The 5 Best North American Train Trips to Take This Winter
From Moab to Denver, Vancouver to Toronto and Anchorage to Fairbanks, these train routes shouldn't be missed
There’s something quintessentially American about a train journey. Perhaps it harkens back to the first transcontinental railroad, which not only drastically shifted our perception of the U.S. — hello, sprawling, fertile, almost annoyingly beautiful landmass east of the Mississippi — but revolutionized commercial transportation, too.
Recently, train travel has seen a bit of a resurgence on the luxury, leisure end of the spectrum. Perhaps it has to do with a push toward more sustainable travel methods, or maybe it’s due to the ability to book last minute, lending itself to moments of spontaneity. I suspect the overall desire for slower, more meaningful travel as a direct consequence of the pandemic also plays a role.
“If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination,” American travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote. “A corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to.”
That said, a lot of the allure surrounding train travel has seemingly gotten wrapped up in the idea that you have to travel to some remote, exotic location. Of course, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (London to Venice), the Belmond Andean Explorer (Peru) and the Rovos Rail (southern Africa) are all exceptional. But the reality is this: you don’t have to take three flights to find one of these amazing high-end trains. Whether you’re looking for opulent accommodations or luxury of the scenic variety, you need not look further than your own backyard.
Below, five North American train trips worthy of their (sometimes lofty) pricetags:
Like most other aspects of travel, Amtrak ridership took a hit during the pandemic. Even still, certain routes — particularly the ones along National Parks — remain in huge demand, Frank Marini, the president of Yankee Leisure Group, which owns Amtrak Vacations and Railbookers, told Travel + Leisure this summer.
Widely believed to be on of the world’s most impressive train routes, the California Zephyr is a 51-hour, two-night jaunt that runs from Chicago through the Nebraskan prairie to Denver, through the heart of the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City, and then across Reno and Sacramento into San Francisco. It also flanks Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches, Canyonlands and is a short drive from Yellowstone.
The train itself consists of 10 Superliner coaches — three sleeper cars, a dining car, an observation car with floor to ceiling windows, a baggage car and coach-class accommodations. Dining options include full sit-down meals or more informal food service by way of the café service and accommodations range from standard roomettes and bedrooms to bedroom suites, family bedrooms and accessible bedrooms. Fares for a private room, per Amtrak’s website, vary largely depending on when you’re traveling, where you are traveling and how many people are traveling with you, though — like all other manner of travel — it’s best to book early to secure the best price.
The iconic Aurora Winter Train, which runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks, stopping in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Hurricane, Healy and Nenana, makes the northbound 12-hour journey on Saturdays and the return trip on Sunday from mid-September through mid-May, as well as select days during the week from mid-February to the end of March. While it crosses over the same expanse of tracks as the summer Denali Star Train, the Aurora Winter Train boasts its own very distinct set of views. It passes by Denali National Park, nearly 300-feet above Hurricane creek and, if you’re lucky, under the Northern Lights at certain points along the way. There are a variety of packages to choose from — Arctic Circle Adventure, Winter Escape, Talkeetna Getaway, Denali in a Day, The Aurora and the Borealis — all of which involve different stops and activities, though vary in duration and, subsequently, price. That said, the full trip can be done in a day and a one-way ticket from Anchorage to Fairbanks generally goes for around $220.
The legendary Canadian runs from Vancouver to Toronto, making several stops — including in Jasper, Kamloops, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Sioux Lookout and Sudbury Junction — over the course of a four-day, four-night journey. The train boasts three classes — Sleepers Plus, Economy and Prestige (the latter of which will be available again starting February 2022) — and nine train cars, the same stainless-steel coaches built for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Canadian back in the mid 1950s. Additionally, per The Canadian’s website, the complete menu rotation — which features local products from Canadian artisans — has just recently been reinstated, meaning you will enjoy different offerings for every meal on the journey. Fares for economy begin at just $45, but vary based on class, city of origin and duration of trip.
The glass-domed Rocky Mountaineer is a truly remarkable train that traverses four different routes: “First Passage to the West,” which runs from Vancouver to Banff/Lake Louise, the “Journey Through the Clouds” from Vancouver to Jasper with stops in Kamloops, the “Rainforest to Gold Rush” from Vancouver to Jasper with stops in Whistler and Quesnel, and the “Rockies to the Red Rocks” from Moab to Denver. It offers two levels of service, the first being the Silver Leaf, which includes passage in the single-level glass-dome coach, access to an outdoor viewing area, breakfast and lunch served in the comfort of your seat as well as complimentary beverages and snacks. Alternatively, the Gold Leaf includes passage in the Bi-level glass-dome coach, access to a large, exclusive outdoor viewing platform and gourmet breakfast and lunch served in a lower-level dining room as well as complimentary beverages and snacks. You’re likely to find Pacific salmon served with garlic herb rice or short ribs braised in Colorado pale ale with locally grown potatoes, in addition to signature cocktails, on the menu.
Unlike the other trains included here, however, The Rocky Mountaineer offers hotel accommodations at partner hotels in lieu of sleeper cars. That said, because the train only travels during daylight hours, you won’t miss a thing. “Instead of losing landscapes to darkness, you’ll get a peaceful night’s sleep at a comfortable hotel before boarding the train again the next morning,” the website reads. Fares vary with both route and class.
Touted as being a luxurious vintage experience featuring century old railcars and a historic corridor, the Napa Valley Wine Train offers patrons a 36-mile round-trip exploration of the region’s most celebrated wineries. It also plays home to Executive Chef Donald Young, who sources fresh, wholesome ingredients — including, per the Napa Valley’s website, “earth friendly produce, humanely raised meats, and line caught or responsibly farmed fish” — to craft seasonal menus for all three of the dining experiences. So in effect, the Napa Valley Wine Train is one big gourmet dining experience on wheels.
“We take pride in the decadent quality of our cuisine and the fact that it’s created onboard a moving antique train,” the website says.
And in addition to enjoying local fare and vintages while en route from downtown Napa to St. Helena, passengers can also partake in a multitude of onboard activities. Chief among them, murder mysteries. There are several train and hotel combination packages to choose from — including the Deluxe Room and Wine Tasting Tour, the Wine, Dine and Dream, the Historic Napa River Inn, the Candlelight Junction and the Best of Wine Country in a Day, all of which boast their own distinctive (and swoon-worthy) itineraries. You can also take just a two- or three-hour train journey for lunch or dinner and still get the full wine train experience. Fares start at just $149.
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