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Using Amtrak and Via Rail
Travel the most scenic routes

Tips for using Amtrak and Via Rail Canada

Both Amtrak and Via Rail Canada offer beautiful routes, some of the finest in the world. Each has either "dome cars" or high-level coaches and lounge cars with big windows on many trains that increase viewing pleasure.

However, some rail routes are much more scenic than others

These are the most beautiful Amtrak and Via Rail routes to book:


California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco Bay Area)

Amtrak's California Zephyr gets scenic even before you leave the Chicago area—you pass near luxury homes and gardens in several of the richest suburbs in the United States.

The Zephyr takes an awesomely scenic route through the heart of the Colorado Rockies at times beyond paved roads.

Leaving Chicago, you cross the Mississippi River, and wake up the next morning near Denver nearly one mile higher than when you departed.

Suddenly, you see the Colorado Rockies rising nearly straight up from the high prairie.

Today, you'll also be travelling nearly straight up. This is the most rugged rail crossing of the Rockies by far.

Snow capped peaks—even in late summer—rise on all sides, and you'll pass through forests and along great whitewater rivers.

The next morning, you'll travel over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.

That afternoon, as you glide along San Francisco Bay, you'll see the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Amtrak coaches meet your train and take you across the Oakland-Bay Bridge into San Francisco. You can get off at the Ferry Building, Union Square, or Fisherman's Wharf, depending on your hotel or hostel location.

Anytime of year is a great time to take this trip. Especially during the winter, westbound works better for the best scenery.

Amtrak maximizes your enjoyment by providing high-level seating and large windows on the California Zephyr.


California Zephyr stopovers

Three places make fine stopovers along the California Zephyr route.

In Denver, you can take the Gray Line of Denver day-long tour to Pikes Peak, the Garden of the Gods, the Air Force Academy, and Colorado Springs.

You'll ride a steep cog railroad, which will deposit you on the 4,270+ metre, 14,000+ foot summit of Pikes Peak. Needless to say, the views are fantastic.

If travelling between late May and mid-September, Gray Line also has a simply wonderful day tour to Rocky Mountain National Park. Both tours should be booked in advance.

The Zephyr also passes through the spa town of Glenwood Springs.

At Glenwood Springs, the two-block long spring-fed outdoor swimming pool alone is worth a one-night stop. The pool stays open all year. See its photo on the link.

Also within walking distance of Amtrak, you'll find a comfortable hostel in Glenwood Springs.

Because this is the closest hostel to the Aspen ski area, book very early if travelling during the winter.

At Reno, using a rental car is the best way to reach nearby Lake Tahoe. This easily allows you to explore the many natural areas around the lake.

You can also use frequent South Tahoe Express coaches from Reno Airport to the Lake Tahoe casinos on the California - Nevada stateline. This puts you in the main resort area, but not in the state parks. The airport is less than three miles from the Amtrak station by taxi.


Coast Starlight (Los Angeles to Seattle via San Francisco Bay Area)

Although much of the Coast Starlight route between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area does not follow the coast, the scenery becomes superb when it does.

The landscape is almost pristine in places—much the same as before the Spanish came.

This is the scenery that Amtrak features in so much of its promotional literature.

Although the train transits the beautiful Mount Shasta area of northern California at night, northbound Coast Starlight passengers do see the Cascade mountains in Oregon during the day.

The Coast Starlight route between Los Angeles and Seattle works best northbound, especially during the winter months.

Even in the summer, a late southbound train makes you miss the best scenery, which is between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo in California. Northbound, be sure to sit on the left side as you face forward.

If you must travel southbound, book an overnight stay in San Luis Obispo, a pleasant university town, and then take a local Amtrak train to Los Angeles early the next morning. That way you do not risk missing the most beautiful portion of the route.


Coast Starlight options:

At San Luis Obispo, you may rent a car and drive to the Morro Bay area via Montana del Oro State Park and overnight near the famed San Simeon State Historical Park. The next morning, take a walking tour of Hearst Castle in the state historical park (whose builder was the inspiration for the great film "Citizen Kane"), drive along beautiful California Highway One to the Big Sur and Monterey area in the afternoon, overnight in or near Salinas (for cheaper accommodation), drive southbound on the U.S. Highway 101 freeway back to San Luis Obispo the next morning, and continue on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles that afternoon or use the local train for best scenery the following morning. If you use the local train, you can spend more time in the Monterey area and overnight in San Luis Obispo.

If you don't wish to drive, you can take local transportation from the Amtrak Salinas station to Monterey, book an overnight there, and then use the same bus service to visit Big Sur and picturesque Carmel.

Another great stop on this route is Santa Barbara. a city of beaches and beautiful gardens.

Younger travellers may also enjoy beach side Santa Cruz, which Amtrak reaches by connecting coach from the Coast Starlight stop in San Jose. This is a vibrant, fun community.


Canadian - Canadien (Toronto - Vancouver)

Traditionally, the historic Canadian Pacific ("CP Rail") route in Canada has been considered the most scenic in North America. Unfortunately, however, Via Rail Canada, the Crown corporation that runs most long-distance Canadian trains, no longer operates via CP Rail.

Nevertheless, the current route of the "Canadian/Canadien" train via the more northerly Canadian National Railway ("CN") is still super scenic. In combination with a side trip to Banff National Park and Lake Louise, this route becomes incredible.

After leaving Vancouver in the late afternoon, passengers view the Canadian Rockies the next day, including Jasper National Park, one of the two most famous parks in Canada (The other is Banff National Park).

Later during the trip, the train passes by many lakes and forests ("the bush") of the Canadian Shield in northern Ontario, a rugged area.

This route is best travelled eastbound, especially during the winter, for maximum mountain scenery.

Even during the summer, a late westbound train could put you through Jasper National Park at night.

If you must travel westbound, be sure to break journey at Jasper.

In fact, all passengers should plan time to explore Jasper and its adjacent parks like Banff and Yoho.

From Jasper, Brewster offers express coach and tour coaches to Lake Louise and Banff.

You may take a day long tour to Banff, spend several days in the Banff and Lake Louise area, and then return to Jasper using an express coach to rejoin Via Rail.

See Brewster for more details.


Canadian - Canadien alternatives

Although the Canadian Pacific route mentioned above is no longer included in the Via Rail Canada system, the more Rocky Mountaineer Railtours offers deluxe tour trains from Calgary Vancouver via Kamloops (or vice-versa) using the former Canadian/Canadien route via Banff and other national parks.

Travellers overnight in Kamloops for maximum scenery.

Via Rail passengers may join Rocky Mountaineer train tours at Banff by taking a Brewster Transportation coach from Jasper to Banff, or they may begin with Rocky Mountaineer Railtours in Vancouver, travel to Banff, and then take Brewster to Jasper National Park to join the Via Rail transcontinental route.

From Vancouver, you can take a Rocky Mountaineer Railtours circle tour: Vancouver - Jasper - Banff (Calgary) - Vancouver, or vice versa. These trains offer superb scenery.

Budget travellers not wanting to pay for the deluxe service of Rocky Mountaineer Railtours may take Via Rail's Canadian/Canadien from Toronto or Vancouver to Jasper National Park, Alberta, and then do one of the following:

1) Between Jasper and Banff, use the Brewster Transportation express coach or tour bus combination mentioned above, which highlights the most scenic areas of both parks.

2) Take a Brewster Transportation express coach or tour bus from Jasper to Banff National Park via Lake Louise, explore the Banff and Lake Louise areas, and then take an early morning Greyhound Canada coach from Banff or Lake Louise to Vancouver.

This is the ideal choice for budget travellers, as you visit all major parks.

The spectacular Greyhound route between Banff and Vancouver passes through Banff, Yoho, Glacier (the park in Canada), and Mount Revelstoke national parks, and is super enjoyable year round.

Especially during the winter when there is less daylight, you should include an overnight stop between Banff and Vancouver.

In Revelstoke, the Revelstoke Traveller's Hostel and Guesthouse provides homelike accommodation, and its staff picks you up at the Greyhound stop for free. Access to the Mount Revelstoke National Park Summit Trail is two blocks away, and other area hikes start within a 15 minute walk. The hostel rents bikes at reasonable prices. Leave Banff by Greyhound early in the morning, and spend the afternoon and evening enjoying the Revelstoke area.

The Old Court House Hostel located in more commercial (and surprisingly arid) Kamloops (7 West Seymour Street, 1 250 828-7991) also provides a budget stop midway between Banff and Vancouver.

Again using Greyhound Canada and Brewster, this route can easily be done in reverse, starting in Vancouver and joining Via Rail at Jasper to continue eastward to Toronto.

As with all these routes, book all accommodation well ahead of time to avoid hassles.

You're visiting an extremely popular area, which gets booked up fast.

Dr. Voyageur has a Canadian information page with helpful links to tourist offices, etc., plus a review of the excellent Lonely Planet Canada guidebook.


Cascade (Seattle to Vancouver)

Much of the Amtrak Cascade route between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, lies along Puget Sound, a very scenic area.

You view several volcanoes in the distance, including Mount Baker and Mount Olympus. Baker is still quietly active.

Currently, the Cascade trip works best northbound, especially during the winter.

Make sure that you book the Amtrak train. as most Amtrak service between Seattle and Vancouver is by considerably less scenic coach service.


Adirondack (New York City - Montreal)

Travelling on any daytime train between New York City and Albany, New York, is very scenic, and surprisingly your enjoyment starts just outside New York City.

Often the tracks follow the edge of the wide Hudson River.

You have great views of beautiful Bear Mountain and the historic West Point military academy across the river.

Former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Hyde Park home and other mansions overlook the rails.

North of Albany, the Adirondack route climbs into rugged northern New York State countryside.

From Montreal, be sure to take a short side trip on Via Rail to Quebec City, one of Canada's most interesting destinations. It has the "Québécois ambiance" that city centre Montreal often lacks.


Lake Shore Limited (New York City - Chicago)

Leaving New York City, the first part of the Lake Shore route follows the same scenic route as the Adirondack up the Hudson River.

See the Adirondack description above.

On the way to Chicago, you should sleep well, as this route is remarkably flat all the way.

Need a discount on a hotel near Penn Station? Click here for booking hints.


Other Hudson River Valley options

Another train, the Maple Leaf, travels New York to Toronto via the Hudson River.

For best scenery, this works best travelling toward Toronto, especially in the winter.

As an alternative to Amtrak, on summer and autumn weekends, NY Waterway offers cruises from New York City up the Hudson River as far as the Bear Mountain area.

Check out its web site for the tour to Kykuit, the former John D. Rockefeller Estate, and then call 1-800-53-FERRY to make sure the information is up to date.

Dr. Voyageur highly recommends all cruises of this friendly, family-run company, including its New York Harbour cruises. Some cruises offer free coach pick up in Midtown Manhattan.


Vermonter (Washington, DC - NYC - Burlington, VT)

April 2004 update: The Amtrak coach that connected the Vermonter to Montreal no longer operates. See the Amtrak for updates.

Not as scenic as the Adirondack route, but still very pleasant is the Vermonter.

You experience classic New England countryside in Vermont, Massachusetts, and northern Connecticut. This train continues on via New York City to Washington, DC.

If you can time it right, the autumn colours along this route are awesome.


Capitol Limited (Washington, DC - Chicago)

This is a great train!

The Capitol Limited, uses high-level coaches between Chicago and Washington, DC, through the beautiful mountains of Pennsylvania and western Maryland.

It takes the most rugged route between the East coast and Chicago.

Eastbound works best
for the Capitol Limited all year, as the westbound train passes through much of the most scenic area at night.

At Washington, there are convenient connections to Philadelphia and New York City.

Because of tunnel height restrictions on many eastern routes, the Capitol Limited is one of the few trains east of Chicago to offer high-level viewing, which makes it especially worth travelling


Cardinal (Washington, DC - Chicago)

The Cardinal, the other train between Chicago and Washington, D.C., takes more time due to a longer route, but its route is outstandingly scenic.

The Cardinal glides along the famous New River Gorge in West Virginia and through a beautiful area of mountains along the Virginia and West Virginia border.

Once again, this train works better eastbound for maximum scenery during the day all year, although you'll see nice scenery both directions.

The Cardinal operates just three times per week.

For an interesting walking tour while waiting to change trains at Chicago Union Station, see Changing trains in Chicago.


The Pennsylvanian (New York City - Pittsburgh)

The Pennsylvanian does not offer high-level coaches, complete meals, or much service, but it spends much of the day travelling through the beautiful mountains of Pennsylvania.

This train currently works well in either direction to see great scenery.

At Pittsburgh, you can connect to or from the Capitol Limited to or from Chicago. At Philadelphia, you can easily connect to Washington, DC.


Southwest Limited (Chicago - Los Angeles via New Mexico)

Not as scenic as the California Zephyr, but nevertheless one of Dr. Voyageur's favourite trains is the Southwest Limited between Los Angeles and Chicago.

This fast train follows the old Santa Fe Railroad line, and often runs adjacent to old Route 66. Dr. Voyageur likes eastbound somewhat better, although both directions are scenic and historic.

You can take the California Zephyr west to San Francisco, rent a car to travel down California's famous Highway One to the Los Angeles area (or take the Coast Starlight and local train combination described above), and then take the Southwest Limited back to Chicago and the East.

Amtrak does not charge extra for this routing.

Ideal stops along the Southwest Limited route are Flagstaff or Williams Junction, the gateways to the Grand Canyon, and Santa Fe (via a short van transfer from Lamy Station).

In most cases, Amtrak can include your transfers to the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe in your ticket at no extra charge.


Pacific Surfliners (Southern California)

The Pacific Surfliner (formally called San Diegan) trains from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Anaheim (Disneyland) pass along some nice beaches.

In fact, the San Clemente station on this route sits directly adjacent to a beach. You step out onto the sand.

Much of the route between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara is super scenic.

Between Los Angeles and San Diego, the combination of

  • running along the shore below cliffs, seeing thousands of people sunbathing on warm days,
  • passing by large industrial parks and rail yards,
  • travelling through a large Marine Corps training centre,
  • and going over the big concrete river where part of Terminator II was filmed

make these ideal trains for children. You'll love them, too.

The world famous San Diego Zoo is within walking distance of Amtrak's San Diego terminal.

There's also a trolley to the Mexican border. (See "Santa Fe Depot" for service from the Amtrak station.)

Monday through Friday, except holidays, Metrolink trains offer some additional service between Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Clemente, but do not venture as far as San Diego.


Chaleur (Montreal - Gaspé)

Via Rail's Chaleur heads overnight from Montreal toward Gaspé, passing through the lovely village of Percé and along the often beautiful coastline of the Baie des Chaleurs in the morning.

This is one of the most scenic areas of Canada, and one often missed by visitors to Canada.


Empire Builder

Because it's scheduled for convenient connections and departures from large cities, the Empire Builder between Chicago and either Portland or Seattle misses some of the best mountain scenery, especially during the winter.

From Chicago to Portland or Seattle, you are better off taking the California Zephyr to Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay area, and then the Coast Starlight northbound to Oregon and Washington.

However, this requires extra travel time, although you probably won't be charged an extra fare.

Depending on the time of year, the direction you are travelling, and whether or not you're a bit late, you may see a portion of Glacier National Park, the beautiful upper Mississippi River Valley, and the spectacular Columbia River Gorge from the Empire Builder.


Go To >> Amtrak & Via Rail - Tips for booking and finding the best fares

Go To >> Amtrak & Via Rail - Changing trains in Chicago

All Aboard! is an excellent North America rail travel guidebook.

Go to >> home page for other useful travel tips.

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