Clickety clack sounds. Steam whistles. Conductors sporting overalls. What’s not to love about train travel?
In a world of instant gratification, welcoming a slower travel experience can be a lovely change of pace.
Whether it’s a day trip or a long-distance haul, you’ll score instant nostalgia with one of these incredible North American railway journeys.
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
With evergreen forests, impressive canyons and jagged peaks, visiting the Rocky Mountains is no brainer.
Making the trip in a coal-fired steam engine, even better.
For starters, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a National Historic Landmark that transports you back to the 1880s.
Not to mention, you’ll be traveling to remote places in Colorado and New Mexico that cars can’t access on the 64-mile route.
Top speed is 12 mph – so the wildflowers and craggy canyons won’t be a blur.
The train departs each day from Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. Best part is: There’s no cell service along the way. You have no choice but to relax. Tickets start at $115 for adults.
The Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway
There’s a good reason Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” at the top of Colorado’s Pikes Peak: It’s absolutely gorgeous up there at 14,115 feet above sea level.
We’re talking snow-covered cliffs, alpine vistas and the Garden of the Gods, a collection of Suessical-like rock formations.
For an easy way to the summit, take the Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway (tickets are $58.50 for adults).
It’s the highest railroad in the Northern Hemisphere and one of two cog railways in the country. At the top, it’s worth calling into the visitor center to try their high-altitude doughnuts (a robotic machine cranks out 700 of them per hour).
For bragging rights, hike your way up this 14er. You can always take the train down. Afterward, the Broadmoor’s Cloud Camp offers hot-tub time and s’mores. The outdoorsy-ness can be continued the next day by signing up for hiking, archery and stargazing.
Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel
Not up for trekking from rim to rim or paddling down the mighty Colorado River?
The Grand Canyon Railway ride is another way to experience the thrills of the Wild West, at a leisurely pace.
Since 1901, travelers (including Theodore Roosevelt, Clark Gable and Bill Gates) have ridden the Grand Canyon Railway to take in dreamy views of Grand Canyon National Park.
Even the train depots are national historic landmarks themselves.
A hop aboard in Williams, Arizona ends up in the South Rim’s Historic Village a few hours later with plenty of time to explore the canyon.
It’s especially ideal for families with young kids thanks to the lively musicians and cowboy characters. A stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel bumps up the nostalgia. Tickets start at $67 for adults.
Via Rail Canada
While whizzing past the Canadian Shield, prairies and Rocky Mountains, keep your eyes peeled for grizzly bears, mountain goats, bison and coyotes on this popular Canadian route that takes passengers from Toronto to Vancouver.
Travelers have flocked to Via Rail’s The Canadian for 60 years now, so they must be doing something right.
The chefs switch up the menu daily and the Canadian beer and wine tasting makes the trip that much more delightful.
During the 4-night trip, choose from domed lounge cars or art-deco style dining cars. Starting price for sleeper car is $1,111 CDN ($875).
Rocky Mountaineer’s Rockies to Red Rocks
Oversized windows on the Rocky Mountaineer’s Rockies to Red Rocks route allow travelers to soak up the scenery.
The two-day luxury trip takes passengers through a series of canyons with steep, rugged rock walls.
The route between Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and Moab, Utah, is full of mountain vistas, desert cliffs and rock formations.
You may or may not see wildlife like deer, pronghorns and eagles. But one thing is certain: The gourmet food served by executive chefs is as exquisite as the views.
Tickets start at $1,375.
Denali Star Train
Make your way to the Denali National Park & Preserve on Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Train.
On a clear day you’ll see the star of the show: Denali, the tallest peak in North America, which is reason enough alone to make the journey.
The GoldStar Service is certainly worth the splurge thanks to the glass-domed windows.
Besides the national park, other pitstops include Wasilla, Talkeetna and Fairbanks.
Once you get to Denali, you can visit the sled dogs, take a ranger-led hike or sign up for a flightseeing tour (if you’re lucky you’ll spot moose and bears). Tickets start at $259 for adults.
Or take the Hurricane Turn, which has summer and winter routes. It’s one of the last trains in the U.S. to offer flagstop service. Simply wave your arm to hop off or on the train at any time.
Glacier bays and rain forests. Check. Waterfalls and volcanoes. Check.
There’s a lot to love about the Pacific Northwest. In about 11 hours, you’ll go from Vancouver, B.C. to Eugene, Oregon aboard the Amtrak Cascades train.
Watch seaplanes land on Coal Harbour in Vancouver. In Seattle, stop by the Experience Music Project Museum.
In Tacoma, witness glass blowers at work in the Museum of Glass.
And when you arrive in Portland, make a beeline for the world’s largest bookstore. Prices vary throughout the year.
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is a 35-hour rail journey between LA and Seattle.
Along the way, you’ll see Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland.
At the San Luis Obispo stop, it’s worth hiring a local sommelier and driver to take you to a winery; after all, there are 30 to choose from.
In Chico, California, sample craft brews. And don’t forget to have your camera ready when you get to Crater Lake, where you travel through the Cascades at 5,000 feet above sea level.
Other photo ops include Mt. Shasta, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier and long stretches of the Pacific. Ticket prices vary throughout the year.
If you’ve got time on your hands – 51 hours and 20 minutes to be exact – Amtrak’s California Zephyr route from Emeryville, California, to Chicago is a lovely way to take in Sierra Nevada and the Rockies.
At the Truckee, California stop, take a hike in the Tahoe National Forest.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, leave time for bobsledding at Olympic Park. Prices vary according to travel dates.
Sarah Sekula covers stories about travel, fitness and extraordinary people, and her assignments have taken her to all seven continents. Follow her adventures @sarahsomewhere.