As someone who was raised on Amtrak and has taken dozens of their cross-country trips over the past 20+ years, I’m a big advocate of train travel. Aside from amazing scenery, you get to detox from your usual hustle-and-bustle life; in fact, you have no choice: the WiFi is often spotty at best. Once you decide to take a train trip, you definitely have some R&R to look forward to. Which means your biggest issue will be answering one question – which route should you take?
It all comes down to what types of landscapes you want to see. The vast rolling low country of the Gulf? The California coast? The Rockies further north? The rivers and lakes of Middle America? The dramatic greenery of the Pacific Northwest? The options are endless – and you can always do a partial journey instead of a full one or train-hop from one route to another.
It’s also recommended to take trips a few times a year during different seasons – the Colorado River looks a lot different with glistening snow around it versus colorful spring flowers or fall foliage. But, no matter what time of year you take an Amtrak trip, as you take in the scenery from your seat or the observation car – complete with floor-to-ceiling windows ideal for sightseeing – you’ll quickly see how the journey truly is the destination.
Start – Chicago; End – Emeryville (San Francisco)
For a true cross-country train ride experience that goes right through the middle of America – from Chicago to San Francisco (via a bus from Emeryville) – the California Zephyr is the one. For almost 2,500 miles and a bit more than 51 hours, you’ll have a first-row seat to some of the nation’s best scenery. As farmlands transform to mountains before your very eyes, you’ll go through the Rockies, Glenwood Canyon and Moffat Tunnel as the train winds itself through the Continental Divide.
The postcard-perfect views will continue as the route soars through the High Sierra. Near the historic Donner Pass, the train will reach its highest point, approximately 7000ft above sea level, and you’ll see Donner Lake below, a freshwater lake within the California state line. You may also see various wildlife, like bald eagles flying overhead as the train continues on to the Pacific.
Start – Chicago; End – Los Angeles
Now’s your time to see the American West up-close-and-personal as you ride through it on the Southwest Chief. Unlike the fairly horizontal route of the California Zephyr, the Southwest Chief does more of a diagonal as it passes plains, rivers, mountains and deserts. Be sure to keep an eye on the scenery as it changes from Midwestern prairies to snow-capped Colorado mountains to sun-baked pueblos to the Sedona Red Cliffs, taking routes and switchbacks only fit for a train.
Start – Chicago; End – Los Angeles
If you cannot get enough of the train and want to take a longer route from Chicago to Los Angeles, the Texas Eagle fits the bill. Although 65 hours may sound long, with all the scenery competing for your attention, time will fly by and next thing you know, you'll arrive at your final destination. Along the way, you will see all types of topography, from the raging waters of the Mississippi River to the mountainous Ozarks. And in addition to seeing sprawling southern landscapes, you can also see how many historical towns and tiny train depots you can spot – a hint at how the west was won by rail. If you want to cut your journey in half, you can always get off at a Texan stop that catches your eye and spend more time there. Chicago to San Antonio, for example, is about a 32-hour journey.
Start – Seattle; End – Los Angeles
If you want to follow the length of the US west coast (well, minus San Diego), the Coast Starlight will provide you with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean for almost 350 miles of California coastline as you head south to Los Angeles – or north to Seattle. In addition to watching waves of crystal-blue water, you can take in the rich, dripping forests and snowy peaks of the Pacific Northwest. Just past the California border, the train curves around the base of Mount Shasta, giving you panoramic views of one of the southernmost of the Cascades Range's stratovolcanoes.
From there, the landscape begins to change remarkably as you leave verdant, foggy NorCal behind for the golden hues of the state's farmland, wine country, and eventually SoCal's dusky, scrubb-strewn hills. The southern terminus is Los Angeles' handsome Arts and Crafts train station, all dark wood and generous leather club chairs, from which you can easily catch a bus elsewhere – including LAX – or pick up another train route.
If you were traveling north from LA to Seattle, however, you have a choice to make. Once the train reaches Eugene, Oregon, some north bound train-goers opt for the Amtrak Cascades route to continue even further north than Seattle and on to Vancouver, British Columbia (see more below).
Start – Eugene; End – Vancouver, BC
Whether you take the Amtrak Cascades train route as an extension of your trip up the West Coast from LA on the Coast Starlight or just take the former on its own, one thing’s for sure: nothing encompasses the Pacific Northwest more than this voyage. On this 10-hour, 25-minute journey from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia, the picturesque views you’ll get on this include everything from waterfalls to the high peaks of Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. And don’t forget about the Columbia River Gorge and Puget Sound, too.
Start – Chicago; End – Portland/Seattle
For an ideal trip through the northern part of the United States – particularly if you’re a Lewis and Clark fan and want to retrace some of their steps – Empire Builder is your train. Starting from Chicago, you’ll then go north through Wisconsin and Minnesota before making your way across several states until reaching Portland or Seattle.
From the vast, yet striking, prairies of North Dakota to charming mountain towns, there’s always something to see. Plus, don’t forget about renowned sights like the mighty Mississippi, Montana’s Big Sky country and Glacier National Park – there’s even a train stop in East Glacier. In Spokane, the train heads either to Portland or Seattle. Hint: if you take the Portland route, you’ll see the stunning Columbia River Gorge, which you won’t soon – if ever – forget.
Start – New Orleans; End – Los Angeles
The Sunset Limited travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles and is Amtrak’s southernmost route. If looking out at breathtaking bayous, deserts and mountainous landscapes is your thing, you’ll love this ride. Other highlights include crossing the Rio Grande and seeing more cacti than you can count. Of course, it’s not called the Sunset Limited for nothing – you can catch epic shades of yellow, orange, and pink blending together into unforgettable sunsets with stunning backdrops.
Start – San Luis Obispo; End – San Diego
The Pacific Surfliner goes from San Luis Obispo – complete with plenty of small-town charm and views of wine country – to San Diego, or vice-versa. Since it’s a coastal train route, you’ll see plenty of surf, as well as surfers – the train even has racks for both bikes and surfboards. At just under six hours, this is also the perfect route to take if you’re new to long-distance train travel and want to start small before committing to a full-on cross-country journey just yet. Plus, it makes for an easy weekend away if you live in or near one of the many cities it goes through, like Los Angeles, Solvang or Santa Barbara.
Lake Shore Limited
Start – New York/Boston; End – Chicago
You don't have to head to the coasts to have beautiful journey along silver shorelines – not when the Lake Shore Limited has got you covered. Hugging the lip of the Great Lakes and other famous bodies of water, including the Mohawk River, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes region of New York, the aquatic scenery makes for a pretty and peaceful journey. And when you throw a colorful sunset into the mix, it makes the landscape that much more captivating as you roll from the first to second cities through what was once the frontier.
Start – New York, NY; End – Montreal, QC
What better a way to go visit Montreal than hopping on the train in New York and heading up north to Canada. This 10-hour journey offers a perfect escape from big-city life while passing through tranquil areas like the Hudson Valley, Saratoga Springs and Adirondack Mountains. It’s a lovely trip to take any time of year, but especially during the fall foliage. You’ll also ride by some beautiful bodies of water, including Lake Champlain and Lake George. And if you take the route from Montreal to New York instead of vice-versa, there will be plenty of train connection options once you arrive, from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, and beyond.
Start – Washington, D.C.; End – Chicago
Whether you start your journey in the Midwest or from the East Coast, this 18-hour train ride will take you through some key scenic places, including the Potomac Valley, Harpers Ferry and the Allegheny Mountains. You might capture a stunning sunset along the way, too. No matter which city you start in, you can continue your trip in one of the vibrant cities the train ends in. You can also bring along your bike, as the Capitol Limited allows for bike storage, and continue your travel adventure that way.
You may also like:
Journey into the sunset on America's oldest railway
How Amtrak trips will change after the COVID-19 pandemic
Amtrak service will be returning to the Gulf Coast for the first time since Hurricane Katrina