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Train Trips of a Lifetime

Four writers describe their most memorable moments traveling by train

spinner image The Glacier Discovery Train travels from Anchorage to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop in Alaska
The Glacier Discovery Train travels from Anchorage to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop in Alaska.
Alamy

Train travel has been around for centuries but certain railways and experiences can change the way you think about travel. Maybe even change your life. We asked four travel writers to share the train travel adventures that stayed with them long after they left the track.

Glacier Discovery Train

spinner image Icebergs in Spencer Lake and writer Susan Barnes waiting near tracks for the Glacier Discovery Train in Alaska
Icebergs ahead in Spencer Lake; writer Susan Barnes waiting near the tracks for the Glacier Discovery Train in Alaska.
Alamy / Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes

Anchorage to Grandview, Alaska

Slow travel is the way to go in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Looking out the window from my seat on the right side of the train car, I saw a flash of white. Then another. And another. It wasn’t until I heard a shriek of delight from a nearby passenger that I realized the white flashes were beluga whales. It was the first time I’d ever seen them in the wild, and it was all thanks to the Alaska Railroad.

When it comes to traveling, I’m usually the get-there-as-quick-as-you-can type.

However, I’ve learned that when it comes to truly experiencing Alaska, slow travel is best. And one of the best ways to really soak in all that the land has to offer is aboard the Alaska Railroad.

I was on the Glacier Discovery Train from Anchorage when we spotted the belugas — along with Dall sheep, moose and bald eagles — as part of the railway adventure on the Alaska Railroad.

I hopped off the train at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop for a preplanned, off-the-grid adventure with a small group from the train. We joined our guide in a remote wilderness area within Chugach National Forest and set off in a raft to paddle on Spencer Lake. Surrounded by icebergs floating in the lake’s calm water, I felt very small and in awe of the untouched nature around me.

Gazing up at the icebergs, I was surprised by the color — they weren’t the solid white I thought they would be. Instead, they were varying shades of blue created by scattered light, with the black of moraine — the rocks and debris glaciers collect as they slowly move over land — woven in. The icebergs’ colors continued to change as we paddled past them. I was mesmerized.

Our raft reached the Placer River, which carried us on a relaxed route through the Alaskan wilderness. The quiet followed us on the river, disrupted only by small rapids and the occasional bird soaring overhead.

When our adventure ended, we trekked back to the train tracks and waved down the train to head back to civilization. Our small group was quiet. We were still mesmerized by the remote and awe-inspiring beauty we had experienced thanks to the Alaska Railroad.

Round-trip rates start at $141.

Susan B. Barnes, a longtime travel writer, has written for Afar, Allrecipes, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and other publications.

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Eurail Pass

spinner image The medieval city of Siena Italy
A Eurorail pass takes passengers to the medieval city of Siena, Italy.
Alamy

In 1977, my new husband, Matt, and I traveled by rail to Florence, Italy, aiming to see the works of Botticelli and da Vinci at the Uffizi Gallery and buy handmade leather sandals. At the station, tourism representatives told us all hotels were booked.

No problem: We bypassed the lines at the ticket counter, took a two-hour train ride to the medieval city of Siena and were devouring handmade tortellini by sunset.​

Matt and I could do that because we were using a Eurail Pass, the all-you-can-eat buffet of European train travel. After validating our 21-day unlimited mileage passes, which cost about $200 each, we could savor close-up views of a dozen countries on our own schedule, boarding and disembarking on a whim. We simply flashed our passes when the conductors came to check tickets.

What memories we made riding side by side! I’ll never forget rolling toward Amsterdam with a window-seat vista of fields of multicolored tulips in bloom — and, of course, those gently whirling windmills. 

Schmoozing with passengers from other countries was a bonus. On our way from Amsterdam to Switzerland, we chatted about the global economy with a Dutch commodities trader in an immaculately tailored suit heading to his weekend chalet in Germany. He pointed out historic towns on the Rhine River, Cologne’s imposing Gothic cathedral and the dense Black Forest. 

Matt and I crossed paths — twice — with an intrepid pair of Australian honeymooners who were using Eurail passes on a five-month odyssey. Matt made their acquaintance by gallantly helping the husband, Stan, with the couple’s two oversized suitcases. 

We talked about the Vietnam War and about daily life in Australia. After our second encounter, a chance meetup near the Barcelona train station, Stan and Joy joined us for a sightseeing boat ride around the harbor and treated us to sangria at a local café. 

Over the years, my rides using a Eurail Pass — starting in 1971 as a $5-a-day backpacker who slept on trains to avoid paying for lodging — have always satisfied my craving for flexibility and freedom when traveling. If you don’t want to plan your exact itinerary beforehand and make advance reservations, they’re a hassle-free way to do Europe your way.

Given the modern-day flock of European budget airlines, why do I remain a Eurail fan? Passes allow you to go where you want, when you want. Trains transport you to the heart of major cities and to dots on the map you’ve never heard of. Feel the itch to explore further? Simply hop on the next train.

Rates for a 22-day pass start at $593 ($533 for age 60 and older).

Kitty Bean Yancey is an award-winning former USA Today deputy managing editor and travel writer.

Chepe Express

spinner image The Chepe Express travels to and from Chihuahua, Mexico
The Chepe Express travels to and from Chihuahua, Mexico.
Alamy

Los Mochis, Sinaloa, to Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico 

Rocky and I know everything about each other. We’re not biologically related, but when we were in high school, our teachers and classmates thought of us as one. I wasn’t Adam, a student hoping to be a journalist one day, and he wasn’t Rocky, an aspiring businessman. No, we were AdamandRocky, one word, said in one breath. Our English teacher, Mrs. Morgan, used to say that we shared the same brain.

When we went our separate ways after high school, we made a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn-esque pact to make sure we would go on an adventure every year. And we did for many years, but life got in the way, and it became more difficult to get away. 

It was a text-message discussion about a past trip we took to Los Cabos, Mexico, when we had our epiphany. In all the times we had taken trips south of the border, we had never veered from the beach. But this time, Rocky and I decided to see Mexico by train, as our travels around the world had taught us that the best way to learn about a country and its people is by riding the rails. 

“Remember hiking the Grand Canyon?” Rocky texted in the middle of a workday.

“Of course,” I replied seconds later. “Still one of the best hikes ever.”

“Want to take it up a notch and explore a canyon that is even bigger?”

“🙂” I replied. (This was at the dawn of the emoji era, and even though our kids told us not to bother trying to be hip, we did it anyway.)

The Chepe Express meanders through Copper Canyon in the Sonoran Desert for more than 220 miles. The Copper Canyon region is roughly 25,000 square miles, and the canyon system is bigger than the Grand Canyon. It starts near the sandy shores of Los Mochis in the Mexican state of Sinaloa (on the eastern side of the Gulf of California) and makes four stops: El Fuerte, Bahuichivo, Divisadero and finally Creel, in the state of Chihuahua.

Rocky and I flew into Los Mochis for a couple of days on the beach before boarding the train. We pulled out of the station at 8 a.m. sharp and began our cross-country trek.

Like many European trains, the Chepe Express offers three classes of service: first class, executive and tourist/coach. If you like luxury treatment, though, tourist-class seating is not for you. Comfort-wise, it’s like sitting on a park bench for eight hours. But we spent most of our time in the social car, taking pictures and shooting the breeze, so we hardly noticed. 

The Sonoran Desert, which stretches into Arizona, is an anomaly. The ground is chalky, and the red caliche soil bakes under a relentless Mexican sun, emitting faint fumes of burning rock. But the foliage is green and lush. As the lumbering train picked up speed and started the slow ascent to 7,900 feet above sea level, the arid grasslands of the high plains gave way to honey mesquite, palo verde and yucca trees and to multiple species of cacti. We marveled at the untrammeled and untamed desert as it took shape. Its beauty was accented by the fact that even though we were at the foot of a natural wonder akin to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, there weren’t South Rim crowds. 

After eight hours of tick-tacking our way up the mountain, crossing a number of the route’s 37 bridges and passing through most of its 86 tunnels, Rocky and I disembarked in Divisadero, the gateway to Copper Canyon and the spot where you can see three other canyons to get an idea of the region’s vastness. 

When we stepped off the train, members of the local Tarahumara tribe were selling handmade pottery and thatched grass baskets. Rocky and I started talking to a few of the men, and we learned that the tribe is known for running through the canyon barefoot (or in flimsy sandals). 

We weren’t that adventurous anymore, but we asked in broken Spanish what hike we should do in Divisadero. The men gave us directions to a lesser-known trail, which we followed for jaw-dropping views of the ravine. 

When we got back on the train, we agreed that this was the best hike we had ever done. 

Sure, the Grand Canyon offers spectacular views and creature comforts along the way, but the Chepe Express and the people who live along its tracks offer a one-of-a-kind experience — complete with mountain hospitality and singular views not available in the U.S. — and we didn’t even have to leave North America.

Being away from our country and our families for a few days and falling back into the same routine from high school while making new friends in a new culture along the way affirmed that some trips are best enjoyed with lifelong friends.

Rates start at $60 one way for tourist-cabin seating. 

Adam Pitluk is the former editor-in-chief of American Way magazine. Despite his decades-long affiliation with the airline industry, he much prefers a turista-class ticket on a slow train through the hinterlands.

Gotthard Panorama Express

spinner image Gotthard, Switzerland and Larry and Sara Bleiberg
The Gotthard Panorama Express offers views of the Swiss Alps; writer Larry Bleiberg and wife Sara in Switzerland.
Alamy / Courtesy of Larry Bleiberg

Lucerne to Lugano, Switzerland 

Traveling through Switzerland presents a contradiction. The trains are fast and efficient, but when you move at breakneck speed, you often miss the scenery. 

Luckily the Swiss have figured it out. 

The same country that tunnels through mountains and builds trestles across deep gorges offers rail trips designed to show off its beauty.

I discovered this on a summer trip with my then-girlfriend Sara. We were living in separate cities, and although we were making a long-distance relationship work, it took careful coordination to mesh our separate lives. 

We needed a chance to slow down and enjoy some time together, which is what eventually led us to the Gotthard Panorama Express. The nearly six-hour trip connects Lucerne in the heart of the Alps with the town of Lugano in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking south. You could make the same journey in under two hours on a high-speed train, but oh, the sights you’d miss. 

By the end of our trip we weren’t quite engaged, but we were well on the way. I can’t say the train ride was responsible, but with spectacular vistas of snowy mountain peaks and medieval villages at seemingly every turn, it certainly didn’t hurt. 

The Gotthard journey is full of surprises. For one, it starts on a restored Art Nouveau steamboat, which leaves from a dock in front of Lucerne’s modern train station. When Sara and I rolled our suitcases up the gangplank, we stepped more than a century back in time.

Standing on the top deck, we chugged down Lake Lucerne and into a picture postcard. Mountains plunged down to the water’s edge and cows wandered impossibly green pastures. At one point, we passed the chapel dedicated to Swiss patriot William Tell, who legend says jumped from a boat in a storm to escape his captors.

But we had come to ride the rails, and a modern train with curving glass windows waited at the station in the village of Flüelen. The next leg of the trip follows a mountain pass that deterred even the Romans. Although it’s the shortest route through the Alps, it’s one of the most daunting, with steep canyons and towering peaks. It took the Swiss until the late 1800s to connect the route by rail. Even now, it’s an engineering wonder.

At one point, the train passes the town of Wassen three times, offering views of its church steeple from three different angles (below, beside and above) as the track climbs through looping tunnels. Not a bad metaphor for the lives Sara and I had been living, catching glances of each other as we looped through our lives. 

Then the train surprised us again, diving into darkness when it entered the Gotthard Crest Tunnel, a 9-mile passage that, when it was built in 1882, was the longest tunnel in the world. Ten minutes later, we emerged back into the light and into a different Switzerland. 

Italian signs marked the road, and pine forests gave way to open valleys. The next big town, Bellinzona, is famed for its three castles, evidence of its historic role guarding a frontier.

When the train pulled into Lugano, it indeed felt like a different country. The city combines Swiss efficiency with Mediterranean grace. Office workers linger at café tables and couples walk hand in hand along a lakefront promenade shaded by palm trees. 

Sara and I quickly fell into the rhythm, and that night at dinner we decided to change our own patterns as well. After years of living apart, we decided to move in together. After the trip I moved to her town. A few years later we decided to get married. Like the train trip across Switzerland, slowing down brought us together.

Rates start at $55 for a one-way trip.

Virginia native Larry Bleiberg is past president of the Society of American Travel Writers, a frequent contributor to BBC Travel, USA Today and other publications, and the creator of CivilRightsTravel.com.

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