Here at Lonely Planet we’ve always had a soft spot for trains. It may have something to do with our history, firmly rooted in overland travel, in following lines on maps and seeing where they lead, and delighting in the people and places encountered along the way.
The US is rich with amazing train journeys, with routes that pass striking views and stop at incredible cities, historical sites or natural wonders. From California to New England, these are some of America's best train trips.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel and some lines may not be operating. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
The Sunset Limited
The ultimate American railroad ride: east to west, coast to coast, clean through from the bars of New Orleans to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve always dreamed of crossing the States, but don’t much relish the prospect of two weeks spent cooped up in an automobile, then a ride on the Sunset Limited is the answer. Sit back and let America’s landscapes buzz by: from Louisiana’s bayous, past the high-rises of Houston, across the deserts of Texas and Arizona, over the Californian hills all the way to LA’s golden beaches. Saddle up, pardner – it’s gonna be quite a ride.
Cruising the Pacific: the Coast Starlight
Trace America’s "left coast" in all its varied splendor. The 34-hour (OK, it’s Amtrak, so maybe more) trip between Seattle and Los Angeles curves alongside crashing Pacific waves, cuts through America’s lushest agricultural land, and passes below snowcapped mountains and towering redwoods. Of all the Amtrak routes, this one offers the most scenic variety in the fewest hours.
Another reason this train is special: it’s the only Amtrak service with a dedicated parlor car, open only to passengers who book sleepers. The parlor conjures old-time rail romance, with wood paneling and soft lighting, plus a special menu and wine-and-cheese tastings.
Metro-North Hudson Line
Depart from New York City’s iconic beaux arts Grand Central Terminal, stopping to admire the ornate astronomical ceiling painting in the vaulted Grand Concourse and to slurp up oysters and a martini at the famous Oyster Bar. Then roll through Manhattan and the Bronx and into the glorious green Hudson River Valley, getting off at any number of charming historic towns along the way.
Ready to climb aboard? Buy the book: Lonely Planet's Amazing Train Journeys
The California Zephyr
For soaking up the scenic grandeur of the North American continent, nothing compares with Amtrak’s California Zephyr train. This classic three-day journey travels nearly 2500 miles (4000km) across prairies, deserts, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada on its way from Chicago to San Francisco. Scenery is magnificent throughout – especially when seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the lounge car – but if you can only do one section, opt for the riveting 185-mile (298km) stretch between Denver and Glenwood Springs, where the train travels through an often roadless wilderness of deep, narrow gorges near the Colorado River’s headwaters.
New England’s Amtrak Downeaster
As car-free city breaks go, this train escape is hard to beat, chugging from the downtown main streets of urban Boston to Maine’s rural greens in under four hours. That’s from the seventh most densely populated city in the US to the state with the highest percentage of forest coverage, all in less time than it takes to cook an old-style Yankee plum pudding. Even better, every stop along the way features historic New England cities and towns, parks and seascapes, cottage arts and crafts, world-class shopping and stellar foods fashioned from farm-and-sea-fresh ingredients.
The New Mexico Rail Runner
One of America’s great unsung commuter railways, the New Mexico Rail Runner is a regional train that runs down the Rio Grande Valley, connecting the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, with its cultural and political capital, Santa Fe. On the way it crosses wide, high desert, giving views of arid mountains in all directions, and even passes through several of the state’s Native American tribal lands. A no-nonsense, clean and quick journey, its highlights are the sweeping views from the upper seats of the double-decker carriages. Taken as a day trip or a scenic-but-practical form of intra-state transport, the Rail Runner is a wonderful introduction to New Mexico’s epic landscapes.