A road trip around the country has long been a reliable way to see the natural beauty of the United States up close and from the ground. But a road trip often includes wrestling with endless maps, getting turned around at highway rest stops and spending the night in less-than-five-star hotel rooms. Seeing the country from the nation's rails could be a better bet. There are no directions to follow and there's no stopping for gas - and when you go to sleep, the train keeps moving. There's nothing to do but take in the views. And in some cases, the views through those big train windows are simply breathtaking.
Some trips are days long and some are just a couple of hours. There are trips that traverse both vast deserts and thick forests; high mountains and coastal cliffs. Whether you're looking to find sunstruck coastlines or snowcapped mountains, there are probably trains that run through them. These are the most scenic train rides in America.
Grand Canyon Railroad (Williams, Arizona, to South Rim)
The Grand Canyon Railroad approaches the national landmark starting from Williams, Arizona, and weaving up to the South Rim through the pine forests and desert before finally reaching the mesmerizing national wonder. Be sure to check out the train's dome car to truly surround yourself with the scenery.
Rik Strickland/Getty Images
Cape Cod Railroad (Cape Cod, Massachusetts)
This route passes through marshes, crosses cranberry bogs and bustles along the bay, giving you beautiful New England vistas without New England traffic. The train passes through quaint villages and past old industrial buildings, offering a peek into the popular tourist destination's former utilitarian life.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (Skagway, Alaska)
Traversing some of the most beautiful scenery in Alaska, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway runs multiple routes based out of the popular cruise port of Skagway. The routes were built in 1898 for gold miners during the Klondike Gold Rush, but now they haul tourists through steep grades and tight mountain passes.
Cass Scenic Railroad (Cass, West Virginia)
The Cass Scenic Railroad is a 4.5-hour trip from a restored logging town up to Bald Knob, the third-highest point in West Virginia. The summit offers a scenic look into the valley below, and during the fall serves as a great place to see the foliage.
Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle or Portland)
This route is one of Amtrak's longest, providing a connection from the plains of Montana and North Dakota to Chicago, Seattle and Portland. Over the 2,200-mile route, the train passes through the forests of Minnesota, the open land of North Dakota and Montana and the mountains of Idaho before splitting routes to Seattle or Portland. During summer months, guides from the National Park Service board the train to give talks about the natural and cultural heritage surrounding the route through Glacier National Park, ranked one of America's best national parks by travel experts.
Courtesy of Amtrak
Coast Starlight (Los Angeles to Seattle)
This route traces the West Coast, displaying everything from the iconic palm trees of Southern California to beautiful coastlines near Big Sur to the forests of Oregon. Heading north, wake up early to see the sunrise over Mount Shasta, and eat breakfast while cruising through the Bay Area heading south. This route is sure to please.
Courtesy of Amtrak
Sunset Limited (New Orleans to Los Angeles)
The Sunset Limited certainly offers plentiful views of its namesake. The train heads west, first pulling out of New Orleans then cruising through the Texas heat. Riders then reach the popular winter escapes of Tucson and Phoenix the next day around sundown. The train terminates at Los Angeles Union Station, a beautiful Art Deco station built in 1939.
Courtesy of Amtrak
Cascades (Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia)
Amtrak's Cascades line connects the cities of the Pacific Northwest, and does so with charm and beauty to spare. The route glides past the charming island towns in the Puget Sound with views of Mount Olympus before diving into green Washington farmland, ending up at the foot of the Coast Mountains in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Capitol Corridor (San Francisco to Sacramento, California)
The Capitol Corridor connects the California capitol of Sacramento with the Bay Area and San Jose to the south. This route will show you the bustling metropolis and the must-see landmarks of San Francisco, and you can bring your bike on board to explore the area once you get off.
Wikimedia Commons/Jerry Huddleston/CC-BY-2.0
Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic (Anchorage to Seward, Alaska)
The Coastal Classic heads south from Anchorage, following the coastline before turning away from the road system and into the mountains. It then arrives in Seward, home of one of the most underrated parks in America, Kenai Fjords National Park. This train has some of the most dramatic scenery that Alaska has to offer short of spending a night in a tent.
Wikimedia Commons/Luke Jones/CC-BY-2.0
Napa Valley Wine Train (Napa to St. Helena, California)
The Napa Valley Wine Train chugs through some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. And unlike with a car ride, you're actually able to drink in the local wines as you soak up the views. This train travels through some of the most prized farmland in the country, tons of wineries and the charming towns that accompany them. It's no surprise that the region is one of the best places to vacation.
Adirondack (New York City to Montreal, Quebec)
The Adirondack line is an 11-hour trek north from New York City. It winds through the lower Hudson Valley and follows the river up to Albany before it branches off into the Adirondacks. Then the train cruises along the coast of Lake Champlain before stopping at the border to continue on through the farmland of Quebec to Montreal. Take a weekend trip in the fall, when Amtrak adds a dome car to this train to let you take in upstate New York's legendary foliage.
Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles via Albuquerque, New Mexico)
This line heads west from Chicago, crosses the Great Plains through Kansas City, then glides across southeastern Colorado to New Mexico. Then your route cuts through northern Arizona via Flagstaff, passes by a wacky vintage sign in the Mojave Desert and the Cucamonga Wilderness, and then finally arrives in Los Angeles.
Wikimedia Commons/Jerry Huddleston/CC-BY-2.0
Texas Eagle (Chicago to Los Angeles via San Antonio, Texas)
Everything is bigger in Texas, so it's fitting that the Texas Eagle is America's longest passenger train route. The 2,728-mile journey begins in Chicago, heading south through Springfield and St. Louis. Then it ventures into Arkansas with stops in Little Rock and Texarkana. The rail line crosses the heart of Texas to Dallas before turning south to Austin and San Antonio - where the train station is within walking distance of The Alamo - before joining the Sunset Limited for the remainder of the journey to Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Amtrak
Downeaster (Boston to Brunswick, Maine)
John M. Chase/Shutterstock.com
Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado)
This scenic railroad winds through the Rockies of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. It climbs through cliffs and over gorges, on a route that takes advantage of the dramatic landscape of the canyons. The route peaks at 10,015 feet, the highest point reached by any railway in the United States.
Durango & Silverton Scenic Railroad (Durango, Colorado, to Silverton, Colorado)
The Durango & Silverton Scenic Railroad travels between the two underrated small towns by following along the Animas River. After Rockwood Depot, the train branches off from the roadway, chugging through the San Juan National Forest to highlight views that can only be accessed via this railroad.
Maple Leaf (New York City to Toronto)
Passing by one of North America's most popular tourist destinations in Niagara Falls, the Maple Leaf connects the United States' and Canada's largest cities, with hundreds of miles of beautiful upstate New York wilderness in between. The train travels up through the Hudson Valley before heading west at Albany and passing north of the Finger Lakes. The train crosses into Canada just north of Niagara Falls and traces the shore of Lake Ontario before pulling into Toronto.
Leo Bruce Hempell/Dreamstime.com
Mount Washington Cog Railway (Mount Washington, New Hampshire)
Mount Washington is famous for the proliferation of bumper stickers proclaiming that "This car climbed Mount Washington." But driving is far from the only way to climb the mountain, and the Mount Washington Cog Railway takes you up the opposite side of the mountain, giving you New Hampshire's most breathtaking view from an angle that the drivers don't get.
Mount Hood Railroad (Hood River to Parkdale, Oregon)
The Mount Hood Railroad travels between Hood River and Parkdale, Oregon, a short 22-mile ride that takes passengers through forests, orchards and vineyards, all the while giving great views of its namesake, Mount Hood. The mountain is one of the most beautiful spots inside America's state and national parks. It's a great way to see picturesque Pacific Northwest landscapes in a short timespan.
Wikimedia Commons/Peter Marbach/Public Domain
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway (Blue Ridge, Georgia)
This train travels along the Toccoa River through rolling Appalachian hills just outside of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Passengers get to step out and enjoy a break in the neighboring towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee, before heading back through the wilderness.
Branson Railway (Branson, Missouri)
The area around Missouri's festive town of Branson offers the rolling hills of the Ozarks. This train weaves in and out of those valleys, over bridges and through tunnels, ultimately giving passengers a great view of the area's natural characteristics.
Wikimedia Commons/Doug Wertman/CC-BY-2.0
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (Independence to Akron, Ohio)
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad brings passengers on a ride through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, offering views of the Cuyahoga River you don't have to hike for. Passengers will also have the opportunity to spot wildlife like deer, beavers and eagles from the train. The park is also one of the best in the country for seeing fall foliage.
Adirondack Scenic Railway (Adirondack State Park, New York)
Part of a historical route between Utica, New York, and Lake Placid, the Adirondack Scenic Railway operates part of this route for outdoors enthusiasts in the photogenic Adirondack Mountains. The route between Utica and Big Moose, New York, cuts through thick upstate New York forest and a historic station in Thendara, with a shuttle to Old Forge.
Nanci Mc Craine/Dreamstime.com
California Zephyr (Chicago to Emeryville, California)
Considered Amtrak's most scenic line, the California Zephyr begins in Chicago and then cruises through the plains of Nebraska before arriving in Denver. The path then winds its way through the Rockies, arriving at the affordable destination of Salt Lake City before gliding through the deserts of Nevada. Finally it climbs over the Sierra Nevada and arrives in the Bay Area. Crossing the country by rail is a travel experience that will change your life.
More from The Active Times:
30 Weekend Trips to Start Planning Now
Underrated American Cities You Need to Add to Your Bucket List
The Most Beautiful Places in America's State and National Parks