“Life’s a journey not a destination.”
That’s a lyric from the 1993 Aerosmith song, “Amazing,” and a quote frequently featured on picture frames, wedding invitations, and wall hangings made from distressed wood. (Props to Aerosmith for that profound line. Let’s not forget, this is the same band responsible for the deeply philosophical single “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”)
And no form of travel makes the journey itself as powerful an experience as taking the train. Unlike a car or bus, where your views mostly consist of bumper stickers and asphalt, railroad tracks snake through rural terrain, immersing you in natural beauty. Of course, in America, the primary provider of train travel is Amtrak.
There are only a handful of non-Amtrak train routes in the United States. Special shoutout to the Grand Canyon Railway! It’s a gorgeous journey on par with the Amtrak superstars below. Book an experience on the Grand Canyon Railway here.
On Wanderu, you can book Amtrak routes that criss-cross the country, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Puget Sound. But as any semi-literate Instagram user can tell you, not all photo ops are created equal. (In fact, we hear pics taken on fall foliage train trips earn twice the Likes.)
Before you book, check out our roundup of the most scenic Amtrak routes in the U.S. — including what you’ll see along the way, and which specific stretches deserve your undivided attention.
1. Pacific Surfliner: San Diego, CA to San Luis Obispo, CA
Soak up the sun on this oceanfront route that curls up the Southern California coast to L.A. and beyond. The Pacific Surfliner parallels the beach for large swaths of this 268-mile ride, so close that the sea spray collects on the car windows. (Bonus: San Diego is one of our “10 Most Beautiful Cities in the U.S.,” so spend some time there on the front or back end.)
From this comfortable vantage point, you can watch surfers eat it on particularly nasty waves, and admire the impressive physique of volleyball players in the sand. (In a strictly non-objectifying way, of course.) If you’re a beach bum yourself, even better: The Surfliner is equipped with storage racks for surfboards.
2. Sunset Limited: New Orleans, LA to Los Angeles, CA
This train traverses much of the American Southwest. And whether you were born on the Bayou or just go giddy for gumbo, The Big Easy makes for the perfect starting point (or final destination).
On this trek, you’ll pass through some particularly diverse landscapes, from the marshy inlets of Louisiana to the dry desert of West Texas. In fact, at numerous points between Del Rio, TX and El Paso, TX, you can peer right over the border into Mexico.
3. Amtrak Adirondack: New York, NY to Montreal, QC
Prep your leaf peepers for this expedition through the Hudson River Valley. Stunning in any season, the Adirondack is at its best in autumn, when The Dome Car is added to the train for 360-degree fall foliage admiring. (If it’s indeed leaf peeping you’re after, check out our guide for more details on when to go.)
A portion of the route between the Green and Adirondack mountains actually sidles the shoreline of Lake Champlain, for some truly gorgeous views across the water.
4. Empire Builder: Chicago, IL to Portland, OR
Often vaunted as among the most picturesque routes of the entire Amtrak fleet, the Empire Builder’s reputation precedes it. Think of it as the Chris Hemsworth of trains, if the other trains were the two lesser-but-still-pretty-attractive Hemsworth brothers. Highlights include the prairies of North Dakota (no, seriously), and a significant span in Montana through Glacier National Park.
A fork in the road presents itself in Spokane, WA, where the Empire Builder alternates routes to either Seattle or Portland. Pick Portland: The passage through the Columbia River Gorge is practically a religious experience. (🙏)
5. The Pennsylvanian: Pittsburgh, PA to New York, NY
On its surface, a train ride across the Quaker State sounds as boring as an episode of “The Walking Dead” where no one dies. But in actuality, the Pennsylvanian promises dramatic sights on par with “Game of Thrones” Season 6. (We prefer to forget Seasons 7 and 8.)
Right out the gate is the Golden Triangle in Pittsburgh — where the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers converge — and a pass through Pennsylvania Dutch Country provides a glimpse of that throwback Amish swagger. But the true gem of the journey is the historic Horseshoe Curve (pictured above), where the track effectively doubles back on itself in one grand semicircle.
6. California Zephyr: Chicago, IL to San Francisco, CA
Prime your lungs for high altitude: This train is taking you up, up and away. The California Zephyr crosses both the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, including a segment through the infamous Donner Pass. (Named after the Donner Party, a team of pioneers in the winter of 1846 who resorted to cannibalism after being snowed in. 🍴🧠😋)
Among the other highlights on your itinerary — a series of canyons in Colorado, the Moffat Tunnel, and a short spell along the southernmost tip of the Great Salt Lake.
7. The Southwest Chief: Chicago, IL to Los Angeles, CA
Slither through the painted rock formations of northern New Mexico and Arizona knowing you’re just a limestone’s-throw away from the Grand Canyon.
From end to end, the full route hits eight states, starting (or ending) in Chicago, but the Southwest Chief’s primary highlights are westward from Colorado. Think pueblos and missions and sandstone as red as your sunburn. (You should really put some aloe on that.)
8. Coast Starlight: Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA
Consisting of the same sexy oceanside stretch between Oxnard and San Luis Obispo as the Pacific Surfliner, the Coast Starlight runs routes north-south between the Pacific Northwest and SoCal. Beyond just beachfront, this train zigs past Mt. Shasta and zags through the valleys and forests of Northern California before entering the Cascade Mountains.
An added perk: Much of this track mimics our West Coast Wine Itinerary, so don’t be shy about stopping for a beverage. 💁💁♂️
9. Vermonter: Washington, D.C. to St. Albans, VT
Pack a thick-knit sweater and give yourself the true New England treatment with this northeastern excursion.
A significant portion of the journey criss-crosses the Vermont/New Hampshire border along the Connecticut River, as the gorgeous Green Mountains loom in the west. Moving into Massachusetts, you’ll pass through The Berkshires, a foliage-rich region filled with quaint towns and villages. And arriving into New York, you’ll be treated to an impressive view of the city’s skyline before diving underground.
10. Lake Shore Limited: Chicago, IL to New York, NY
Sashay along the shoreline of America’s Great Lakes on this route connecting the Midwest to The Big Apple.
Just outside of Chicago, you’ll swing along the southernmost point of Lake Michigan before disappearing into Indiana corn land, only to reemerge in Ohio. A segment starting in Sandusky pretty much parallels the coast of Lake Erie all the way up to Buffalo. Upstate New York is striking unto itself, as the train passes the Erie Canal before tracing the Mohawk River southbound.
11. Amtrak Cascades: Eugene, OR to Vancouver, B.C.
We’ve already made much ado about the Pacific Northwest, but that’s for good reason. Lush and verdant, this route would get the Jolly Green Giant all hot and bothered. 🍆
Between Portland and Tacoma, you’ll be treated to views of Mount St. Helens, an active volcano that last erupted in 1980. The best portions, however, are those in and around the Puget Sound. This train treads the coastline of a series of bays up to Everett, Bellingham and beyond the U.S./Canada border. (Bellingham actually makes for an excellent off-the-beaten-path pit-stop. Check out our guide to learn what you can do there.)
12. The Cardinal: Chicago to New York
Take me home, country road: This final tour traverses the Ohio/Kentucky border, West Virginia and neighboring northern Virginia.
After the gentle hills of horse country, you’ll watch white-water rapids pass your window before ducking into the Allegheny Mountains. The trip then comes to a climax as you descend into the sultry Shenandoah Valley, with forest so thick you’ll lose yourself in the trees.
Travel by Train with Wanderu
Keep in mind that seasonality can have a huge impact on your experience with any of these routes. For instance, traveling in fall can really enhance a stretch that’s somewhat dull in other months. (To learn more about fall foliage specific routes, read our full article on the subject.)
If you’re eager to escape the sounds of the city, Wanderu is here to help. These scenic Amtrak routes are sure to inspire and invigorate, providing you with front-row seats to the most stunning natural settings in the entire U.S.
Even better, you can earn Amtrak Rewards by booking through Wanderu, which means your trips will practically start paying for themselves once you get rolling. In the sweet, sweet words of yet another Aerosmith hit: “Train kept a-rolling all night long.”