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7 Great Vintage Railways in America

Follow the tracks to restored cars, steam engines and plenty of nostalgia along these iconic railways

spinner image the white pass and yukon trail train crossing a bridge over rough river water
All aboard for views of glaciers and gorges along the White Pass & Yukon Route in Alaska.
White Pass & Yukon Route

America’s heritage railways follow the tracks of history back to the late 19th century, when industrialization was changing the face of the country.

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Today, many have been repurposed to offer gorgeous scenic excursions throughout the U.S. — from the mountains of the Alaskan panhandle to the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona and the farmlands of Pennsylvania. They use restored vintage cars and steam engines and, in some cases, narrow-gauge tracks and historic depots.

Here are seven great heritage lines for passenger tours. All aboard!

spinner image the broadmoor manitou and pikes peak cog railway passing through the pike national forest in colorado
The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway takes passengers through the Pike National Forest in Colorado.
Xanterra Travel Collection

1. The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Manitou, Colorado

Ride to the top of “America’s Mountain,” the 14,100-foot-tall Pikes Peak, which inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write the patriotic poem, “America the Beautiful.” The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway takes you to the heart-stirring summit through the Pike National Forest and stands of Colorado blue spruce, ponderosa pine and 2,000-year-old bristlecone pine. With each turn and switchback, hear the stories of key places and people who shaped the region back in the day.

Built in 1891 and owned and operated by the iconic Broadmoor resort since 1925, the railway boasts three distinctions: it’s the highest railroad in America, the highest and longest cog railway (with a cogwheel to provide extra traction on hills) in the world and it summits the most-visited mountain in North America. After three years of extensive renovations, it reopened in 2021 with new trains, tracks and a depot to welcome visitors.

Cost: Tickets start at $58.50 for adults online for a three-hour round-trip train ride.

spinner image passengers riding in enclosed and open air cars on the east broad top railroad in pennsylvania
Travelers can ride in enclosed or open-air cars on the East Broad Top Railroad, the oldest narrow-gauge railway in the U.S.
Xanterra Travel Collection

2. East Broad Top Railroad, Orbisonia, Pennsylvania

Hop aboard the oldest narrow-gauge railway in the U.S., dating to 1872. The East Broad Top Railroad is a recently restored National Historic Landmark that is once again carrying passengers for the first time since it shut down in 1953. A time capsule of American railroading, it’s considered one of the country’s best-preserved examples of 19th-century narrow-gauge railroads (with rails less than 4 feet apart).

Depart from the historic station in Orbisonia aboard an enclosed or open-air car or a vintage caboose as a restored steam engine pulls the train through 9 miles of rolling hills and farmlands in central Pennsylvania. Step back in time with a guided tour of the railroad’s remarkably intact late 19th-century machine shop complex.

Cost: Tickets start at $20 for a 60-minute round-trip ride.

spinner image passengers stand outside a luxury car in the back of the grand canyon railway in arizona
The Grand Canyon Railway has been carrying people to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon since 1901.
Xanterra Travel Collection

3. Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona

What better way to arrive at the bucket list Grand Canyon than by train, bypassing the traffic jams to enter the popular national park. The Grand Canyon Railway has been carrying people to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon since 1901 when it was completed by the legendary Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway company. The 65-mile one-way trip starts in Williams on historic Route 66 and heads through ponderosa pine forests and desert prairies, passing the San Francisco Peaks, the highest point in Arizona at more than 12,600 feet.

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Settle into a restored railcar — including 1920s Pullmans with opening windows, vintage 1950s coaches, luxury dome and parlor cars, and an open-platform observation car — while being entertained by Western musicians and cowboy characters. Spend three hours exploring one of the Seven Wonders of the World, before returning to the Williams Depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At least once a month, the railway’s century-old steam engine is fueled by recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants — an environmental exemplar dubbed the French Fry Express.

Cost: Tickets start at $67 for a 4.5-hour round-trip train ride, for a total of 8 hours and 15 minutes.

spinner image passengers stand on the outdoor caboose of the train on the white pass and yukon route in alaska
Restored and replica parlor cars carry passengers along the White Pass & Yukon Route in Alaska.
White Pass & Yukon Route

4. White Pass & Yukon Route, Skagway, Alaska

Go north — far north — to the White Pass & Yukon Route, likely the northernmost place you’ll ever ride a steam train. This narrow-gauge line was started in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush to link Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon in Canada, to Alaska’s port of Skagway.

Expect your breath to catch as you traverse glaciers, gorges and craggy peaks during a journey that climbs almost 3,000 feet in just 20 miles. Cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles pepper the route along the way. The restored and replica parlor cars (the oldest dating to 1883), pulled by diesel-electric or steam locomotives, carry passengers on a 20-mile White Pass Summit Excursion past the original Klondike Trail of 1898 and a 17-mile Journey to Inspiration Point that includes tales of frontier Alaska and the gold rush.

Cost: Tickets start at $142 for the about 2.5-hour White Pass Summit Excursion and $135 for 2.5-hour Journey to Inspiration Point.

spinner image a vintage train from the texas state railroad in palestine texas
The Texas State Railroad had a starring role in the popular TV series ’1883.’
rrfan / Alamy Stock Photo

5. Texas State Railroad, Palestine, Texas

This railway was built by state prison inmates back in 1881 to transport raw materials for their penitentiary’s iron works. Today, you can exchange iron ore for comfortable seats on the refurbished Texas State Railroad. It takes riders on a 25-mile route between the towns of Rusk and Palestine, with their elegant Victorian-style depots, and through the Piney Woods of East Texas, where history is part of the journey. The railroad has even served as a filming location for more than 35 productions, most recently the popular TV series 1883, starring Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Sam Elliott

Step aboard a vintage 1920s car or a glass-enclosed observation dome, pulled by a steam or diesel locomotive, and enjoy food and beverage service along with music and historical narration. You can even ride inside the locomotive cab, seated between the engineer and conductor, in one of the railroad’s classic “Old Girls.”

Cost: Tickets start at $27 for the four-hour Piney Woods Express Diesel excursion and $37 for the four-hour Piney Woods Express Steam excursion.

spinner image trains pass each other in the forest on the cass scenic railroad in west virginia
Cass Scenic Railroad passes through the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in West Virginia.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park

6. Cass Scenic Railroad, Cass, West Virginia

Built in 1901 to haul lumber, the Cass Scenic Railroad now takes passengers on an 11-mile route through Cass Scenic Railroad State Park to the top of 4,842-foot-tall Bald Knob. Expect dramatic Appalachian Mountain vistas as the restored steam locomotives navigate the steep switchbacks up West Virginia’s third highest peak. Take in the forested panorama from an open observation coach or a refurbished logging car as you ride one of the highest non-cog railroads east of the Rocky Mountains.

Additionally, a 15-mile excursion travels to the town of Durbin along the Greenbrier River, and a 4-mile route goes to Whittaker Station, a recreated logging camp (halfway up to Bald Knob). Journey back in time at the Cass Historical Museum, one of America’s only authentic lumber railroading museums.

Cost: Tickets start at $59 for a two-hour to six-hour trip with lunch included, depending on the route.

spinner image the mount washington cog railway in new hampshire
The Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire was the first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world.
Mount Washington Cog Railway

7. Mount Washington Cog Railway, Mount Washington, New Hampshire

Relive the glory days of the iron horse by riding the Mount Washington Cog Railway to the highest peak in the Northeast — what P.T. Barnum said was “the second greatest show on Earth.” The first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world in 1869 — and the second steepest — reaches a grade of nearly 38 percent, which means there’s about a 14-foot elevation difference between passengers in the front and back ends of the coach.

Ride its biodiesel or vintage coal-fired steam locomotives through three climate zones to the 6,288-foot Mount Washington summit in the heart of the White Mountains. And take photos of the spectacular vistas from the hilltop observation deck. The summit’s Tip Top House, dating back to 1853 and now a museum, is the oldest existing mountaintop building in North America.

Cost: Tickets start at $63 for one to three-hour round-trip ride, depending on the route.way, 

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