10 North American Bucket List Train Trips

There’s something undeniably romantic about trains.

Traveling by train has always felt like an adventure into the unknown. Every minute feels new. Especially watching a sunrise slowly reveal a landscape that has transformed overnight.

Train travel gives your mind time to wander, beginning the moment you step into a station.

“There are no strangers on a train,” a New York Times piece observes. And they’re right. You meet retirees playing hearts, students with just a backpack, lifelong train enthusiasts, and budget travelers who barely leave the observation deck.

You find people who enjoy the journey more than their destination. I’d like to think I’m one of those people.   

Sometimes I daydream about the trips I’ve taken while watching the train yard just past my office. And even though Nashville doesn’t have an Amtrak rail service, I often drift off to sleep to the sounds of the commercial cars blowing horns as they fly past the crossing in my neighborhood.

Lately, I’ve noticed Derek Low’s post, Across the USA by Train for Just $213, being shared by friends on Facebook. So, I thought it might be fun to revisit my North American list of bucket list train trips. Because, let’s face it, train travel is seriously underrated.

10 North American Bucket List Train Trips

The Grand Canyon Railway
Route: Williams, AZ to Grand Canyon, AZ (South Rim)
Duration: 8 hours, 15 minutes
Cost: $215.99 and up (includes Grand Canyon Railway Hotel room)

Riding the Grand Canyon Railway is like taking a step back in time. And since 1901, it’s transported visitors into the heart of the majestic Grand Canyon. Enough said, right?

The Empire Builder
Route: Seattle, WA to Chicago, IL
Duration: 46 hours
Cost: $174 and up

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A few years ago, I rode the Empire Builder from Pasco, WA to Minneapolis, MN. The highlights? The Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park. Here’s a piece of advice: Don’t cheap out or procrastinate on booking a sleeper car! 46 hours is a long ride in coach.

The Coast Starlight
Route: Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA
Duration: 35 hours
Cost: $145 and up

Ever dreamt of traveling along the Pacific coast shoreline? The Coast Starlight links all of the West’s biggest cities through mountains, lush forests, and long stretches of ocean views.

The Rocky Mountaineer, First Passage To the West
Route: Vancouver, BC to Banff, AB
Duration: Varies
Cost: $1,733 CAD and up (includes hotel stay in Kamloops)

First Passage To the West travels through Canada’s Rocky Mountains, along Kicking Horse River, and past other historic landmarks. Note: This is the only high-end train on the list.

The Canadian
Route: Vancouver, BC to Toronto, ONT
Duration: 3 days, 10 hours
Cost: $443.10 CAD and up

I’ve always wanted to take The Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto. It may be the longest trip on my list, but what better way to really see Canada?

El ChePe
Route: Chihuahua, Mexico to Los Mochis, Mexico
Duration: 21.5 hours
Cost: $1,564 and up

One of Mexico’s few passenger railways, El Chepe connects its riders with the country’s ancient Raramuri culture. Passing through the Tarahumara Sierra, one of the main highlights is Copper Canyon. Did you know Divisadero’s Copper Canyon is four times larger than the Grand Canyon?

The Sunset Limited
Route: Los Angeles, CA to New Orleans, LA
Duration: 48 hours
Cost: $163 and up

What could be more peaceful than cruising through our country’s Southwestern desert? The Sunset Limited is Amtrak’s oldest continually operating train, dating back to 1894. The railroad offers a unique view of the Southwest and parts of the U.S. and Mexico border.

The Coastal Classic
Route: Steward, AK to Anchorage, AK
Duration: 4.5 hours
Cost: $92 and up

Winding through a stretch of Alaskan wilderness, The Coastal Classic is a local favorite. Where else can you see a string of massive glaciers?

The California Zephyr
Route: Denver, CO to San Francisco, CA
Duration: 33 hours
Cost: $138 and up

Arguably one of Amtrak’s most beautiful American routes, The California Zephyr climbs through both the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas. It also passes the Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats.

The City of New Orleans
Route: Chicago, IL to New Orleans, LA
Duration: 19 hours
Cost: $127 and up

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The City of New Orleans was my first long-distance train ride. And I loved everything about it — departing from Chicago at night, dawn in Memphis, and crawling through the Mississippi bayou before finally rolling into New Orleans. It’s a special trip. So special it even has a song about it!

Although the Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson’s covers of The City of New Orleans are best known, Steve Goodman wrote the original in 1971.

It’s hard to think of a more iconic opening chorus line than “Good morning, America, how are you?” Especially after ABC snagged the name of their morning show from it.

Readers: Are you a fan of train travel? What are your bucket list trips?

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Discussions — 29 Responses

  • Jim September 29, 2015 on 7:57 am

    It’s like real life ticket to ride! 🙂

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Jim September 30, 2015 on 8:03 am

      Haha, good one Jim! 🙂

      Reply
  • Sarah September 29, 2015 on 8:24 am

    I haven’t really thought about bucket list train trips…I guess it’s easy to forget trains for travel exist when you live in Nashville. I have done the Seattle to Olympia train trip quite a few times when I was in Seattle for school. My family also did the Southern CA–>Chicago–>Charleston, WV train trip when we moved to WV. We had a sleeper car and Tommy Boy was on repeat in the movie car!

    I have traveled pretty extensively via train when I had a 3 month unlimited Eurorail pass years ago. I finally road the Eurostar from Amsterdam via Brussels to London. When my European friend suggested it, I really thought “But the planes are so much faster!”…Not really, if you have to fly into Gatwick or Heathrow and then get to your hotel. The train dropped us off a block away from our hotel! And there is always Platform 9 3/4.

    I wish there was more long distance and commuter train options available in the Nashville area. Loved this post!

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Sarah October 6, 2015 on 8:02 am

      Thanks so much for commenting, Sarah! I’ve never had the chance to travel by train in Europe. But I’ve heard it’s a completely different experience from here. I would love to see the countryside between cities.

      Reply
  • Roadmap2Retire September 29, 2015 on 8:37 am

    Nice list. Theres a few on that list that I would love to do. Definitely the top one is the one in AB and BC – and from what a recent discussion I had online, it seems that Banff to Prince Rupert might be a better trip than the one to Vancouver.

    Thanks for sharing
    R2R

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Roadmap2Retire September 30, 2015 on 8:10 am

      Interesting, Roadmap2Retire. Thanks for sharing that re-route!

      Reply
  • Alyssa @ Generation YRA September 29, 2015 on 8:42 am

    I cannot say I’ve taken several train trips, but the few I have I absolutely have loved! Travel by train (as long as you have the time) is one of my favorite modes of transportation by far. More space, natural light, ability to eat without feeling cramped, and they always seem to provoke the greatest thoughts. One of my favorite train trips was on the Pacific Surfliner from L.A. to San Diego. Almost the entire ride takes place straight on the coast! You pass wave ripping surfers, beach goers, dog walkers, and beautifully remodeled beach houses. Also – something about staring at the vast ocean for that long that really just puts everything into perspective. I need to check some of these train trips out!

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Alyssa @ Generation YRA September 30, 2015 on 8:11 am

      Ooo, the Pacific Surfliner sounds lovely! Maybe one to try on the way to next year’s FinCon? 🙂

      Reply
  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach September 29, 2015 on 9:21 am

    I have always wanted to do a train trip through the canadian rockies…of course it’s the most expensive on the list! grrr! I did one from Portland to Seattle and although it wasn’t very long, I really enjoyed it. I also did one from Dearborn, MI to Toronto, and that one sucked because it stopped every five seconds and I swear it went so slow I could have run faster to Toronto. I think thats the key: to have one that moves fast and doesn’t stop that often.

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Tonya@Budget and the Beach September 30, 2015 on 8:12 am

      I know, Tonya! Me too. And I hate that it’s so expensive. I think The Canadian might be next on my list, though.

      Reply
  • Michelle September 29, 2015 on 9:34 am

    I’ve never taken part in train travel but I would love to one day. Seems like so much fun!

    Reply
  • Ali @ Anything You Want September 29, 2015 on 11:08 am

    These look so amazing! I’ve only ever used train travel as a very utilitarian way to get from one place to another, but I love the idea of making the train something of the destination in and of itself.

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Ali @ Anything You Want September 30, 2015 on 8:13 am

      There are some great ones in the Northeast I’ve left off this list. And I know a bunch leave out of Boston! 🙂

      Reply
  • Maggie @ Northern Expenditure September 29, 2015 on 6:49 pm

    Anchorage to Seward is a lovely ride. The train is lovely, but expensive for this route and doesn’t allow side stops and exploration. What if the belugas are in the water? You can’t stop and watch them! This highway is one of the most scenic highways in the world (http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/road-trips/seward-highway-alaska-road-trip/). That being said, I’ve always wanted to do one of the cross-country ones. But I don’t always recommend the train to people in Alaska.

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Maggie @ Northern Expenditure September 30, 2015 on 8:14 am

      Good to know, Maggie! I appreciate the tips. And the heads up about that highway. Looks amazing!

      Reply
      • Maggie @ Northern Expenditure Kate Dore September 30, 2015 on 9:52 am

        We do take the train from Seattle to Portland every summer and that is a beautiful ride as well. Short, pleasant, and the kids don’t have to wear seatbelts. I love the train.

        Reply
  • Holly@ClubThrifty September 30, 2015 on 7:42 am

    I would do any of these! I think train travel would be really fun with the kids! =)

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Holly@ClubThrifty September 30, 2015 on 8:17 am

      Totally, Holly! I love that these trips are so family friendly 🙂

      Reply
  • Our Next Life September 30, 2015 on 12:54 pm

    We love trains! I LOVE the CA Zephyr… Totally worth it, especially from Denver westward. I rode the City of New Orleans as a kid and loved that, and the Empire Builder too. Lately when I’ve ridden trains in the US I’ve found a ton of Europeans aboard, and not many Americans — such a shame!

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Our Next Life September 30, 2015 on 7:16 pm

      Totally agree! Americans are constantly in too much of a rush to relax and enjoy a nice train ride.

      Reply
    • Kate Dore Our Next Life October 4, 2015 on 9:38 am

      Nice! I really need to take the California Zephyr. It’s too bad our train system is so under appreciated.

      Reply
  • Abigail @ipickuppennies October 1, 2015 on 4:04 pm

    My mom just had her dad and his wife do the Seward to Anchorage ride. Apparently, it was quite lovely.

    I could do a short trip, I think. But I don’t like long travel of any kind. The rooms always looked cramped (at least online), and Tim would have trouble with a long trip. So I’m probably safe.

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Abigail @ipickuppennies October 4, 2015 on 9:41 am

      There are quite a few short trips! I took the Copperhill Special through East Tennessee and Georgia a few years ago and absolutely loved the ride.

      Reply
  • Melanie @ Dear Debt October 2, 2015 on 12:08 pm

    I LOVE trains. I’ve done the Coast Starlight multiple times and I’m obsessed with trains. I’d love to do the Sunset Limited and the Empire Builder next. But I do want to splurge for sleeper cars, as that is longer than any of my other train trips. Thanks for the list! My wanderlust is even more insane now haha.

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Melanie @ Dear Debt October 4, 2015 on 9:43 am

      I know, right? I haven’t taken one in a while and now I’m really itching for a trip! I hate that Nashville doesn’t have a passenger rail, though.

      Reply
  • Mr. 1500 October 2, 2015 on 4:29 pm

    We did the California Zephyr back in June (free with credit card points). Spectacular scenery and the food wasn’t bad either.

    Bonus: You can hang/stay with us beforehand!

    Reply
    • Kate Dore Mr. 1500 October 4, 2015 on 9:44 am

      Ooo, that’s a great idea! Riding the California Zephyr is definitely high on my list 🙂

      Reply
  • JC October 3, 2015 on 12:39 pm

    Man, all of these sound awesome. I showed my wife the Derek Low post about his cross country train journey and she is on board with trying to do this. Depending on what life throws at us in 2016 I think it could be on our list of potential trips. Thanks for cluing us in on some other options.

    Reply
    • Kate Dore JC October 6, 2015 on 7:59 am

      Sure thing, JC! Traveling by train is really wonderful.

      Reply