napa, California to St. Helena, California. You can choose between full-day and half-day options. Both offer views of Italian-inspired architecture and lush winery gardens.

The full-day Legacy Experience is a 6-hour trip with gourmet lunch included, plus visits to two of Napa Valley’s most notable wineries, Charles Krug Winery and V. Sattui. The Grgich Hills Winery Tour also offers a gourmet lunch but stops at just one winery, where you’ll taste wine from the renowned winemaker Mike Grgich.

At Christmastime, the Wine Train becomes the Santa Train. Families with kids ride the route with an emphasis on hot cocoa or cider rather than wine. Santa’s also aboard. Book tickets here.

Napa Valley Wine Train excursions through the vineyards

Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad (between Spooner and Springbrook, Wisconsin)

The Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad is less about getting to a destination — and more about enjoying a unique sightseeing excursion. It travels along the Namekagon River for 15 miles between the towns of Spooner and Springbrook, all on a railroad track that was laid more than 100 years ago.

There are lots of packages to choose from, including themes like “Family Pizza,” “Elegant Dinner” and “Bed & Breakfast.” During the holiday season, the railroad even puts a festive spin on their pizza train, as seen below in a Facebook post from the official Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad page:

You’ll be traveling anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the option you reserve. Book tickets here.

Aurora Winter Train (between Anchorage and Fairbanks in Alaska)

Why take a 12-hour, 350-mile train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska? Breathtaking winter landscapes and an excellent opportunity to glimpse the northern lights.

The train leaves at 8:30 a.m. and arrives at around 8 p.m. But because of Alaska’s early sunsets (night begins at around 4 p.m. in January, for example), there’s plenty of time to gaze out of the picture windows to see the aurora borealis.

You can also depart the train at one of its many stops to take in some winter activities like snowshoeing, snowmobiling or dog sledding. The train stops in Denali National Park & Preserve, where you can see the highest mountain peak in North America and maybe see some winter wildlife likes grizzlies and black bears. Book tickets here.

Aurora Winter Train

MORE: You can travel across the country by train for less than $500

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