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10 Incredibly Scenic Amtrak Routes Around the Country

Looking to get away and travel by rail? Choose from these scenic journeys.
Last updated Nov. 20, 2022 | By Nicholas Slayton Edited By Michele Zipp

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There are few better ways to explore the United States than by train. Planes are faster and cars offer flexibility, but traveling by rail opens up new vistas and paths to explore, mixing major cities with swaths of nature. And Amtrak cruises through some of the most scenic routes. Sure, it's good for business trips, but there are plenty of ways to use it for leisure. Some even find traveling by train to be romantic.

We looked through everything Amtrak has to offer and found some of the most scenic routes. These 10 trips offer something for everyone. After all, it's the journey, not the destination.

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1. Adirondack

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Need a getaway from city life? This route starts in New York City, so after business meetings or visits to the museums, hop on this and watch the skyscrapers fade from view. The Adirondack line moves through the Lake Champlain Region, lush with forests, local farms, and plenty of trail routes for anyone looking for a mid-trip hike.

The spring and summer offers beautiful views, but consider a fall trip as well to see the swaths of colors when the leaves change. Be sure to bring your passport as well — the train goes into Canada for its endpoint at Montreal. The total route is just 10 hours.

Pro tip: Be prepared for your trip by planning in advance. Make sure to grab the best credit cards for Amtrak , and keep an eye out for deals offered on its site.

2. Pacific Surfliner

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For beach views, head west. The nearly six-hour Pacific Surfliner trip ferries riders between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, with stops in Santa Barbara, Anaheim, and Los Angeles along the way. The best part? The majority of the ride is along the coast with clear views of the ocean. Every stop has something different to check out. San Luis Obispo offers wine country and scenic views, while Anaheim has Disneyland.

Want to explore L.A.? The Surfliner stops at the historic Union Station, in the heart of Downtown. Staying in San Diego? Be sure to check out the city’s zoo and the USS Midway.

3. The California Zephyr

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Despite the name, most of this trip is outside the Golden State. Starting in Chicago, this route has one of the most varied locations. The California Zephyr is also one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Cutting west through the farmland plains of Nebraska, it's up into the Rocky Mountains for the heart of the ride to the Mile High city of Denver, and then Salt Lake City.

This is the ideal route for someone looking for a leisurely ride — the trip takes 51 hours to finish. When you do get to California, arrive in Emeryville, with the entire Bay Area to explore. It's a long ride, so make sure you have one of the best travel credit cards with you so you can pay for expenses and earn rewards for future travel at the same time.

4. City of New Orleans

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This is the route for anyone craving some musical history. Starting in the north in Chicago, the 19-hour City of New Orleans route follows the Mississippi River with views of the winding waterway to Memphis, the home of the blues. Catch a show on Beale Street or visit Elvis Presley's home for a bit of rock and roll. Get back on the train to visit New Orleans.

5. Southwest Chief

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Yes, this route starts and ends in Chicago and Los Angeles, but those cities aren't the stars of this Amtrak trip. After a stop along the Mississippi in Kansas City, the bulk of the Southwest Chief route explores the American Southwest. The train moves through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, with views of pueblos and orange-red mountain ranges. There are connections along the path to Santa Fe as well as the Grand Canyon. Be ready to make overnight accommodations since this trip takes at least 40 hours.

6. Vermonter

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This is a train route perfect for winter. With its northern terminus in upper Vermont — hence the name — this is a great way to get to the ski towns of New England near the Canadian border. Travelers can take in snow-capped mountains, plenty of forests, and all of the amenities of ski resorts.

It's not just scenic nature views — the Vermonter runs south through New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and then Washington, D.C. It’s perfect for anyone looking for historic colonial era sites, museums, and sporting events.

7. Amtrak Cascades

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Ever wanted to explore the Pacific Northwest? This 10-hour ride hits the major cities of the area, in both British Columbia and the United States, with stops in Seattle, Vancouver, Eugene, and Portland. With many cities right on the water, the Amtrak Cascades is great for seafood lovers.

Alongside the urban exploration, take in crystal blue waterfalls, stunning mountain ranges and even a volcano. There are plenty of hiking trails in the forests along the route for the active riders. Bring or rent a bike; Portland is known as one of the top cities in the U.S. for cycling.

8. Empire Service

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Partly a business route linking New York City to the state capital of Albany, the Empire Service is also great for a nature getaway or to explore all of New York State. Start in Penn Station and head north, through Albany and onto Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo — perhaps for a Bills game. The train goes through the Hudson River Valley and the Finger Lakes, and as far north as Niagara Falls, with its crushing sheets of water that kick up a thick layer of mist on viewers.

9. Sunset Limited

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Instead of waterfalls and forests, this is the train ride for desert and mountain aficionados. Starting in New Orleans the Sunset Limited cuts west, out of the Gulf and into Houston and San Antonio, mixing both historic sites with modern attractions. Then it’s into the desert, moving through the valleys of the Southwest and into the Rocky Mountains.

One you cross those peaks, the train breezes into Los Angeles. It lives up to its “limited” name — there are only three trains a week, so be sure to factor that into your travels. It also connects with other Amtrak routes along the way, if you're looking to combine some trips.

10. Acela

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With its route going from Washington, D.C. through New York and Boston, and with the number of politicians who take it, the Acela has gained a reputation as the power brokers' Amtrak. As a result, it has some of the best amenities for business trips, with outlets, conference spaces and more. This train can get up to 150 mph speeds, so it's a fast trip too, around seven hours. Since it whisks by major East coast cities, you’ll get to view the architecture as you cruise by.

Bottom line

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There are so many parts of the country to explore, and more than one type of experience to have when traveling by train. Keep an eye out for travel deals offered by Amtrak and plan ahead with a budget for experiences, food, and lodging along the way.

In many cases, rail travel can be cheaper than some faster routes by car or plane, especially with gas prices rising . Riding the Amtrak might both be a more affordable vacation and a memorable journey.

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Nicholas Slayton Nicholas Slayton is a journalist and editor based in Los Angeles. His writing can be found at The Daily Beast, Paste Magazine, Architectural Digest, Shelterforce, and other outlets.