There’s something about the sound of a train: the rhythmic clacking of the tracks, the chug of the engine and that unmistakable whistle to let you know you’ve arrived.
Across the country, scenic railways offer routes through some of America’s most pristine natural beauty, traveling at a pace that lets guests soak in the experience. Here are five to consider for your next group itinerary.
Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad
The largest tourist railroad operating in the eastern United States, the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad offers scenic trips through the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. With multiple routes offered from three depot locations — Elkins, Cass, and Durbin — running from April through December, groups can choose treks that range from two hours to all-day excursions. The railroad also offers both diesel-powered and, for those who want a taste of nostalgia, steam-powered engines.
“The Durbin Rocket is a steam-powered, two-hour ride that takes you along the Greenbrier River and the Monongahela National Forest to a beautiful spot where you can get out and enjoy the view,” said Kathy Smith, Durbin and Greenbrier Valley’s director of marketing and retail sales.
For groups wanting a longer experience, the Cheat Mountain Salamander excursion offers an eight-hour trip from the Elkins depot through some of the state’s most remote, untouched wilderness to the scenic “High Falls” of Cheat Mountain and the historic small town of Spruce, accessible only by rail.
Railroad history buffs might wish to book a trip from the Cass depot, in particular, as it’s home to Locomotive No. 5, a turn-of-the-20th-century Class C-80 Shay engine that’s one of the oldest locomotives in continuous service on its original line in America. From Cass, the Bald Knob route offers spectacular overlooks of the third-highest point in West Virginia.
“A lot of times our groups will book not just one train, but link together a couple of excursions, sometimes taking two or even three trains in a single day,” Smith said. “That way, groups can experience multiple trips at the same time.”
Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
New Mexico and Colorado
There’s a reason the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, which travels the 64 miles between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado, is an official National Historic Landmark. Boarding its trains is like taking a step back into the Old West.
“The railroad itself was built in 1880 and traverses country that largely has no paved roads, no power lines and no parking lots,” said John Bush, Cumbres and Toltec’s president and general manager. “What you see as you ride the train is the authentic West. We like to say, basically, it’s 64 miles of 1880.”
From Chama, guests can expect to see rolling meadows and the historic Lobato sheep ranch before the track begins its four-degree climb into the San Juan Mountains, where beautiful vistas of Aspen-lined hillsides culminate in multiple high-trestle crossings of Wolf Creek and Cascade Creek below.
The route includes Cumbres Pass, which — at 10,015 feet — is the highest mountain pass reached by rail in the United States.
From the other direction, coming out of Antonito, “it looks like high desert, sagebrush country; but that transitions to pinyon and juniper forest, which then transitions to ponderosa pines, aspens and spruces,” Smith said. “You’re seeing the West of a century ago, essentially. It allows people to introspect about their place in nature and the American Dream.”
Riders can opt to leave from either station, as both routes leave at 10 a.m. and arrive at their destination, the opposite depot, around 4 p.m. In the middle of the day, both trains meet in the small town of Osier, Colorado, for a hot lunch. While the trains are on the move, riders can stand in an open-air gondola car to experience the scenery firsthand as it rolls by.
“It’s the relaxed slowing-down that people enjoy on our trains,” Smith said. “The fact that the trains move slowly and that people are free to move around on the train gives guests the opportunity to connect with one another in ways that you do not experience on other modes of travel.”
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway
Originally used to haul silver and gold from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, the historic line now used by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (DSNGRR) has been in operation for more than 135 years.
The railway runs three trains a day from Durango to Silverton, Colorado, and back during peak season, from May to October. Groups enjoy the flexibility of being able to start a one-way, 45-mile, three-and-a-half-hour journey on vintage steam locomotives from either depot, said Carrie Whitley, director of travel trade sales for American Heritage Railways, which operates the DSNGRR. Roundtrip options are also available.
“If a group is taking a route coming from a national park in Utah, for instance, many times they would start their journey with us in Silverton, which is a charming little Victorian, Old West mining town,” Whitley said.
As the train travels to Durango, it follows along the Animas River, at some points hugging breathtaking cliffsides. “Our train allows visitors to see the wildness and natural beauty of the San Juan National Forest in areas that you can’t access any other way,” Whitley said.
Once in Durango, visitors will want to make time to stop in at Durango and Silverton’s Railroad Museum. Admission is free, and the hundreds of artifacts there offer a unique glimpse into the history of railroading.
In the winter months, from November through early May, the railroad runs excursions from Durango to Cascade Canyon, 26 miles away. In the summer and fall months, with enough advance notice, groups can also book a ticket on the railway’s special event trains, including its Wine and Rails and its Brew Train experiences, which feature in-car wine and craft beer tastings.
The Alaska Railroad operates several routes from the Gulf of Alaska to Fairbanks, including popular options like the Coastal Classic daytrip, which has been ranked among the top-10 train rides in North America by National Geographic Traveler. Offering roundtrip service from Anchorage to Seward, where guests have a seven-hour layover in order to enjoy Resurrection Bay or Kenai Fjords National Park, the Coastal Classic route operates daily from mid-May through mid-September.
From mid-September through early May, service typically includes weekend routes only, with midweek departures during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays as well as the last half of February into March, said Meghan Clemens, Alaska Railroad’s marketing communications manager.
For groups wanting a multiday experience, Alaska Railroad also offers multiple summer and winter package options. The Aurora excursion, a six-night journey offered on select dates in February and March 2020, includes two nights in Talkeetna, where guests enjoy a guided sled-dog tour before heading to Fairbanks for views of the famed northern lights. For those who prefer a one-way option, the Winter Escape package includes a two-day trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks, allowing guests to fly back on their return.
“Train travel is naturally well suited to group travel,” Clemens said. “We have the space for large groups to all sit together, and people can also get up and move around in ways they can’t necessarily do on a bus. So it’s a nice way for groups to be able to visit and mingle.”
“We always love the opportunity to show off the beauty of Alaska,” said Tim Sullivan, the railroad’s director of external affairs. “We understand that the ride itself is as important as the destination here thanks to these vast, beautiful Alaskan vistas our riders are able to look out and enjoy as they travel.”
Mount Washington Cog Railway
There’s no better way to experience the beauty of New Hampshire’s White Mountains than a trip aboard the Mount Washington Cog Railway, the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway train.
When the railway first opened in 1869, traversing an incline as steep as 30%, it was hailed as one of the greatest engineering feats of the century.
Now celebrating its 150th year in operation, the historic line treats visitors to a narrated, three-hour, round-trip train ride to the summit of Mount Washington and back. Guests have the opportunity to spend time atop the summit, including a stop at the Sherman Adams Visitor Center, where panoramic views of five states are possible, before their return trek by train down the mountain.
In addition to experiencing the beauty of Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast, visitors can immerse themselves in the history of the railway there, thanks to the line’s on-site museum.
The railway’s main operating season runs from May through November. In April and December, limited weekend routes are available that culminate at Waumbek Station, roughly a third of the way up the mountain. Due to the area’s harsh winter weather conditions, no routes run January through March.
When the train is in operation, groups can opt to ride on coal-fired steam engines, typically in use during the first morning trip of the day, or on one of the line’s biodiesel trains.
“We changed much of our fleet over to biodiesel about 10 years ago,” said Rob Arey, the Cog Railway’s marketing director. “But we know lots of people still love the steam-powered option.”