5 Scenic Winter Train Trips in the US

Cold weather months are a great time to visit some of the United State’s most exquisite national parks and exciting cities as they turn into winter wonderlands. And one of the best ways to experience them is by train. You’ll see snow-covered landscapes across the country you’d miss if you took another form of transportation. Best of all, by selecting train travel, you’ll avoid some of the headaches involved in other types of travel, such as security lines and being at the wheel for hours on end.  On a train, you can just sit back and relax in a heated coach and take in the stunning views.

We’ve gathered 5 of the most scenic winter train trips including excursions in Colorado, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park and Glacier National Park.


Cascade Canyon Winter Train, Durango & Silverton Railroad

Durango, Colorado to Cascade Canyon

On this 5-hour trip through the Animas River Canyon to Cascade Canyon, you’ll ride a historic steam train that’s been in continuous operation between Durango and Silverton since 1882. Departing from the Rockwood Station 18 miles north of Durango, you’ll travel high up into the Rocky Mountains and get views of the San Juan National Forest as you chug along the Animas River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the entire western United States.

Durango & Silverton Train in Colorado.
Durango & Silverton Train in Colorado.

The route captures some of Colorado’s most striking canyon scenes. Cascade Canyon turns into an indescribably magical ice palace in winter, so the photo ops are unparalleled. There’s a 45-minute layover at Cascade Canyon—ample time to snap away, enjoy lunch by a roaring fire in a covered pavilion and walk along the Animas River to a footbridge while listening to the breezes blow through the evergreens.

Rails to the Grand Canyon Package, Amtrak

Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon

This multi-day journey travels through some of the southwest’s stunning sites before arriving at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.

Grand Canyon South Rim.
Grand Canyon South Rim. Photo credit: David Laffitte.

Day 1 – Board Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in Los Angeles and venture to Williams, Arizona, taking in the enchanting scenery of the American Southwest as you go. On this leg of the trip, you’ll be winding through canyon passages that are only a few feet wider that the train.

Day 2 – This leg of the journey travels from Williams down to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim aboard the Grand Canyon Railway. The train takes travelers where no car can go. At the South Rim, you’ll be taken on a guided sightseeing tour incorporating many scenic overlooks with amazing vistas.

Day 3 – Take things at your own pace. Day 3 gives you the chance to explore the Grand Canyon’s trails on your own, breathing in the crisp mountain air and taking pics of the fabulous nature and wildlife.  

Day 4 – You’ll board the Grand Canyon Railway for your journey back to Williams and, after dinner there, hop on the train for the return trip to Los Angeles.

What’s Included: 2 nights’ hotel accommodations (Days 2 and 3); 2 nights onboard Amtrak (Days 1 and 4); 2 meals (1 breakfast on Day 2; 1 dinner on Day 4)

Rocky Mountains to Yosemite Package, Amtrak

Denver to San Francisco

This trip takes you from Denver to San Francisco, making stops in Salt Lake City and magnificent Yosemite National Park, where you’ll see jaw-dropping scenery (think sparkling snow-laden Ponderosa pines). The package includes explorations in Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, sightseeing in Salt Lake City and San Francisco and one day of immersion in Yosemite National Park.

Day 1, – You’ll explore the highlights of Denver on your own, for example Red Rocks Park and the Denver Art Museum.

Day 2 – Tour Rocky Mountain National Park, soaking up views of the Rocky Mountains and abundant wildlife.

Day 3 – Board the California Zephyr train, following a westward route through the snow-capped Rockies that’s been touted as one of the most gorgeous train rides the continent has to offer.   

Day 4 – On this day you’ll get a narrated tour of top attractions in Salt Lake City (aka “Crossroads of the West), including Temple Square, the Mormon Temple, Pioneer Park and the Old Union Pacific Train Depot.

Day 5, After seeing more Salt Lake City sights, you’ll catch Amtrak’s legendary California Zephyr for an overnight trip to San Francisco.

Day 6 – Discover San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf – replete with invigorating Pacific Ocean air and mouthwatering seafood.

Day 7 – During this last leg of the journey, you’ll spend 2.5 hours exploring Yosemite National Park, one of the U.S.’ most cherished landmarks. With views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains’ snow-capped peaks and the lush Central Valley, the journey to the park will thrill you and San Francisco awaits at the end of the day.

What’s Included: Denver to Salt Lake City; Salt Lake City to San Francisco on the California Zephyr®; 6 nights’ hotel accommodations (Days 1 and 2 in Denver, Days 3 and 4 in Salt Lake City, Days 6 and 7 in San Francisco); one night onboard Amtrak (Day 5); 1 dinner (Day 5).

Snow Zephyr Package, Vacations By Rail

Chicago to San Francisco

On this ride, you’ll see some of the most spectacular landscapes the American West has to offer, from the Great Plains of the heartland to the snow-blanketed peaks of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada Mountains. After traveling through the pristine winter terrain, you’ll be ready for the mild California climate. Additional highlights include: Moffat Tunnel, Colorado’s Gore, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, Truckee River, Donner Lake, San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait.

Day 1 – The journey starts in Chicago where you can delve into famous hot spots including the Field Museum, the Art Institute, the John Hancock building, Navy Pier and Water Tower.

Day 2 – You’ll board the California Zephyr train to launch the 2,400-mile journey westward where you’ll see the midwestern plains, dressed in their winter finery.

Day 3 The snowy peaks of the Colorado Rockies will serve as quite a morning wake up call as the train rolls toward the Continental Divide. Wildlife sightings await in the town of Winter Park.

Day 4 – The scenery shifts from mountains to canyons to lakes and the colors outside morph from whites to greens. You’ll be rolling toward Reno, Nevada and, from there, crossing into California through the highest point in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains – the famed Donner Pass. Emeryville is your evening destination and ultimately, via shuttle, San Francisco.

Day 5Experience the best of San Francisco on your own – from Golden Gate Park, Chinatown and Telegraph Hill to the shops and eateries at Fisherman’s Wharf.

What’s included: 2 nights aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr train (Days 2 and 3); 2 nights hotel accommodations (Days 1 and 4 in Chicago and San Francisco); all meals on board the train (for passengers who book Roomette & Bedroom accommodations)

Empire Builder, Amtrak

Chicago to St. Paul to Spokane to Portland or Seattle

Considered by railfans as the ultimate in rail travel, the Empire Builder trip across the rugged landscapes of the American West to the Pacific Northwest is touted as the best way to see snow-covered Glacier National Park in Montana.

Scenic view of Glacier National Park.
Scenic view of Glacier National Park.

You’ll travel from Chicago, Illinois along major parts of the Lewis & Clark trail in the northern U.S. through stunning wilderness, accessing magnificent views of the Mississippi River, the Minneapolis/St. Paul skyline and the North Dakota plains. Eventually, you’ll cross the spectacular Gassman Coulee Trestle in North Dakota and head into Montana’s Big Sky Country, where you’ll pass by awe-inspiring Glacier National Park – its misty peaks, cascading waterfalls and wildlife. From Spokane, you can either proceed to Seattle, Washington or down the Columbia River Gorge toward Portland, Oregon – a route that provides views of majestic Mt. Hood and Beacon Rock.

With stops in large cities and charming mountain towns, this singular adventure gives you the opportunity to experience the grandeur of the western United States from nature to culture. Numerous train stations are served by the Empire Builder, so you have the option of exploring a vast variety of places.

COVID-19 Safety Information

As with all forms of travel right now, traveling by train does come with the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19. There is not a clear consensus on how safe train travel is during the pandemic, but limiting contact with people outside of your household, mask wearing and social distancing help limit the spread. Check with each company for information about what they are doing to keep passengers safe.

traintracks

The Durango Train has increased frequency of cleaning and disinfection of stations, seats and all high-contact surfaces with CDC-approved products; distributed hand sanitizer across their property; implemented social distancing and mask-wearing protocols for staff and guests; operates trains at no more than 50% capacity and provides the option of open-air cars on all excursions and coaches with working windows.Additionally, the Durango Train is not charging cancelation fees for COVID-related cancellations, regardless of the time of purchase. Read more about the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad COVID-19 safety measures here.

Amtrak has waived all change fees for reservations made by December 31, 2020 and has implemented a wide variety of safety precautions. They include: onboard air filtration systems with a fresh air exchange rate every 4-5 minutes; contract-free travel by means of the Amtrak app; limited bookings to enable more physical distancing; enhanced cleaning and disinfecting at stations and onboard the trains; face mask mandates for all customers and employees. Learn more about Amtrak COVID safety protocols here.


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