O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
Yes, as this century old famous song suggests, the United States has an abundance of natural beauty- from snow covered peaks to dense forests to miles of deserts and everything in between. The country, however, is very vast. So how does one best enjoy this beauty? Certainly not from a cramped airplane cabin flying at 35,000 feet. Possibly by driving, but that requires the driver to focus on the road and gets tiring after several hours. Fortunately, there is another way- the way early men conquered the Wild West- yes, by train!
Contrary to oft heard statements like “nobody rides the trains anymore” or “there are no trains in America today”, the reality is that Amtrak, the often-neglected but still surviving passenger rail service of USA does run a few cross-country trains that offer a relaxed, comfortable way to enjoy the beauty of this huge country.
Long distance train travel is more than just the scenery. Unlike air travel where everyone sits in silence waiting for the trip to get over, on the train the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed and social. A part of it is thanks to Amtrak’s communal dining policy- you are encouraged to share tables with random co-passengers and this leads to some memorable conversations. Over my numerous journeys I have met Amish families, two grannies in their eighties who decided to spend the last years of their lives traveling far and wide by themselves, a Japanese tourist who did not speak a word of English but visits every year to see the country, a mom and her daughter starting a new life away from the abusive husband who had joined the drug cartel in Mexico, a couple celebrating their honeymoon, and the list goes on.
So, where exactly can you travel by train? The answer is- anywhere across the country! Amtrak runs a variety of trains across 46 of the 48 contiguous states (guess the 2 unlucky states?) but some routes are obviously better than others. If I were to pick favorites, I’d say the five long distance routes west of Chicago are truly spectacular and provide the best experience- large reclining seats or private bedrooms, full service restaurant onboard, lounge car with huge glass dome windows and couches to chill out- if you want to experience America by rail, pick one of these five and you won’t regret.
I have been on all five of these journeys, at least in parts, and from here on, I will mostly let the pictures talk for themselves.
All pictures below are as-seen-from-train taken personally by me.
1. Empire Builder – Chicago to Seattle/Portland
The great northern adventure takes us from Chicago through Wisconsin, along the upper Mississippi river, through the endless farmlands-now-turned-into-oil-fields of North Dakota, lush green meadows of Montana, cutting through the heart of stunningly beautiful Glacier National Park, and depending on whether we go on the Seattle half or the Portland half (the train splits in Spokane), either a climb through the beautiful northern Cascades or a meandering run along the Columbia river gorge.
2. California Zephyr – Chicago to San Francisco
Some have called this the most beautiful journey in America and there is probably good reason to it. Starting from Chicago, we run through the vast corn fields of Iowa and Nebraska to Denver, from where starts the climb into the Rockies, following the Colorado river, meandering through narrow canyons, opening up to the high plains of Utah to Salt Lake City, continuing into the desert of Nevada, cutting through the Sierra Nevadas down to the City by the Bay.
3. Southwest Chief – Chicago to Los Angeles
Fancy yourself a ride literally cutting across the country? This is it. We start southwest from Chicago across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, the greenery of farmlands gives way to vast arid plains of New Mexico to Albuquerque, through Native American land, on to the beautiful painted desert of Arizona, navigating through the lower Sierras to the City of Angels.
4. Sunset Limited – New Orleans to Los Angeles
This is a truly southern adventure. Starting by trudging over Lake Pontchartrain out of NOLA, through the swamps of Louisiana, deep in the heart of Texas all the way from Houston to El Paso, literally hugging Mexico, through the desert of lower Arizona to the lights of LA, this is a deep dive into seeing up close how vast this country really is.
5. Coast Starlight – Los Angeles to Seattle
Love the Pacific coast? Here we go. From Los Angeles to San Jose, we travel for hours along the beautiful blue Pacific coast, revealing hidden gems not accessible even by the famous Highway 1. The fun does not end here. Going north, we pass by Mt Shasta meandering into the remote Cascades mountains to Portland. For the finale is the run along the Puget Sound to Seattle, photogenic every minute.
Go ahead, the next time you are planning a vacation, add a train journey to it. Or, if short on time, make that itself the vacation- the journey is the destination! It could end up being an experience of a lifetime. All aboard!
If you are wondering, no, this post is NOT an ad for Amtrak nor an endorsement.