Plan your next vacation around one or more of these incredible rail excursions.
Though you may not immediately think of train travel when deciding where to spend your hard-earned vacation days, everyone from locomotive enthusiasts to adventure junkies should consider adding this mode of transportation to their next trip itinerary. After all, trains offer more than just a convenient way to get from point A to point B: They give you a front-row seat to viewing lush jungles, towering mountains and picturesque vineyards, among other stunning landscapes. To help you pick the perfect rail outing, U.S. News compiled a list of 15 train excursions known for their breathtaking panoramas. Read on to determine which scenic option is best for you.
Coast Starlight, Amtrak
If you want to visit multiple West Coast destinations by rail, consider booking a ride on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route. This 30- to 35-hour outing travels between Seattle and Los Angeles daily, passing through cities like Portland, Oregon, and Santa Barbara, California, among other charming locales. From the train’s Sightseer Lounge Car, you can dine while enjoying views of the Cascade Range, Mount Shasta, the Pacific Ocean and more from panoramic windows. Plus, National Park Service volunteers lead two Trails & Rails talks about local protected areas during the journey. Exact one-way prices vary by travel dates, but standard coach seats start at $98 per person, while sleeper cabins with two to four convertible beds cost $351 to $1,405 per room.
The Jacobite, West Coast Railways
History enthusiasts and film buffs will likely love exploring the Scottish Highlands on The Jacobite. This old-fashioned steam train departs from Fort William and makes an 84-mile, round-trip trek through Scotland’s countryside. Noteworthy sights include Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest mountain), Arisaig (a bayfront village that hosts an annual Highland Games competition) and the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct (which is featured in the “Harry Potter” movies). The train operates seasonally from mid-April to late September, with the ride lasting roughly six or seven hours. To reserve a standard seat on this iconic locomotive, expect to pay 37.75 pounds (approximately $50) per adult and 20.75 pounds (about $27.50) for each child 12 and younger.
Winnipeg-Churchill, VIA Rail Canada
For incredible scenery and unforgettable nature activities, hop on VIA Rail Canada’s Winnipeg-Churchill train. This two-day, two-night outing starts in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and ends in the remote town of Churchill, where visitors can kayak with beluga whales during the warmer months and join a winter safari to look for polar bears in the cooler months. Travelers may even catch a glimpse of the northern lights while en route to Churchill. The more than 1,000-mile journey, which departs every Sunday and Tuesday, starts at 213 Canadian dollars (about $160) per person. Local excursions cost extra, but standard economy tickets include baggage service. Upgraded Sleeper Plus Class fares cover additional perks like complimentary meals in the dining car and access to a shower and a private cabin with a bed.
Grand Canyon Railway
Visitors who want to have an unforgettable Grand Canyon getaway should consider riding the Grand Canyon Railway. Traveling between Williams, Arizona, and the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, the Grand Canyon Railway passes through northern Arizona’s section of the Colorado Plateau. The trip covers 65 miles and takes more than two hours to complete each way. While en route, travelers may spot wild animals like elk, bald eagles and mountain lions. Six cabin categories are available, including the standard Pullman Class (where tickets cost $32 to $67 per person, depending on age) and the upgraded Observation Dome (which boasts a raised dome with 360-degree views). Trains depart once or twice daily from each station.
Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka Railways
Explore Sri Lanka’s lush Hill Country via Sri Lanka Railways’ Kandy to Ella train. As you traverse the colonial-era track, you’ll discover dense vegetation and tea plantations, as well as the historic Nine Arch Bridge. Tickets for standard second- and third-class cars (which do not have air conditioning) are sold on a first-come, first-served basis at ticket offices for 125 to 230 rupees (or about $2 to $3) per person. Seats often fill up on this popular itinerary, so if you don’t want to stand most or all of the six-hour ride, consider buying a guaranteed seat in the first-class cabin several months in advance. Travel agencies like 12Go and Visit Sri Lanka Tours sell tickets online for roughly $17 to $19 per person.
KiwiRail’s 139-mile-long TranzAlpine route offers travelers a hassle-free way of checking out New Zealand’s South Island. Instead of crossing the island by car, visitors can climb aboard this passenger train, which connects Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west coast. During the nearly five-hour excursion, riders will see the majestic Southern Alps, tree-filled Arthur’s Pass and the pristine Waimakariri River and Lake Brunner from panoramic windows. What’s more, passengers have access to a cafe car and complimentary headsets for listening to in-seat audio commentary. The train departs once daily from each end station, and standard one-way fares cost 125 to 179 New Zealand dollars (or $85 to $122) per person.
MachuPicchu Train, Inca Rail
One of the easiest and most scenic ways to get to and from Machu Picchu is to ride the MachuPicchu Train. Departing several times daily from Ollantaytambo, Peru (a town situated about 50 miles northwest of Cusco), this tourist train travels roughly an hour-and-a-half through towering mountains and thick rainforest before arriving at Machu Picchu Station in Aguas Calientes. Three kinds of locomotives — all with panoramic windows — are available, including The Voyager (the most basic option), The 360 (with an outdoor observatory wagon) and The First Class (a more spacious train that features an observatory lounge and a bar). Standard one-way tickets start at $54 per adult and $27 for each child between 3 and 12, though exact prices vary by day and time.
Nantahala Gorge Excursion, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers two highly regarded train outings through the Smokies, but those in search of phenomenal scenery — especially in fall — should opt for the Nantahala Gorge Excursion. This four-and-a-half-hour journey includes up-close views of the Nantahala River, the Fontana Trestle and Nantahala Gorge. It operates from March through October and starts and ends in downtown Bryson City, North Carolina, which sits just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Both diesel and steam locomotives are available, and cabin class options range from covered and open-air coach cars to first-class cars with larger windows. Passengers can expect to pay $51 to $114 per adult and $29 to $63 per child ages 2 to 12, depending on the train type, car category and month chosen.
Glacier Express, Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn and Rhaetian Railway
For jaw-dropping mountain vistas year-round, reserve a seat on the Glacier Express. During this eight-hour ride, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of Swiss Alps locales like the Albula Valley and the Rhine Gorge (Switzerland’s version of the Grand Canyon) as you travel between ritzy St. Moritz and ski-centric Zermatt. Each red train features panoramic windows and seats with service buttons for ordering meals, as well as route information you can listen to with headphones. Standard tickets cost 152 Swiss francs (about $151.50) for adults and 76 Swiss francs (less than $76) for children 6 to 16. A seat reservation fee of 23 to 43 Swiss francs (or $23 to $43) also applies for all tickets; the exact amount varies by season.
Vasco da Gama to Londa, Goa Express, Indian Railways
Though Goa’s world-renowned beaches are the Indian state’s main draw, travelers would be remiss if they didn’t save time for a ride on the Goa Express. The train’s most scenic stretch — from the Goan city of Vasco da Gama to Londa (a town in the Indian state of Karnataka) — weaves through the country’s Western Ghats mountain range, zipping past greenery, quaint villages and the 1,017-foot-tall Dudhsagar Falls along the way. The Goa Express runs daily, and tickets can be purchased at train stations for 78 to 680 rupees (about $1 to $10) per adult and 45 to 370 rupees (less than $1 to roughly $5) per child between 5 and 12. Allot three-and-a-half hours for the 67-mile journey from Vasco da Gama to Londa.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Napa Valley visitors who want to combine sightseeing with wine tasting should opt for a three-hour, 36-mile excursion on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Passengers climb aboard and disembark in downtown Napa, California, and have the opportunity to sip wines while traveling through vineyards belonging to Robert Mondavi Winery, Castello di Amorosa winery, Far Niente winery and more. The train’s wine list features 40-plus kinds of vino, which can be sampled by the glass, by the bottle or in wine flights. Standard Gourmet Express tours depart daily and start at $150 per person. Each outing covers lunch or dinner in its fee. Upgraded train experiences that include a welcome glass of sparkling wine and/or one or more tastings at local wineries are available as well.
First Passage to the West, Rocky Mountaineer
Grandiose mountains, picturesque lakes, impressive arch bridges and otherworldly hoodoos are just some of the sights you’ll see during a First Passage to the West train ride. Winding its way through the Canadian Rockies, this Rocky Mountaineer train travels between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Banff, Alberta, and may include stops in outdoorsy areas like Kamloops, British Columbia, and Lake Louise, Alberta. Standard First Passage to the West journeys cost $1,247 to $2,053 per person and last two days, though 11- to 16-day packages that cover a Holland America cruise or a stay at the luxe Sonora Resort are also available. No matter which package you choose, you’ll enjoy select meals and at least one night of hotel accommodations.
Swap Mexico’s beaches and ruins for a journey through its Copper Canyon. During a ride on the nearly 406-mile-long Copper Canyon railway, you’ll gaze at the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains’ expansive Copper Canyon. The rail system connects the city of Los Mochis in the Mexican state of Sinaloa to northwestern locales, such as Creel and Chihuahua (both in the state of Chihuahua), and features two kinds of trains. The older Chepe Regional locomotive offers basic amenities (think: restrooms and a dining car) and makes all 13 stops along the route, while the newer Chepe Express train boasts upgrades like a bar car and a panoramic viewing car, plus faster travel times due to limited stops. Each train only operates three days per week, and fees range from 1,891 to 6,000 pesos (about $100 to $313.50) per person.
White Pass Summit Excursion, White Pass & Yukon Route
If you dream of riding the rails while taking in stunning panoramas and learning a bit of American history, hop on the White Pass & Yukon Route. Built in 1898 to transport gold prospectors throughout Canada and the U.S., this railway features awe-inspiring views of glaciers, waterfalls, mountains and more. On the White Pass Summit Excursion, which traverses miles of the railroad’s original route, you’ll pass by natural wonders like Bridal Veil Falls and White Pass before returning to Skagway, Alaska, a city situated roughly 100 miles northwest of Juneau. The nearly three-hour journey is available most days from late April to early October and costs $129 per adult and $64.50 for each child ages 3 to 12.
Kuranda Scenic Railway, Queensland Rail
Offering a change of scenery from the nearby Great Barrier Reef, Cairns’ Kuranda Scenic Railway — which operates every day except Christmas — places passengers amid the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics of Queensland. When you’re not off of the train and learning about indigenous Australian culture or interacting with animals like wallabies and koalas, you’ll enjoy mesmerizing waterfall and rainforest vistas. Standard Heritage Class tickets cover audio commentary and seats in one of the train’s cars. For a round-trip ride, expect to pay 76 Australian dollars (approximately $54) per adult and AU$38 (about $27) per child between 4 and 14. Family passes for two adults and two children are also available for AU$190 (less than $135) each.
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