Trains have long been a great way for families to let someone else handle the hassle of getting from point A to point B. By combining everything in one rolling package—scenery, transportation, food, sometimes even accommodations—rail trips streamline the complexities of family travel, making the journey as appealing as the destination.
“Trains are perfect for anyone who’s fed up with the airline experience—or should I say non-experience—and who want to cut their carbon footprint,” says Mark Smith, founder of the popular train travel website The Man in Seat 61. “On a train the scenery comes to you.” They’re also miles more comfortable than planes, cars or buses. “Not to mention you’re actually sitting facing each other,” says Smith. (Great for keeping an eye on your kids.)
“On a train, everything kind of gears down,” says Jim Loomis, author of All Aboard! The Complete North American Train Travel Guide. “You have time to observe and meet people, and the train itself is an interesting distraction for kids.” Touring by rail helps families unplug and connect, he says, recalling a cross-country journey he and his daughter, then 12, took in the early ’90s. “It’s amazing how much she still remembers about that trip. The father-daughter time was really great.”
Here’s a selection of outstanding routes around North America with an eye to variety, from captivating day trips to epic cross-country overnighters.
Cass Scenic Railroad
Why we love it: It’s a short ride, but packed with railroad history.
Deep in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, this 11-mile rail line laid in 1901 connects the former lumber town of Cass—now part of Cass Scenic Railroad State Park—with the peak of Bald Knob (4,843 feet), the third highest point in the state. Today guests aboard the Cass Scenic Railroad ride in refurbished logging cars that are pushed uphill by turn-of-the-century locomotives. One of them, Shay No. 5, has been in continuous service since 1905, when it started hauling lumber down to the mill in Cass.
Be ready for some soot from the coal-fired train and the occasional stop to grease the engine and take on water. It’s all part of the immersive historic experience, says John Smith, president of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad. “It’s amazing to see people running the trains from the same families who were running them during the logging days back in 1905. The passed-down knowledge is still here.”
The trip takes just under five hours round trip and includes a “King of the Road” packed lunch. Gazing out over the lush green valleys of two states from the observation deck, try to spot the giant Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, far below. Families who want to stay longer can reserve cabins in Cass and grab a slice of pie at The Last Run Restaurant and Soda Fountain in the former company store.
Don’t miss: For a unique overnight, reserve one of two Castaway Cabooses, old train cars refitted into rolling apartments that can be parked at a quiet spot along the Greenbrier River for up to five nights.
Grand Canyon Railway
Why we love it: Skip the crowds and hit the rim in just over two hours.
For all the grandeur of the Grand Canyon National Park, its busy South Rim entrance can be vexingly mobbed with vehicles during peak tourist season. One great way to bypass the hordes is aboard the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, Arizona. The 65-mile excursion aboard restored vintage train cars starts in the historic Williams Depot, built in 1908 on what would become (and still is) Old Route 66.
Pronghorn antelopes, the fastest land mammal in North America, easily outpace the train as it chugs through ponderosa pine forests and open prairie toward the edge of the abyss. There are six classes of service, from the bench seats and open windows of Pullman Class to the plush Luxury Parlor.
Rehydrate at the café car and listen for ten-gallon troubadours wandering the cars singing Old West tunes. What the kids will probably remember most, though, is the mock train robbery staged by a gang of mounted “outlaws.”
The outbound journey ends at the Grand Canyon Depot, 200 yards from the edge, where you’ll have three hours to explore on your own or as part of a guided bus tour before returning to Williams. Another option is to spend the night at one of the park’s grand old railroad lodges, such as El Tovar (1905) or Bright Angel (1935).
Don’t miss: The nine-foot wingspan of soaring California condors, whose recovery story is almost as inspiring as their desert domain. There were only 22 in the world in the early 1980s; today there are more than 300 of the birds.
Glacier Discovery Train
Why we love it: Four hours of epic Alaskan scenery, wildlife, and outdoor adventure.
After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Alaska Railroad has returned to its full summer schedule in 2022. This day trip on the Glacier Discovery Train rolls southeast from Anchorage along the shore of the narrow Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, home to some of the largest tides in North America. The scenery alone is worth the trip, starting with the glacier-carved Chugach and Kenai Mountains that loom on either side.
“We get everyone from kids in diapers to folks in wheelchairs,” says Vern Gillis, a conductor with the Alaska Railroad since 1992. In between stops, Gillis roams the aisles telling dad jokes (“What do you call a bear without teeth? A gummy bear!”) and pointing out wildlife along the tracks. Ask nicely and he might even let kiddos sound the horn. “If people just want to look, they can do that, but if they want to get out in the fresh air they can do that too,” Gillis says.
Optional side excursions let you hop on and off the train to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a nonprofit sanctuary for moose, musk ox, lynx, and other injured and orphaned animals. (Say hi to Kobuk, a fan-favorite black bear in residence since 2016.) A few hours later, you can board a rattletrap old school bus for a quick and bumpy ride to the lake beneath Spencer Glacier. There, guides with Chugach Adventures pilot rafts among deep blue icebergs before floating down the Spencer River back to the train.
Don’t miss: Time your trip right—a few hours after low tide is best—and you might spot surfers riding Turnagain Arm’s famous tide bore, a continuous breaking wave up to six feet high formed by colliding tides.
Santa Cruz Beach Train
Why we love it: From redwoods to Pacific breakers in an hour.
Skateboards, ice chests, and beach chairs are standard on this winding route that was once used to ferry timber to the beach. The Santa Cruz Beach Train starts at Roaring Camp in Felton, California, home to a train depot, general store, cookhouse, and blacksmith shop. Electromotive diesels pull open-air viewing cars through the 40-acre grove of old-growth behemoths known as Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Enthusiastic conductors will point out the park’s largest tree, which at about 277 feet tall and 1,500 years old is enough to awe even jaded teens.
After crossing the San Lorenzo River on a 1909 steel truss bridge, the tracks follow the west side of the canyon past cliffs and swimming holes. A 1875 tunnel leads to the streets of downtown Santa Cruz. The roller coaster on the boardwalk is the end of the line, where you can shake your head at all the traffic you just managed to avoid. Then it’s beach time—just remember the last train back leaves at 4 p.m.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
When showman P.T. Barnum called this climb the “railway to the moon” on its opening in 1869, it wasn’t pure hyperbole. With an average grade of 25 percent—up to 37 percent in some sections—the Mount Washington Cog Railway, the second-steepest cog railway in the world, creeps to the summit of the highest peak in the northeast U.S. (6,288 feet) on an hourly schedule during the summer.
Both vintage steam and modern biodiesel locomotives make the ascent through three climate zones in the majestic White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. Don’t worry about the weirdly angled seats when you climb on board; they become vertical once the climb starts, and rotate for the face-first descent. On a good day you can see for over one hundred miles from the top, across five states and Canada. But come prepared for wind and precipitation, even in summer—Mount Washington has some of the world’s most extreme recorded weather.
During the hour-long stop at the summit, you can explore a spiderweb of trails in all directions. Speaking of foot travel, in June keep an eye out for runners trying to beat the train in the Race the Cog competition, which even extreme athletes call the “Beast of the East.”
Don’t miss: The first train of the day, which offers the best chance of skies clear enough to see the Atlantic Ocean.
Rockies to the Red Rocks
Why we love it: Two days of white-glove service and inspiring scenery.
Rocky Mountaineer has been known for its opulent overnight rail journeys across the Canadian Rockies since it ran its first train in 1990. Last August, the company exported its trademark level of luxury to the U.S. for the first time in the form of an overnight trip between Denver, Colorado, and Moab, Utah. Starting in the mountains, Rockies to the Red Rocks passes through a dazzling range of landscapes as it crosses the Continental Divide and snakes along the Colorado River toward Arches National Park. An overnight at an upscale hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, is part of the package.
Guests enjoy freshly prepared meals and access to roomy, glass-domed cars. There are dedicated hosts on hand to point out geological features and wildlife, including river rafters who often give passing trains a booty-baring “Colorado Salute.” It’s not cheap or fast—you could drive the route in less than a day—but between the pine-clad mountains, sinuous canyons, and red-rock deserts, it’s hard to beat for comfort and sheer scenic diversity.
Don’t miss: For breakfast, grab a delicately flaky 11-layer croughnut from Sweet Coloradough in Glenwood Springs.
Why we love it: A four-day showcase of the best of the Great White North.
Smith vividly remembers one early morning on VIA Rail’s flagship cross-Canada route in 2019. Leaving his family to sleep, he went to the glass-walled dome car to get a coffee and a pastry. “When I turned around and suddenly saw the Canadian Rockies lit pink by the rising sun, I almost dropped my mug,” he says.
Smith’s transcendent moment is just one example of why The Canadian earns a spot on serious rail travelers’ bucket lists. From Toronto to Vancouver, this 2,775-mile cross section of the second-largest country in the world connects the lakes and rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield with the sweeping central prairies and the vertical panorama of the Rocky Mountains from Jasper to Vancouver. Smith highly recommends traveling from east to west, which follows the country’s historical expansion and leaves the best for last. (“Otherwise it’s like starting with dessert,” he says.)
Choose from one of three classes of service in the original stainless-steel coaches built in the 1950s. Economy class involves bedding down in a reclining seat, so opt for Sleeper Plus, which includes meals as well as access to the domed viewing cars and plush Park Car lounge at the rear of the train. For a splurge, Prestige Class features hotel-class luxury bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms.
Julian Smith is a travel and environment writer whose most recent book is Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West. Follow him on Instagram.