There's no better way to experience the sheer grandeur of the North American continent than by rail. Considerably more relaxing than driving or flying, many trains in the United States offer a leisurely, nostalgic sightseeing experience, often passing through pristine landscapes inaccessible by other means.

The routes listed here are the cream of the crop. Spend a few days riding the rails from coast to coast, or, for a shorter journey, simply zero in on the most scenic section of each route, as described below.

The California Zephyr train passes trackside wild flowers in the US
The California Zephyr is one of the world's most amazing train journeys © Amtrak

1. Denver to San Francisco

The California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco is hands-down the United States' most spectacular train route, offering unparalleled wilderness scenery as it traverses the country's two highest mountain ranges. From Denver, the train climbs the pine-covered eastern slopes of the Rockies, then charts a sinuous course through a dazzling series of steep-walled canyons along the Colorado River. Near sunset, the train emerges into the majestic red rock desert of eastern Utah, then crosses overnight into the forbidding vastness of Nevada's sagebrush country, with salt flats and stark, arid mountains as far as the eye can see. By noon the next day, you're climbing into the granite grandeur of California's Sierra Nevada, where you can stop off in the appealing 19th-century railroad town of Truckee, or continue over Donner Pass into San Francisco.

The Coast Starlight hugs California's dramatic coastline © Amtrak
The Coast Starlight hugs California's dramatic coastline © Amtrak

2. Los Angeles to Seattle

The Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle features the finest coastal scenery in the nation, hugging the Southern California shoreline for over 100 miles near Santa Barbara, so close to the waves that you can actually wave to the surfers. The remainder of the route heads inland through Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, where highlights include dramatic sunrise perspectives on 14,179ft Mt Shasta, and a gorgeous midday traverse of Oregon's Cascade Range.

Empire Builder crosses a bridge in snowy weather
Hop off the Empire Builder at Glacier National Park to break up the long journey © Amtrak

3. Chicago to Seattle

The Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle glides through Wisconsin's woodlands, Minnesota's lake country and the North Dakota prairies en route to a western horizon swarming with snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks. From Browning, Montana, an unforgettable 60-mile run along the southern edge of Glacier National Park leads to the park entrance at West Glacier, where nature lovers will want to break their journey before continuing to Seattle.

The Vermonter train traverses a bridge, with a backdrop of fall colours
The Vermonter showcases some of the state's loveliest scenery © Amtrak

4. St Albans, Vermont to Washington, DC

The Vermonter from Washington, DC to St Albans, VT is the most scenic route east of the Mississippi, especially in its northern reaches, where it snakes for four hours through the bucolic green hills and photogenic villages of rural Vermont.

High angle view of St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square in French Quarter, New Orleans, LA, USA
Let the good times roll... all the way to New Orleans © eyfoto / Getty Images

5. Chicago to New Orleans

The City of New Orleans train, made famous by the song of the same name, offers a romantic approach to one of America's great cities — New Orleans. After travelling overnight from Chicago to Memphis, its daylight run through the morning mists of Mississippi and Louisiana make a perfect introduction to the Deep South.

More information

Routes through the Rocky Mountains are best enjoyed from June through August, when summer wildflowers and longer daylight make for optimal sightseeing.

Adventurous spirits may also want to consider purchasing a multi-week train pass, which allows you to build a customized transcontinental itinerary combining these and other US train routes.

First published in March 2012.

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