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Train rides: Smokestacks and scenery


Courtesy Colorado Tourism  

For an inspiring view of America, step off the motorcoach and onto a train car.

From the Alaskan wilderness to mountains of New England, trains offer breathtaking views and a stylish way to take in the scenery. Whether it’s a hidden gorge in Colorado, an Ozark pass in Arkansas and Missouri, or lush green hills in West Virginia, some of the country’s most striking landscapes are best seen from onboard a train.

A century and a half ago, the railroad was the fastest way to move across the country. And although modern transportation has outpaced the classic passenger train, the tracks that first connected this continent still provide a great way to see its sights. Tourist trains give travelers a chance to sit back and enjoy a leisurely ride, taking in nature’s beauty aboard some of history’s greatest machines.

There are hundreds of train excursions throughout the United States. As you plan your group’s trips for the year, consider taking a ride with one of these.

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

[ Durango, Colorado ]
Groups touring Colorado can experience the area’s silver mining history and catch some spectacular views on a ride with the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

“We run through the San Juan Mountains in a national forest,” said sales manager Carrie Whitley. “We go from Durango up to the small town of Silverton, a very cute Western Victorian town. The route is 47 miles long.”

The train uses an 1800s steam locomotive to pull passenger cars, which can include an open gondola. The train’s narrow gauge allows it to cover switchbacks and climb 2,500 feet in elevation through the scenic ride.

“It’s gorgeous — you follow a gorge through a mountainous wilderness area,” Whitley said. “You follow a beautiful river all the way from Durango to Silverton, going through ponderosa pines and aspens.”

As its name implies, Silverton was established in the 1800s as a silver boomtown, and the railroad was established to carry silver back to Durango. Today, the trip to Silverton takes about three hours. Visitors can get off the train, eat lunch and explore the town’s shops and museums for two hours before returning to Durango; groups can have their motorcoach pick them up in Silverton to continue on with their tour.

Conway Scenic Railroad

[ Conway, New Hampshire ]

Trains have been running in the North Conway area of New Hampshire since 1874, when rail lines connected the area to Maine and Boston. Today, passengers of the Conway Scenic Railroad experience the area’s mountainous beauty and typical New England scenery on three different routes.

“The spectacular scenery is found on the Notch Train,” said marketing and events manager Susan Logan. “It’s a five-hour round trip that goes through Crawford Notch. It’s a gain of 1,623 feet in elevation. There are two trestles that overlook the valley and the surrounding mountains. You’ll see waterfalls and steep cliffs — it’s very ruggedly spectacular.”

The Notch excursion regularly sells out during fall foliage season, one of the most popular times to visit New England. In September, the railroad hosts a Rail Fans Weekend, with historic displays and exhibitors selling train-themed art, collectibles and memorabilia.

Another special event, Steam in the Snow, uses a 1921 steam locomotive to give passengers a January treat.

“There’s a ride on the train for almost two hours, and then, on the way back, there are photo stops,” Logan said. “So we get a lot of folks that like trains and like photography. The steam in the winter is just absolutely stunning.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.