Rumbling through glittering cities and slipping past slumbering small towns, Amtrak trains offer scenic thrills just outside your picture window — revealing both the majesty of the American landscape and glimpses into the nation's storied heartland. For many, the roomy, comfortable trains are a convenient alternative to driving or flying. Here are some of the company's most celebrated train journeys.
1. The Empire Builder
Traversing a breathtaking range of landscapes, the Empire Builder chugs between Seattle (or Portland, Oregon) and Chicago just as it has since its inaugural ride in 1929. The 46-hour train journey takes you to the Columbia River Gorge, Montana's Big Sky Country, Glacier National Park, rolling stretches of Midwestern prairie and vast swathes of farmland punctuated by sleepy farm communities. It's a big slice of scenic Americana. In summer, along certain stretches of the route, National Park Service rangers from nearby historic sites climb aboard for informal talks.
2. The Coast Starlight
This popular, 1,377-mile, 35-hour train journey makes its daily run between Los Angeles and Seattle — past verdant valleys, the snowcapped Cascade Range and the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Along the way, you can dine on real china at tables draped in fine linen. Tastings of California wines and artisanal cheeses are available in the Pacific Parlour Car, and the Arcade Room keeps youngsters occupied with video games. Along certain stretches of the route, National Park Service rangers from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park climb aboard for informal discussions of the region's gold heritage.
3. The City of New Orleans
Musician Steve Goodman made this nightly Mississippi River meander famous in the song "City of New Orleans." It's a 926-mile, 19-hour daily rumble between Chicago and New Orleans, making a midpoint stopover in bluesy Memphis, Tennessee — linking three of America's most famous music cities. In addition to its trek through Illinois farmland, this train journey is a real Southern sojourn, crossing Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. In spring, frothy pink and white azaleas brighten the landscape.
In bayou country, keep an eye out for lavender water lilies, slender egrets and the occasional gator snoozing on the riverbank. You can even dine on a bayou-inspired meal in the train's Cross Country Café, whose menu features corn-crusted Louisiana catfish and spicy crab and corn soup.
4. The Adirondack
This scenic 11-hour train journey leaves the concrete canyons of the Big Apple far behind as it travels 380 miles to Montreal — stopping in New York's capital city, Albany, and tracing the bluffs and riverbanks that shadow the inky black Hudson River along the way. Be on the lookout for the ruins of Bannerman's Castle, an arsenal built on an island in the river by a Gilded Age millionaire, as well as the imposing towers of West Point Military Academy, a national historic landmark established in 1802. The Adirondack neatly skims the shoreline of shimmering Lake Champlain, where forest-green firs rise above the waters. In winter, it's an icy wonderland.
5. The Pennsylvanian
For a fascinating blend of urban and rural landscapes and modern and rustic tableaux, snag a seat on The Pennsylvanian. This breezy, 444-mile, 9-1/2-hour, daily train journey connects Pittsburgh and New York— with rolling Amish pastureland, mossy mountains and historic covered bridges in between. You'll be treated to the beauty of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, home to quaint red barns, horse-drawn buggies and summer meadows dotted with wildflowers. In fall, orange and red leaves blaze against a blue sky in the Alleghany Mountains. Near Altoona, Pennsylvania, the train coils around Horseshoe Curve, a half-circle carved from the undulating mountain scape in 1854.