Riding the rails on a vintage train may be the ultimate joy ride, an irresistible combination of adventure, history, and romance. America’s scenic railroads curve through wine country, back country, mountains, and river valleys. You never know what’s around the bend, but on these seven lines, count on something spectacular. While you can usually get tickets on the day of the trip, buying them in advance (especially for the popular wine tours) is recommended, particularly for weekend trips.
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The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RailroadThe railroad first saw service in 1882, hauling ore from the San Juan Mountains. Its early coal-fired steam locomotives have been running ever since. The train offers four classes of service, from the presidential car with its Victorian-era splendor to open-air gondolas. Spectacular scenery is a given throughout the 45-mile journey from Durango to Silverton, elevation 9,305 feet, but two spots are jaw-dropping: the section of track known as the Highline, which hugs a rock ledge hundreds of feet above the Animas River Canyon and the High Bridge, one of five river crossings and the most dramatic. Shutterbugs love it. When the locomotive’s crew members open the “blowdown” valves to clear sediment in the boiler, hot, white mist shoots out, and on sunny days you’re likely to see a rainbow.
Full service to Silverton runs May 8 through October. Winter trips to Cascade Canyon, 26 miles, run November through May. Tickets start at $81 adults, $49 children (ages 4-11).* Deluxe seating, packages are available.
Maine Eastern Railroad
Hop aboard a restored Art Deco-era streamliner for a 57-mile ride along the rocky midcoast of Maine. The train travels between Brunswick, home of Bowdoin College, and Rockland, lobster capital of the world. (The Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland annually attracts 75,000 visitors, who consume more than 20,000 pounds of lobster!) The scenery changes from the first mile to the last. Every bend of the tracks—and there are more than 100 turns—and every one of the 33 bridge crossings reveals another photo op: deer, moose, wild turkeys, woods, clam diggers, and colorful buoys marking lobster traps. Luxe cars feature overstuffed, reclining seats, lots of legroom, and large picture windows.
Regular service runs May 23-October 25, 2010, with special holiday trains in December. Visit online or call for ticket prices.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Three hours, 36 miles, and a four-course gourmet meal make a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train as much about the food as the views. It runs through the heart of the valley’s most storied wineries, such as Rubicon, Robert Mondavi, and Opus One. Think Orient Express, American-style. Most coaches have plush, overstuffed seating, hand-rubbed mahogany paneling, and velvet drapery. Sign up for a lunch or dinner excursion with reserved seating in a nearly century-old refurbished Pullman or elevated Dome car. If it’s strictly scenery you’re after, book a seat in the restored Silverado car. Lunch is optional and you can simply BYOZ—bring your own zinfandel (or favorite varietal) for a $15 corkage fee.
Year-round excursions. $49.50 adults, $25 children (age 12 and under) for Silverado car with a la carte menu; Gourmet trains start at $94 adults, $50 children (ages 2-12).* Crown and first-class cars extra.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
A century ago, a visitor described the young railroad that snaked through western North Carolina as “little more than two streaks of rust and a right-of-way.” These days, a trip aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is pure joy. Choose between two routes. The Nantahala Gorge excursion is a four-and-a-half-hour, 44-mile round-trip ride crossing Fontana Lake on a 100-foot-high trestle bridge to breathtaking Nantahala Gorge. Warm, moist air over the cold water creates a mystical fog. The trip includes a one-hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a whitewater rafting and adventure resort. The Tuckasegee River trip travels 32 miles through old railroad towns with a layover in quaint Dillsboro, a town that looks something like a Thomas Kinkade painting and is known for its artisan shops.
Train aficionado? For an extra fee, enjoy the best spot of all with the engineer and a front-view seat in the cab of the locomotive.
Bryson City, North Carolina
Nantahala Gorge excursions run throughout the year. Tuckasegee River excursions run June 22-August 14 and October 4-28, 2010. $49 adults, $29 children.*
Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad
Herds of huge Roosevelt elk are prolific along the route of the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, but the “wow” moment of the 18-mile journey comes when the rolling stock crosses the Nisqually River trestle and towering Mount Rainier comes into view. The train navigates through valleys, over mountain streams and through the foothills of Rainier. There’s a leg-stretching stop upon reaching the “gem of the Northwest”—Mineral Lake, home to the 10-pound trout.
Some cars date back a century. Both diesel and steam locomotives are in service. Choose among a standard antique car, a roofless open car, or a windowless “clopen” car. New for 2010 is the Nisqually River Observation car. Originally built in 1917 as a mine rescue car, it’s been beautifully transformed into a first-class lounge.
Special holiday excursions are scheduled throughout the year. Regular excursions run Memorial Day through October. $20 adults, $15 children (ages 4-12).* Peak summer excursions extra.
*Ticket prices for all railroads subject to change and may vary by season.