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6 epic train trips to take this summer

June 14, 2021
9 min read
Denali Star Train - Nenana River - Brandon Rathgeber
6 epic train trips to take this summer
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From the call of "All aboard!" to the hum of the rails to the uninterrupted wilderness stretching away from the tracks, train travel holds a unique mystique that car travel can never equal. And this summer, with travelers spreading out across the country in search of fresh air and adventure, riding the rails holds even more appeal. Take one of these six iconic train rides to hear that whistle blow once again.

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The Pikes Peak Cog Railway looks poised to plunge off the mountaintop. (Photo courtesy of The Broadmoor)

The Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Since 1891, the bright red cars of the world’s highest cog railway have been transporting awe-struck passengers to the summit of Pikes Peak, 14,115 feet above sea level. Now, after a four-year closure, the historic rail line has reopened, spiffed up by $100 million in repairs and restoration that have made it safer, more comfortable and more fun to ride than ever. What makes this three-hour, nine-mile trip win accolades year after year? The Pikes Peak Cog Railway is unbelievably scenic and as close to a roller coaster as a train trip can get, making it a favorite of families.

To extend your experience it, combine it with a visit to the Broadmoor, the legendary pink-hued resort that looks over Colorado Springs like a feudal castle. In fact, the Broadmoor’s grounds, gardens and facilities could rival any French chateau -- if the chateau also had a 54-hole championship golf course, 18 restaurants, a bevy of upscale shops and an extensive children’s program. Waterslides add to the fun at the resort’s lakeshore pool and there are additional family-friendly activities including horseback riding and on-site movie showings. The Broadmoor also provides access to Seven Falls, a stunning series of cascades that tumble down the walls of a verdant box canyon.

The Broadmoor area isn’t Colorado Springs’ only visitor attraction -- leave time to wander among the chiseled red rock towers at Garden of the Gods and visit Royal Gorge Bridge.

Related: Take a look at the world's most scenic train rides

Passengers gaze out the windows of the Durango & Silverton through the San Juan mountains  (Photo courtesy of Visit Durango)

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

A national historic landmark on rails, this narrow-gauge railroad launched in 1882, transporting miners high into some of Colorado’s most rugged mountain terrain. Riding the Durango & Silverton Railroad today feels a bit like time travel as you rumble across soaring trestles and edge along sheer slopes 200 feet above the Animas River, powered by a coal-fired steam engine. Passengers can choose between two options, a full-day, nine hour excursion and a five-hour half-day trip, both departing from Durango.

If you’ve got time, choose the day trip, which includes a two-hour stop in Silverton, enough time to get a feeling for this high-country wild west town, where it still feels like rowdy miners could step through the doors of the saloon at any moment. The three-and-a-half-hour journey feels much shorter thanks to an endless stream of stunning views and opportunities for wildlife watching.

Families with attention-challenged youngsters may prefer the Cascade Canyon Express, a five-hour round trip that still affords dramatic views while experiencing what it was like to be a 19th-century traveler in some of America’s most isolated terrain.
The steam trains departs at 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., respectively. Backpackers can catch an earlier, 8 a.m.diesel train, which makes multiple stops, to reach the remote backcountry of the San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness along the route.

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Amtrak Adirondack

An hour out of Penn Station and you're in another world, as the Adirondack winds its way up the Hudson Valley, thick forests and quaint Revolutionary War-era villages on either side.

Take the entire 10.5-hour trip to its end point in Montreal, or stop in the Lake Champlain region, beloved by hikers, birdwatchers, and those who -- well, just want to sit on a lakeside Adirondack chair.

Other popular towns along the route include Ticonderoga, home to the historic fort, and Saratoga Springs, where Saratoga Spa State Park offers access to historic mineral springs and more than 2,000 acres of landscaped grounds and woods. Between May and October, National Park rangers narrate parts of the route and in the fall a dome car is added to showcase the autumn color for leaf peepers.

Passengers on Rockies to the Red Rocks will get close-up views of some of America's most stunning scenery (Photo courtesy Rocky Mountaineer)

Rocky Mountaineer Rockies to Red Rocks

The towering peaks of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the rainbow-striped canyons, chiseled arches and eerie hoodoos of the southern Utah desert are among America’s most spectacular landscapes under any circumstances. But see them through the windows of a glass-dome coach car, without a highway or house in sight, and you’ll have a new appreciation -- along with a lot more time to gaze. That’s the promise from Canada’s storied Rocky Mountaineer, which has carried travelers to and from Banff and Jasper National parks for more than 30 years and this year announced a new route through the American Southwest.

The two-day journey, cleverly titled Rockies to the Red Rocks, crosses the continental divide en route from Denver to Moab, Utah, with an overnight stop to enjoy the spa town of Glenwood Springs, famed for its mineral pools. The train travels only during the day, so you won't miss a minute of the scenery, which includes an up-close view of 12,870-foot Mount Logan and follows the Colorado River through aptly named Ruby Canyon with its pink-tinged cliffs. And there's even storytelling to entrance youngsters along the way.

Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah  (Photo by Robert Riberia/Rocky Mountaineer)

Passengers on Rockies to the Red Rocks enjoy the Rocky Mountaineer’s Silverleaf Service, which includes a menu of specially designed regional dishes served at your seat. Upgrade to Silverleaf Plus and you get to enjoy custom-crafted cocktails in the retro-elegant lounge car. While you may want to spend all your time in the Glass Dome Coach, an outdoor viewing platform makes it even easier to photograph the elk, deer and other wildlife you’re certain to spot on your way.

Launching August 15, the route was originally planned to end in October but is proving so popular it’s already been extended through mid-November. Travelers can book the trip in either direction, but cost-conscious travelers should choose the eastbound direction to earn a significant promotional discount.

The Denali Star passes under some of America's tallest peaks. (Photo by Dave Blazejewski/Alaska Railroad)

Alaska Railroad Denali Star

Gaze out at frosted peaks and commune with caribou, moose and grizzlies on the Denali Star, Alaska Rail's flagship line connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks in Alaska. The route takes you right through the six-million-acre Denali National Park, offering stunning views of the tallest peaks in America, including Denali peak itself. Also known as Mount McKinley, at 20,310 feet Denali is the tallest mountain in North America and the third highest in the world. This summer, in addition to making stops in Wasilla and picture-perfect Talkeetna, the Denali Star will make brief flagstops in the rugged Hurricane wilderness, providing access for backcountry hikers and backpackers.

Choose Goldstar service so you can have access to the upper-level open-air viewing platform in addition to enjoying enjoy the expansive views from the dome car.

Alaska Rail offers several other equally spectacular routes such as the Coastal Classic, which departs Anchorage for Seward and nearby Kenai Fjords National Park, clinging to the steep slopes of the Church Range as it navigates the sinuous twists of Turnagain Arm. After a short stop in quaint Girdwood, the route heads inland through deep wilderness before arriving at Resurrection Bay. Take advantage of the numerous day excursions available, including a six-hour boat trip to Kanai Fjords National Park and the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. The evening train gets you back to Anchorage in time for a good night’s sleep.

Related: Top national parks to visit with kids and family

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

It’s no accident that the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad has featured in more than 20 movies, documentaries and TV series, including Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and 2014’s A Million Ways to Die in the West -- few routes are as dizzying as this steam train’s ascent over 10,022-foot Cumbres Pass. Then there are the locomotives themselves: historic steam trains restored to their original 1800 splendor.

Another train awarded National Historic Landmark status, the Cumbres & Toltec is both the world’s longest and the world’s highest steam train, zig-zagging through the southern Rocky Mountains along the Colorado-New Mexico state line. Daily departures for the 64-mile journey leave from Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado, and lunch is included on the trip. Leave enough time to wander around Chama and Antonito, which are worth exploring for their frontier-era charm and steam train memorabilia.

Featured image by Brandon Rathgeber
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.