More than a century ago, when the first US national parks were formed, most visitors didn't arrive by car or in RVs, but on trains. Automobiles were still prohibitively expensive, and there were no interstate highways then – most existing thoroughfares would have made for a rough road trip anyways.
While cars have eventually become king, there's magic and grandeur in arriving at a national park the old-fashioned way, ensconced in a railway car. No matter what kind of scenery you’re craving, from snow-capped mountains to raging rivers, there are several Amtrak train route options to choose from.
If you want to take an Amtrak train journey to a national park in 2022, here are 10 routes to consider.
Get to Yellowstone National Park on the California Zephyr
Route: Chicago to San Francisco
Is there an Amtrak route through Yellowstone National Park? If you've ever wondered if you can get to this incredible park by rail, we have great news — you can take the California Zephyr, which goes from Chicago to San Francisco, and vice versa, to get to Yellowstone National Park. While onboard, you’ll see everything from farmland and barns that look like they’re out of a movie to mountainous terrain. If you’re looking for geysers, in addition to the renowned Old Faithful, you’ll have your choice of about 500. In fact, Yellowstone is home to approximately half of the world’s geysers. You’ll also find plenty of thermal hot springs, not to mention an endless variety of wildlife, from elk to grizzly and black bears to the nation’s oldest herd of bison.
Getting to the park: You can take the Blue Line from Salt Lake City Central train station to the Salt Lake City airport, where you can pick up the Salt Lake Express north to West Yellowstone. Alternatively, take the Blue Line north to another city on the Salt Lake Express route, like gorgeous Ogden, Utah, before transferring and heading on to the park.
Reach Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder
Route: Chicago to Portland/Seattle
The Empire Builder will provide you with authentic scenery of the American West while heading through the northern United States – it follows several parts of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from the early 1800s, as well as takes you into Montana’s Big Sky country. No matter where you climb aboard the Empire Builder, you’ll want to get off at Montana’s East Glacier station, which is on the periphery of Glacier National Park. Once there, you can explore an endless number of hiking trails — more than 700 miles’ worth — as well as more than 130 lakes, all while taking in the glacier-carved valleys.
Getting to the park: The East Side Shuttle goes from the Glacier Park Lodge to St Mary Village, where you can catch the National Park Service Shuttle on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Or you may want to join a historic Red Bus Tour to make your way around the park and its famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. Fun fact: Several of the buses are restored originals from the 1930s.
Reach Crater Lake National Park aboard the Coast Starlight
Route: Los Angeles to Seattle
When you take the Coast Starlight north from Los Angeles toward Seattle, not only will you see picture-perfect coastal views and snow-capped mountains, but it’ll also take you to Crater Lake National Park. If you’re looking for an authentic Pacific Northwest experience, you’ll find it here. On more than 183,000 acres, there’s plenty to explore: you can camp, hike or chase waterfalls. Or, you can just admire the deep turquoise Crater Lake itself, which was formed from a collapsed volcano and is the deepest lake in the US at 1949ft and one of the deepest in the world.
Getting to the park: Get off the train at the Klamath Falls stop, amidst the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon. Then there is a shuttle bus connection to take you to the park.
Visit Olympic National Park via the Empire Builder or Coast Starlight
Route: Empire Builder (Chicago to Portland/Seattle) or Coast Starlight (Los Angeles to Seattle)
As far as getting to Olympic National Park, it depends on what train route you prefer — land or ocean views — and where you’ll be coming from. The Empire Builder will take you into the heart of the American West whereas the Coast Starlight will take you north from Los Angeles toward Seattle. At the park itself, which is almost a million acres, there’s a surplus of nature to take in, from the sky-high trees of Hoh Rain Forest to Hurricane Ridge — hiking or skiing, anyone? — to Lake Crescent, the perfect place to hike, then camp for a night (or two). Of course, don’t forget to check out Mt. Olympus, a must for climbers.
Getting to the park: From Seattle's King Street train station, you can take the Dungeness Bus Line to Sequim or Port Angeles, where you’ll find the Clallam Transit System’s bus line that goes to several popular Olympic National Park destinations along the northern part of Hwy 101.
Travel to Yosemite National Park on the San Joaquins
Route: Bakersfield to Sacramento/Oakland
The Amtrak train you need to get to Yosemite National Park is the San Joaquins, which connects the San Francisco area, Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield. And if you’re like me and can’t get enough Amtrak, you can first take another train route, like the Coast Starlight, before connecting to the San Joaquins. From the train, you’ll see all kinds of scenery, from fruit and nut trees in the early spring to orchards, vineyards and perhaps some of the Sierra Nevada itself, depending on the visibility. As you do so, you can sip on a regional wine or craft beer.
In no time, you’ll reach Yosemite. While the park may be known for its larger-than-life rock formations, including Half Dome, El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, it’s also home to a countless number of waterfalls. At 2425ft, Yosemite Falls is one of the most renowned, as well as one of the world’s tallest. Between looking up at the waterfalls to looking down at the Merced River, no matter which way you look, there’s something incredible to see.
Getting to the park: Whether you get on the route in a place like Sacramento, Oakland or Emeryville, you’ll get off at the Merced, CA, station, and then transfer to an Amtrak bus via the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS). This will take you to Yosemite’s Arch Rock Entrance. Another option is getting off the train at Fresno and taking a YARTS bus to the South Entrance of the park. When you buy your Amtrak ticket to Yosemite, the shuttle bus and park admission are included. It’ll be such an efficient process that you won’t miss not having driven, waiting in long lines for parking, then trying to find a parking spot.
Get to Grand Canyon National Park on the Southwest Chief
Route: Chicago to Los Angeles
The Southwest Chief, which goes from Chicago to Los Angeles, and vice versa, will take you past a variety of landscapes, from nostalgic farmland to the Mighty Mississippi. Depending on the season, you could see leaves changing color or snow sprinkling the trees. But you’re about to behold an even bigger sight — the 277-mile long, 18-mile wide Grand Canyon National Park. Once there, the only problem will be deciding what to see. If you want expansive canyon views, as well as one of the Colorado River, Lipan Point is a favorite among many visitors. Or you can check out the renowned Desert View Watchtower. Standing at 70ft, it’s on the canyon’s South Rim and an ideal place to take in the larger-than-life ambience.
Reach Rocky Mountain National Park on the California Zephyr
Route: Chicago to San Francisco
Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs from Chicago to San Francisco (or from San Francisco to Chicago) and makes for a good way to get to Rocky Mountain National Park. But first, while aboard the train, you’ll see incredible scenery, from Midwest plains and charming small towns, with even smaller train depots, to the mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevada — depending on which way you’re traveling from. Off the train, you’ll then have your pick of what to see and do at the Rockies, from camping and skiing to mountain biking and hiking — in case you’re curious, there are more than 300 miles’ worth of trails. You can also see how many types of wildlife you can spot, including bighorn sheep, deer and elk, as well as a countless number of birds.
Getting to the park: When you get off the train at Denver’s Union Station, you can catch the Estes Park Shuttle to the little mountain town at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. From there, Rocky Mountain visitor shuttles go to famous sites such as Bear Lake.
Reach Channel Islands National Park aboard the Pacific Surfliner
Route: San Diego to San Luis Obispo
The Pacific Surfliner is the perfect train route to take if you’re looking for a scenic journey along the coast — you’ll see palm trees swaying in the breeze one moment and surfers braving the waves the next. Plus, the train will pass plenty of idyllic small towns and vineyards, too, depending on where you get abroad. If you’re a cyclist or surfer, you can even bring your bike or surfboard along, then use them on the periphery of Channel Islands National Park — bikes are not allowed on the islands themselves. Since the park is made up of islands, many visitors spend time in and on the water, whale watching, kayaking in sea caves or snorkeling around the area — or both.
Getting to the park: You can depart the train in Ventura or Oxnard to reach the Channel Islands. Then, to get to the islands themselves, you’ll take a boat through Island Packers.
Visit Harpers Ferry National Park on the Capitol Limited
Route: Chicago to Washington, DC
The Capitol Limited will take you from Chicago to Washington, DC, where you’ll pass various landmarks, such as the Potomac Valley and the Allegheny Mountains. You can also bring along your bike, which could come in handy once you reach the streets of Harpers Ferry National Park. Once there, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, you’ll find a charming community with rich history. You may recall that Harpers Ferry is where John Brown’s 1859 raid on the First Federal Arsenal took place. Whether you want to check out exhibits and museums, hiking trails or water activities — such as fishing, kayaking or swimming — there’s a wide array of things to do. Or, you can explore one of the battlefields that has been preserved.
Reach Jean Lafitte National Park on Amtrak's Sunset Limited
Route: Los Angeles to New Orleans
If you’re a fan of desert scenery straight out of a painting, you’ll find it on the Sunset Limited, which goes from Los Angeles to New Orleans. First, you’ll see plenty of California mountains along this southernmost Amtrak route as you head East. As you slide into the south, it's hard not to feel the vibe whether it’s a deep purple and orange sunset or a person on horseback you spy outside the window.
Once at Jean Lafitte National Park, which is just 17 miles from New Orleans, you’ll find Louisiana’s wetlands, with all the swamp, bayous and alligators you can handle. Plus, you’ll spot animals, reptiles and amphibians you may not usually see, including nine-banded armadillos, tree frogs and water snakes. And if you’re into birdwatching, this is the place: be on the lookout for over 200 species of birds, everything from herons to painted buntings to barred owls.
Getting to the park: From the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, taking a taxi or using a rideshare service is the easiest way to get to the park, depending on what section(s) of it you’d like to visit – it should be a 20-30 minute drive.
Can I get to Zion National Park on an Amtrak train?
Unfortunately, there is no direct route on an Amtrak train through Zion National Park. The closest Amtrak station is on the Southwest Chief route which stops in Flagstaff, Arizona. From there, the drive is about four hours.
Does Amtrak go to Sequoia National Park?
No, there is no Amtrak that connects to Sequoia National Park. The closest Amtrak stations are in Hanford, California (about an hour drive away) and Fresno (about 1:30 drive away).