The railroad boom that began in the 1830s in North America opened up a continent. Railways made it possible to carry goods and freight across the country and gave those with adventurous spirits access to the North American frontier. Those previously landlocked in rural mountain towns now had access to a whole new world.
From the East Coast to the West Coast, journey through railroad history on a vintage caboose or an open-air passage car as you explore this list of North America’s most beautiful railways curated for train fanatics, history buffs or those who’re just looking for a unique view into America.
1 | New England
The Café Lafayette Dinner Train is one of only 12 moving dinner trains in North America. Enjoy a meal and an unhurried ride in a restored railcar along the Pemigewasset River through the White Mountains. You can also explore New England’s many historic railways, from the Conway Scenic Railroad to the Cape Cod Central Railroad. Ride the vintage Essex Steam Train through the Connecticut River Valley, or chug along the shores of sparkling Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Then head to Lincoln, New Hampshire to visit the Flying Yankee, one of only three Depression-era diesel-electric steamliners.
2 | Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
The Strasburg Railroad is America’s oldest operating railroad, founded in 1832 to carry freight to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The railway was almost destroyed by storms in the 1950s, when a group of “rail barons” banded together to save it. They rounded up authentic steam trains from across America to carry passengers through the lovely Amish countryside and Lancaster County farmland and the rugged Allegheny Mountains. Swing by the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania to learn the history behind their collection of over 100 priceless locomotives.
3 | West Virginia Mountains
Experience a 1915 passenger train as you ride through 20 miles of pure wilderness aboard the Cheat Mountain Salamander to High Falls. Try a Climax or Heisler steam engine as it pulls the Durbin Rocket’s open-air passenger cars and 1920s caboose along the Greenbrier River and Monongahela National Forest. You can also ride along the Cass Scenic Railroad behind the oldest operational Shay steam engine on the same rails it first ran on in 1905. Climb the switchbacks for panoramic views of the surrounding farmland, mountains and the ghost town of Spruce. Then, stop at the steam engine repair shop in the lumber town of Cass to watch mechanics work on a Climax engine and learn how they operate.
4 | The Great Smoky Mountains
Take a ride on the Murphy Branch of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, constructed in the 1880s, and experience the raw beauty of Western North Carolina. Take in views of fertile valleys, river gorges, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as you roll along 53 miles of track through two tunnels and over 25 bridges. Then, visit the historic Black Mountain, Old Fort and Apple Valley railroad depots to learn how the railway provided access to the outside world for this previously isolated rural area.
5 | Durango, Colorado
Climb aboard a vintage steam locomotive on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railway, built in 1882 to carry silver and gold ore. The train has been in continuous operation since 1882 and today employs 1920s locomotives powered by coal! Board at the original depot and ride at a leisurely pace as you take in the spectacular landscape of the San Juan Mountains and the Animas River, with narration from the conductor. Then expand your railroad knowledge at the Durango Silverton Train Museum, or head up the road to the Ridgway Railroad Museum.
6 | Verde Canyon
Take the last train to Clarkdale on the Verde Canyon Railroad and experience Arizona’s “other Grand Canyon.” From your open-air passenger car, marvel at the picturesque red rock pinnacles and Indian ruins as you follow the 40-mile route along the wild and scenic Verde River. Scan for wildlife along the way, like the eagles that spend their winters in the area.
7 | Sierra Nevada
Starting at an original 1870 depot and museum, travel back in time to the bonanza days aboard the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Ride through the rugged, snow-dusted Sierra Nevada Mountains with commentary from your conductor. Keep an eye out for silver ore veins as you ride through Comstock mine sites and Gold Hill, where gold and silver strikes began in 1859. Railroad junkies will want to take a trip to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento to see restored locomotives and cars and learn about the “Last Spike.”
8 | Alaska
A journey along the 470-mile historic Alaska Railroad will take passengers from Fairbanks to Seward through Denali National Park. This train ride is a wildlife-lover’s dream. Not only will you witness the Alaska Range and Mount Denali, but you’ll also have a perfect front-row seat for glimpses of the Denali wildlife from the train car. Stop in the charming town of Talkeetna, where you can learn all about the town’s mountaineering history.
9 | Canada
We had to mention at least one of the amazing train rides in Canada. Though it’s hard to choose a favorite, we’ve settled on a ride on the Rock Mountaineer. Travel from Jasper to Kamloops and onto Vancouver along the Thompson River and through the Monashee Mountains. From your glass-dome coach, you’ll see sparkling lakes and snow-tipped mountains and race across trestle bridges and through tunnels carved right through the rock, all while enjoying Gold Leaf Service. Learn about the history of the 1885 Canadian Pacific Railway and the glacial history of these stunning landscapes along the way.
10 | Denver, Colorado
Trains shaped Colorado’s history in many ways. From the mountains to the valleys, trains carve through Colorado’s landscape, allowing passengers to explore the scenic beauty and learn about The Centennial State. Road Scholar’s The Best of Colorado’s Historic Railroads program brings participants aboard impressive coaches to traverse the Rockies, along rivers and more. In addition to Durango’s steam locomotive (mentioned above), here are some of the most beautiful train rides in the USA located in Colorado:
- Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad: One of the best train trips for seniors and families alike, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is a narrow-gauge steam railroad that travels between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. Along this route, passengers can view the beautiful Toltec Gorge, with breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains in the background.
- Pikes Peak Cog Railway: Perhaps one of the best U.S. train trips is the Pikes Peak Cog Railways, located near Colorado Springs. This cog railway takes tourists to the summit of Pikes Peak, one of the most famous fourteeners in Colorado. With spectacular views from the summit, Pikes Peak Cog Railway is a great adventure for those interested in learning about the local geography and history.
- Georgetown Loop Railroad: Another one of Colorado’s narrow-gauge railroad loops is the Georgetown Loop Railroad, which takes passengers through the Rocky Mountains with breathtaking views of Clear Creek Canyon as it travels between Georgetown and Silver Plume.
- Royal Gorge Route Railroad: One of the most beautiful train rides in America is the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which offers sweeping views of the Arkansas River and its steep canyon walls. This route goes through the iconic Royal Gorge near Cañon City and provides 24 miles of unparalleled scenery.
These Colorado trains and railroads are often regarded as some of the best train trips in the United States. At Road Scholar, our unique Colorado train experience allows program participants to discover historic towns, learn about the importance of mining in Colorado’s history and take in the sights and sounds of some of America’s most diverse geography.
11 | Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga played a pivotal role in developing the railroad industry in the United States. As a historic railroad hub, with a peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chattanooga was a hub for several railroads, including the Western and Atlantic Railroad, thanks to the city's strategic location. Chattanooga was also a key player in the American Civil War, serving as a transportation center for the Confederate Army, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s Chattanooga Choo Choo song became a nationwide hit romanticizing the train journey to Chattanooga.
At Road Scholar, our The Great Smokies: Trains, Cherokee and Appalachian Culture experiential learning program brings participants throughout the Great Smoky Mountains to experience some of the top scenic train trips in the USA. Program highlights include:
- Chattanooga Choo Choo: The Chattanooga Choo Choo is a historic hotel that converted an old railroad terminal into a beautiful complex housing a hotel, entertainment venue and historical site. Visitors can spend nights in renovated train cars and explore features like restaurants, shops, gardens and an indoor pool.
- Ruby Falls and Rock City: Part of our six-day tour will bring participants to Ruby Falls, Tennessee, located 1,120 feet below the earth’s surface. This 145-foot waterfall cascades through a dark cavern illuminated by installed lights that can change colors, offering visitors a unique glimpse into this extraordinary geologic wonder. Program participants will also explore Rock City on top of Lookout Mountain, which boasts ancient rock formations, caves and gardens.
- Missionary Ridge Train: The Missionary Ridge Train is a scenic train ride operated by the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga. This heritage railway brings passengers on a round trip ride through Missionary Ridge, with panoramic views of the Tennessee Valley. As you travel over four bridges and through the Missionary Ridge Tunnel, passengers can learn about the mechanics of this diesel locomotive. The Missionary Ridge Train is a great train trip for single seniors and families alike, as it explores local geography and train mechanics.
12 | Sedona, Arizona
Sedona is home to several beautiful train rides in the USA. Road Scholar’s Scenic Railroads of Arizona: Sedona and Grand Canyon program brings travelers through northern Arizona to view stunning landscapes and popular tourist attractions. Two of the best train routes in the USA are the Verde Canyon Railroad (mentioned above) and Grand Canyon Railway. Program participants will be able to hop on board and experience these historic routes for themselves. The Grand Canyon Railway offers one of the best U.S. train trips, journeying from Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. With operations starting in 1901, the Grand Canyon Railway has a rich history, playing a crucial role in the early tourism development of the Grand Canyon. Riders can experience the Old West with musicians, cowboys and entertainers on board providing a lively atmosphere reminiscent of the past. Passengers can also enjoy picturesque views of the Grand Canyon as the train arrives at the South Rim, making for an unforgettable experience for each attendee.