Travel

The Most Magnificent Train Rides in America

These train journeys take you through some of the most stunning scenery in the States.

White Pass Railroad
White Pass Railroad
White Pass Railroad

We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.If you’re trying to get from point A to point B as ruthlessly fast as possible, you’re not taking a train. But for those who subscribe to the adage that the journey is worth more than the destination, trains are still king. It’s hard not to be seduced by the old-timey dreaminess of railway travel, watching landscapes gradually unfold just outside your window as you wind through tiny towns and sip a cozy drink as the scenery passes by.

Like the good old-fashioned American road trip, slow and steady (and much less populated) train journeys may very well make a comeback in these ongoing pandemic times, for those who still want to venture outside of the house as safely as possible. Whether you’re on a jaunt through the countryside or a mountainous cross-country odyssey, they’re also the easiest way to see some of the most magnificent scenery in the States. Here are the best rides in the nation.

Amtrak
Amtrak
Amtrak

The Ski Train

Denver to Winter Park Resort, Colorado
Distance: 67 Miles
Colorado is beautiful any time of year, but it’s particularly breathtaking when decked out in all its winter finery. The Amtrak Winter Park Express brings you from Denver’s 1914 Beaux-Arts station through majestic, snowy Colorado-along the state’s famed Flatirons mountains, through the Rockies, and across the Continental Divide via the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel-to the Winter Park Resort, one of the country’s top ski areas. It’s a stunning way for skiers or leisurely travelers to reach the slopes from Denver, but the vistas alone are worth the trip. The double-decker train cars provide maximum comfort, and an upper-level Sightseeing Lounge makes the perfect vantage point to take in the magnificent panoramas.

Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad

Aurora Winter Train

Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska
Distance: 358 miles
Getting up close and personal with the Northern Lights should be on everybody’s bucket list. And so should be doing it in style: This Alaska Railroad train allows you to roam freely about the cars as you wind through a greatest hits of Alaska’s beauty, from metropolitan Anchorage through vertigo-inducing mountain passes, over expansive bridges, and into the heart of the wilderness, where you’re prone to seeing celestial light dancing in the sky and reflecting off the snow. Feel free to stop off for a hike into Denali or just ride it out for 12 hours. The catch is, the route only runs in the winter. The bonus is that “winter” here means September-May. And if that window doesn’t work, you can skip the lights and hit the summertime Denali Star Train

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park Getaway

Salt Lake City, Utah to Yellowstone National Park
Distance: 360 miles round trip
The natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park is even more awe-inspiring in winter. This five-day trip beginning and ending in Salt Lake City, Utah takes you through untouched winter wilderness where geysers and steam vents spew vapor into the icy air. With virtually no other tourists around, you’ll get to witness nature in its primordial glory and wildlife surviving the elements, like the wolves of Lamar Valley. Yellowstone is the crown jewel of America’s nature conservationism and should be on anyone’s bucket list, but to see it like this is a truly unforgettable experience.

Flickr/sharadaprasad
Flickr/sharadaprasad
Flickr/sharadaprasad

California Zephyr

Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California
Distance: 2,438 miles
If you want to do the entire route, and retrace the trail pioneers took when settling the American West, the 50-plus-hour ride is a great way to appreciate NOT doing this in a covered wagon. The main event starts in Denver where the train journeys through the towering Rocky Mountains, into the red rocks of Utah, through Ruby Canyon, the Sierras, Donner Pass, and finally San Francisco Bay. It’s the best way to take in the grandeur of the West short of renting an RV.

David Honan/Amtrak
David Honan/Amtrak
David Honan/Amtrak

Cascades

Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia
Distance: 156 miles
Naming the train “Cascades” sets the bar pretty high as far as scenery goes, but this ride through America’s Pacific Northwest does not disappoint. The trek from Eugene to Seattle is a long trip through evergreen forests, which expertly hide the dense masses on the I-5 corridor. Once you reach Seattle, though, the real fun starts. The train travels along Puget Sound, and on a clear day, passengers on the western-facing side get a front-row view of the Olympic Mountains. It’s a four-hour moving postcard that’ll have you researching real estate on the in-train Wi-Fi.
MORE: While you’re in BC, might as well tack on a trip to Canada’s indigenous wine country

Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad

Glacier Discovery Train

Anchorage to Grandview, Alaska
Distance: 356 Miles
Another of Alaska Railroads’ stunning routes is the Glacial Discovery, which brings you through a countryside only accessible by train to the ends of the earth, where you can admire the majesty of arctic glaciers. Depart from Anchorage and travel through Girdwood and Portage, where travelers can stop off at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center for some bear spotting. Or go on to Whittler, where a connection for a glacier coastal cruise is possible. Then the train heads onwards to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, where the stunning Spencer Lake and Glacier await at the end of a short trail. But the best is yet to come, as the train makes its way along the Placer River Valley, approaching the Bartlett Glacier and Trail Glacier.

John Elk III/The Image Bank/Getty
John Elk III/The Image Bank/Getty
John Elk III/The Image Bank/Getty

Cass Scenic Railroad

Cass, West Virginia
Distance: Eight miles
John Denver once called West Virginia “almost heaven,” and it’s hard to argue with the guy who foresaw cannabis legalization in Colorado decades in advance (that’s what “Rocky Mountain High” was about, right?). The scenery here is nothing short of spectacular, and this quick jaunt is the best way to soak it up. These are original locomotives once used to transport lumber to mining camps, now hauling passengers up a four-mile, 11%-grade slope with sweeping views of the mountains below. At the top of the ride is Whittaker Station, a restored logging camp. For optimum results, go in October when the fall foliage is at peek amazingness.

John Kettredge/Cape Cod Central Railroad
John Kettredge/Cape Cod Central Railroad
John Kettredge/Cape Cod Central Railroad

Cape Cod Central Railroad

Hyannis to Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts
Distance: 27 miles
If you want to take in the beauty of this seaside community without any old-money pretense — don’t worry, you can still rock your Sperrys, nobody’s judging — take a ride on this railroad, through the cranberry bogs, salt marshes, oceanfront trails, and adorable little towns. You can opt for either the sightseeing tour — complete with informational narration — or the dinner train with freshly prepared fine dining on board. Both options take you through areas of Cape Cod that can only be seen by train. 
MORE: While you’re there, check out these killer Cape Cod beaches

Saibal/Moment/Getty Images
Saibal/Moment/Getty Images
Saibal/Moment/Getty Images

Grand Canyon Railway

Williams, Arizona
Distance: 130 miles round trip
The Grand Canyon is one of those American landmarks that is easily ruined should you find yourself stuck in traffic behind 30 tour buses and seemingly all of Manitoba. To skip the hassle entirely, hop on this train departing from Williams, about 65 miles south. It starts in the dense pine forests of Northern Arizona before settling into an expansive plateau of high desert, speeding past Native American reservations, elk, bald eagles, and condors. You’ll go through the San Francisco Peaks and near the highest point in the state before arriving at the majestic south rim. And while you might encounter crowds there, after such a peaceful ride you probably won’t mind.
MORE: Avoid these amateur mistakes when visiting the canyon

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Bryson City, North Carolina
Distance: 32 or 44 miles
It’s tough to take in all of the Great Smoky Mountains in just one train ride, which is why this outfit based out of nearby Bryson City offers two options. The 32-mile Tuckasegee River Excursion takes passengers through lush green valleys and over historic bridges into the quaint town of Dillsboro for an hour-and-a-half stop. The 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion journeys along the Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers, over Fontana Lake, and into the gorge. It’s more scenery and less history than its counterpart, but both are equally excellent ways to take in some of America’s greatest wilderness.
MORE: Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most-visited National Park. But how does it stack up agains the rest?

Courtesy of Amtrak
Courtesy of Amtrak
Courtesy of Amtrak

Coast Starlight

Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington
Distance: 1,377 miles
Driving up the Pacific coast is about as classic as American road trips can get. That said, if you’re the lucky one behind the wheel, it’s hard (and, ya know, dangerous) to really take in the sights, which come fast and frequently around every extremely tight bend in the road. The Coast Starlight hits all the highlights: the dramatic cliffs along the PCH, Mount Shasta, the San Francisco Bay, Oregon’s Cascade mountains, Mount Rainier, and Puget Sound. 
MORE: Hit the road with the best scenic drive in every state 

ericfoltz/E+/Getty Images
ericfoltz/E+/Getty Images
ericfoltz/E+/Getty Images

Sunset Limited

New Orleans, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California
Distance: 1,995 miles
Desert landscapes aren’t for everyone, but if you’re into grand vistas of red rocks and cacti, this might be the most scenic train route in America. It starts off in Louisiana bayou country, then chugs through the expansive Southwestern deserts of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. During peak season, national park guides are on board to explain the history and geography of the region, and you’re welcome to step off at Big Bend or Saguaro National Parks if you want a closer look. 

Strasburg Railroad
Strasburg Railroad
Strasburg Railroad

Strasburg Rail Road

Strasburg, Pennsylvania
Distance: Nine miles
The oldest rail line on this list is a quick trip through Amish Country, with expansive countryside and rolling hills in the distance. It was once used to transport goods from the industrial heart of Pennsylvania to the coast before being restored in the 1960s as a passenger train. The first-class and president’s trains are outfitted to look like Gilded Age luxury, and though the ride to Plymouth is brief, it’s a worthwhile family-friendly excursion.
MORE: After you experience the president’s train, check out the the Pennsylvania home of our worst president

Flickr/locosteve
Flickr/locosteve
Flickr/locosteve

Empire Builder

Chicago, Illinois to Seattle, Washington
Distance: 2,206 miles
To see the Great Plains in all their splendor, and spend the most scenic eight hours of your life crossing Glacier National Park, get yourself on the Empire Builder. This 46-hour ride traverses through Lewis and Clark’s expedition route, Whitefish, Montana, a couple of mountain ranges, and a seven-mile tunnel cut through the Cascade mountains. It’s a long trip for sure, but if you spend your time in the observation lounge it might be the best ride of your life.
MORE: Stop off for a beer in Fargo and get a taste of America’s youngest brewery scene

White Pass & Yukon Route
White Pass & Yukon Route
White Pass & Yukon Route

White Pass & Yukon Route

Skagway, Alaska
Distance: 120 miles round trip
As you cruise along the side of frighteningly sheer cliff-drops on this narrow-gauge railway, you can’t help but wonder who in their right mind actually built this thing during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. The train departs from Skagway on three different excursions, all of which take you up 3,000ft in 20 miles, past glaciers, mountain lakes, and thunderous waterfalls. The signature trip travels the original miners’ supply route to Carcross, Yukon, and stops at a restored station house in Lake Bennett. Or you can take the train past Bridal Veil Falls and Dead Horse Gulch to White Pass Summit, a 40-mile round trip that traverses massive trusses that are not for those with a fear of heights.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

Hugo McCafferty is a freelance writer for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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