US Travel | 5 of the Best American Train Journeys
The California Zephyr (image: Patrick Rasenberg)
by: John Pitt, author of USA by Rail
American trains have always had a strong hold on the popular imagination, inspiring countless songs, stories, scandals and legends. Their rugged charm sets them apart from more mundane means of transport and, as Homer Simpson said, ‘Nothing beats flying across the country on a train.’ Students receive discounted ticket prices and Amtrak rail passes are available for citizens of any country, including the USA and Canada. These are valid for 15, 30 or 45 days of coach class travel and allow you to visit 46 US states and more than 500 destinations.
Serendipity is one of the great things about train travel. I’ve heard fascinating stories sitting by chance next to Tennessee Williams’s former chauffeur and once watched a football game on TV with Bill Cosby in New York’s Pennsylvania Station. You can mingle with fellow passengers on board, watch a movie in the evening, have a drink at the bar or just enjoy the passing scene.
Trains are safe, pollute less and rarely suffer from weather delays or long security checks. You won’t be surcharged or given jet lag or made to take your shoes off. You stay in touch with an ever-changing landscape and between the cities and small towns you comprehend America’s sheer size, seeing what this country looked like before McDonalds and Coca Cola.
Amtrak trains have style and old-world charm. Novices are well cared for by helpful attendants, making it easy to visit most big cities as well Disney World, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. You can go from coast to coast, explore the Rocky Mountains and ride alongside two oceans. Often you see places that can’t be visited any other way. These are some of the best journeys –
1. The California Zephyr is one of the world’s great trains, going from Chicago to San Francisco by way of America’s heartland and the high plains of Colorado then climbing into the Rocky Mountains via the Oregon Trail. Pioneers came this way, as did gold prospectors, the pony express and the first continental telegraph. After Salt Lake City, you cross Bonneville Salt Flats and the beautiful Sierra Nevada.
2. The Sunset Limited’s epic journey takes you from Florida to Los Angeles. The train makes a dizzy crossing of the Mississippi River on the Huey P Long Bridge outside New Orleans before traveling among bayous, white egrets, alligators, mansions and fields of sugar cane. After San Antonio it joins the Rio Grande, taking a day to cross the sagebrush and mesquite prairies of Texas.
3. The Southwest Chief travels between Chicago and the Pacific, following part of the Santa Fe Trail first used by Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, wagon trains and stage coaches. You cross the Mojave Desert and pass Dodge City’s famous Boot Hill burial ground. From Williams in Arizona you can travel to the Grand Canyon by steam train.
4. The Crescent goes from New York to New Orleans through the Blue Ridge Mountains and idyllic Shenandoah National Park with its dogwoods and cedars. Beyond Atlanta lie sleepy southern towns with quaint general stores and sun-bleached houses. The train also makes a dramatic crossing of Lake Pontchartrain, skimming a few feet above the water on a six-mile causeway.
5. The Coast Starlight operates between Seattle and Los Angeles by way of Washington, Oregon and California. It passes some of America’s highest mountains, such as volcanic Mt Hood, as well as the emerald forests and waterfalls of Twin Peaks country. Beyond San Luis Obispo it runs along tracks set high on cliffs, with splendid views of the Pacific surf and beaches.
John Pitt is from the UK and has traveled over 75,000 miles as author of the USA by Rail guide book, published by Bradt Travel Guides. For more information on train travel in the United States and Canada, see his website at http://www.usa-by-rail.com/