The Hogwarts Express. The Polar Express. Thomas the Tank Engine. Fictional though they are, these and other scenic train rides often inspire kids to dream about train vacations. And while real-life train trips might not take you to that famous school for witchcraft and wizardry, Amtrak vacations and other North American scenic train rides can be just as magical for families.
“A rail vacation offers families an opportunity to unplug from their day-to-day routines, slow down, and reconnect with each other,” says Heather Leisman, President of Vacations by Rail. Train vacations also allow everyone in the family an opportunity to see and appreciate the scenery while leaving driving to someone else. “Families can relax in their seat or private cabin, spread out in one of the lounge cars for a different perspective on the passing scenery, and enjoy delicious meals in the dining cars,” Leisman adds.
Amtrak Vacations in North America
For families who love scenic train rides, Amtrak offers inclusive vacation packages on rail lines throughout North America. Here are the top train vacations for families offered by Amtrak.
Amtrak vacations aboard the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner wind their way along 351 miles of scenic Southern California coastline. Passengers can take in ocean views, beaches, mountains, vineyards, and nearly two dozen towns from San Diego (one of the best spots for family beach vacations in the country) all the way north to San Luis Obispo on one of these Amtrak vacations.
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Hop off at Anaheim to visit the world-famous Disneyland Resort, and pop in on Los Angeles for all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. On the final leg of this scenic train journey, you can take in the historic missions from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo.
Ethan Allen Express
From Gotham to the Green Mountains, Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express is a scenic trip through the Hudson River Valley that offers spectacular views of the fall foliage. The route starts off at Penn Station in New York City and travels nearly 250 miles north to Rutland, Vermont. Notable stops along the way include Croton-Harmon (the closest Amtrak station to the Halloween haven of Sleepy Hollow, New York) and Saratoga Springs, New York (home of the oldest horse racing track in the country).
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In Rutland, families on Amtrak vacations can catch a shuttle to the ski areas of Killington and Pico Mountain, or hike the Long Trail that runs along the spine of the Green Mountains the entire length of the state of Vermont. Work is underway to extend the rail line from Rutland all the way north to Burlington (on the shores of Lake Champlain), including a stop in the idyllic residential college town of Middlebury.
Amtrak Auto Train
Planning a vacation to the Orlando theme parks? Want to save the cost of a rental car when you arrive? Amtrak’s Auto Train will transport your family and your vehicle nearly 900 miles from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida, just mouse steps from Walt Disney World and its resort hotels.
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The nonstop route departs Virginia at 4:00 p.m. and arrives the next morning in Florida at 9:00 a.m. The Auto Train has bi-level Superliner Sleeping Cars with a variety of cabins, including a family bedroom that can accommodate two adults and two children. Complimentary dinner and breakfast are included for families booked in private rooms.
One of the premier overnight journeys in the U.S., Amtrak’s California Zephyr is also one of the most epic Amtrak vacations, traveling 2,400 miles from Chicago, Illinois, to Emeryville, California (across the bay from San Francisco). The entire route takes three days and two nights; families can board or disembark at either end or at any of the 30-plus stations along the way.
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During the trip, you’ll witness those amber waves of grain and that purple mountain majesty before arrive at the shining sea. The Zephyr includes an observation car with Sightseer Lounge to take in the Rocky Mountains; Colorado’s Gore, Byers, and Glenwood Canyons; and other scenic highlights along the way. The formal dining car serves three meals a day, complimentary for guests traveling in private rooms.
More Scenic Train Rides in North America
Here are some of the best scenic train rides in North America that make for great train vacations for everyone in the family.
Grand Canyon Railway
The Grand Canyon Railway first brought passengers and supplies from Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1901, and numerous celebrities and dignitaries have taken the 65-mile scenic train ride. Today, families still depart for train vacations from the historic Williams Depot and arrive at the Grand Canyon Depot just 200 yards from the canyon’s edge and near the El Tovar Hotel, one of the most beautiful national park lodges in the country.
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Along the way, riders get a glimpse of Old West territory, including high desert plains, small arroyos, and ponderosa pine forest. Trip highlights include a daily Wild West shootout, lively characters such as the Cataract Creek Gang and Railway Marshal, and roaming western singers aboard the train. Multiple classes of service are available for the roughly two-hour one-way journey. Round-trip travel time is approximately eight hours and includes a four-hour stopover at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Families can also stay overnight (or multiple nights) at the Grand Canyon and return to Williams on the regularly scheduled train ride at a later date.
Rocky Mountaineer First Passage to the West
For older kids, teens, and multi-generational groups, look to the Rocky Mountaineer First Passage to the West for great train vacations over the Canadian Rockies. First Passage to the West travels between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Banff, Alberta, with two days onboard the luxurious train.
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The scenic train route traverses the Continental Divide, travels through the fabled Spiral Tunnels, and over mountain passes and dramatic canyons. This is the only passenger train vacation service along the historic rail route that first connected Canada’s East and West.
Rocky Mountaineer Rockies to the Red Rocks
The Rocky Mountaineer Rockies to the Red Rocks route is a two-day scenic train ride connecting Denver, Colorado, and Moab, Utah, including an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Between Denver and Glenwood Springs, guests travel alongside the Colorado River through a series of steep, rugged rock canyons. The route from Glenwood Springs to Moab offers a variety of scenery, including mountain vistas, desert cliffs, and rock formations.
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Glenwood Springs sits at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers, and is known for its hot springs and outdoor recreation. The railroad’s SilverLeaf Plus service includes panoramic glass dome cars, local cuisine, and onboard storytelling. Train vacation packages allow families to explore more of the region including Salt Lake City or Las Vegas.
The main line of the Alaska Railroad stretches nearly 500 miles from the southern port of Seward to the interior city of Fairbanks, and is an excellent way to sample the state’s postcard-perfect scenery and abundance of wildlife year-round.
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The Alaska Railroad offers two classes of service: Adventure Class and Gold Star. Both offer panoramic windows and dome cars to enjoy the scenery. However, Gold Star Class has glass dome ceilings for every seat; an outdoor, upper-level viewing platform; included meals in a full-service dining room; and two adult beverages per trip (for passengers 21 and over). In addition, an Alaska tour guide accompanies each trip to unlock the history, point out notable landscapes and spot animals along the way.
Cass Scenic Railroad
West Virginia’s Cass Scenic Railroad is a vintage steam-driven locomotive that dates back to 1901 and follows the same route into the Appalachian Mountains that lumberjacks used more than a century ago. Families board at the Cass depot and travel up Bald Knob (4,842 feet), the second highest point in the state.
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Along the way, riders enjoy mountain views, mill towns, and spotting wildlife. Once you reach the summit, the Bald Knob Observation Deck offers views into two states and the valley below. The 11-mile round trip route takes 4.5 hours, and families can stay overnight in cabins that were former Company Houses.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad offers multiple routes through the Smokies. Head to Bryson City, North Carolina, to board one of two historic heritage railroad trips. The Tuckasegee River Excursion utilizes the 16-mile line from Bryson City to Dillsboro, North Carolina, passing the set for the Harrison Ford film The Fugitive along the way. After a 90-minute stop in Dillsboro, the train returns over historic bridges and through lush green valleys.
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The Nantahala Gorge Excursion offers more scenery and less history as it travels the 22-mile line from Bryson City to Nantahala, North Carolina, along the Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers, across the Fontana Trestle bridge over Fontana Lake, and into the gorge. A number of packages are available to combine a train vacation with a family trip in the region, including whitewater rafting, canopy and zipline tours, and hiking.
The Canadian VIA Rail
Cross Canada’s vast landscape on The Canadian, the transcontinental railway operated by VIA Rail connecting Toronto, Ontario with Vancouver, British Columbia. The end-to-end train trip lasts nearly four days total. The Great Western Way out of Toronto takes families through forests and across prairies to the Canadian Rockies. The scenic train ride follows the north shore of Jasper Lake with views of Pyramid Falls and Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
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VIA Rail’s Prestige class service offers a large sleeper cabin, private bathroom with shower, and lavish meals in the dining car. Not up for the Prestige splurge? Train vacations with the Sleeper Plus class experience also offer a private cabin and dining car access.
White Pass and Yukon Route
Advertised as the most scenic train ride in the world, the White Pass and Yukon Route does not disappoint. Constructed in 1898 during Alaska’s Yukon Gold Rush, the narrow gauge railroad climbs 3,000 feet in elevation over 20 miles. Originally built to haul prospectors to the gold fields of the Yukon, today the scenic train route is used to haul tourists viewing the natural wonders of glaciers, waterfalls, mountains, gorges, and wildlife.
Many of the train’s passengers come from Alaska cruises in the port of Skagway (the train depot is a short walk from the cruise ship port). The railroad offers multiple excursions, including the popular 40-mile round trip White Pass Summit excursion that passes Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point, and Dead Horse Gulch, before reaching White Pass Summit (elevation 2,888 feet).
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For more extended train vacations, families can also travel into Canada all the way to Carcross, Yukon Territory (passport required). The 120-mile round-trip journey takes approximately eight hours and is not for the feint of heart. The train crosses numerous high trestles with steep drops on either side. Onboard guides share local history, describe notable landmarks, and point out wildlife along the way.
Tips for Smooth Train Vacations in North America
Use these tips to keep your train vacations running smoothly.
- Make a travel packing checklist prior to departure of necessary items such as ID, prescription medications, and other travel essentials to make your scenic train rides as seamless as possible.
- Don’t forget to bring along a favorite book, pack some games, and download movies or shows on your electronic device for longer rides.
- Many railroads and stations offer complimentary luggage assistance that can be helpful to busy families when arriving or departing.
- Part of the magic of train vacations is the iconic “choo-choo” sound. Kids love hearing train horns, and engineers love sounding them. Prep younger kids for the sound before they board for their trip. It will quickly become a fun game to listen for it.