America’s national parks are places of pristine beauty. Exploring them with your family is a vacation immersion in the splendor of the natural world. And seeing our national parks by train is an unforgettable journey.
One of the ironies of our national parks is that an overwhelming number of visitors use personal vehicles to access them. Car pollution is contributing to a range of environmental issues affecting these once unblemished sanctuaries. Traffic jams that would make you think you’re in Times Square are commonplace at the most popular parks during peak season.
There’s a solution. Travelers may leave their car at home and ride the train to numerous parks for a low-impact, low-stress vacation that’s good fun and good for the planet.
Let the conductor do the driving as you relax and watch the scenery glide by. Here are seven national parks reachable by train.
1/7 The Empire Builder to Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park’s patchwork of emerald lakes, misty valleys and hiking trails nestled in glacier-carved peaks are as pretty as a postcard. Ride the vintage Red Jammer Bus and get an excellent overview of the landscape and abundance of fauna.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder delivers passengers to the East Glacier station at the edge of Glacier National Park. The train station is just across from Glacier Park Lodge, an excellent basecamp steeped in Great Northern Railway history.
En route daily between Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, a journey on the Empire Builder offers a window into the rugged splendor of the American West, including portions of the Lewis and Clarke Trail and Big Sky Country in Montana.
2/7 The Capitol Limited to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, West Virginia
Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, a visit to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park feels like stepping back in time. Harpers Ferry is perhaps best known as the site of abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to start a slave rebellion in 1859 but that’s only part of today’s story. Numerous hiking trails, including flat riverside strolls and walks across battlefields, combine the pastoral scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains with Civil War history. Schedule your family’s visit for one of the immersive living history weekends and learn about a range of topics from Civil War medicine to blacksmithing.
Amtrak’s Capitol Limited transports passengers between Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Get off at the station in Harpers Ferry and you’ll be at the park’s doorstep. It is just a few hours from Washington, D.C., making it an easy day trip if you’re seeing the many family-friendly sights in our nation’s capital.
3/7 Amtrak’s San Joaquins to Yosemite National Park, California
Iconic Yosemite’s poetic visuals draw millions of visitors annually. It’s a place to admire earthly bounty, whether you’re hiking a trail or viewing El Capitan. From adventurous rock climbers scaling sky-scraping formations to limited mobility visitors enjoying the sights from a tram, there’s something magical for every type of traveler.
Departing from San Francisco and East Bay cities including Oakland, riding Amtrak’s San Joaquins is an easy way to get to here. The train connects to the Thruway Bus for part of the journey but it’s a seamless transfer straight to the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center.
4/7 The Grand Canyon Railway to Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon needs no introduction. The Grand Canyon Railway will whisk you to the South Rim everyday except Christmas. You depart Williams, Arizona and a few hours later you’re at the Grand Canyon. The historic Williams depot hosts a live Wild West show complete with cowboys before you embark so make certain you arrive early.
The journey goes by in a snap thanks to live entertainment, refreshments and sweeping scenery of the high plains desert and ponderosa pine forest.
5/7 The Denali Star to Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park’s millions of acres of unspoiled wilderness will take your breath away. The low-elevation taiga forest rolls into snowy mountains and America’s tallest peak, Denali. Largely free from human intervention, a variety of animals roam freely in the forever-wild environment.
Alaska Railroad’s flagship Denali Star departs from Anchorage and Fairbanks, taking visitors to the park daily in summer. It’s an ideal way to soak in the beauty of this state, aptly nicknamed The Last Frontier. In winter, ride the Aurora Winter Train to Denali and feel like you’re inside a snow globe.
There are multiple classes of service at a variety of price points but if your budget permits, try and book a car that offers open-air platforms and 360-degree dome windows.
6/7 The California Zephyr to Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park’s eroded landscape of craggy canyons, fantastically formed buttes and dramatic mesas is unforgettable. A variety of hiking options and Native American rock art panels should impress the entire family.
Traveling each day between Chicago and San Francisco, the California Zephyr showcases North America’s riches, from the sublime Rocky Mountains to the wide-open plains. Passengers may get off the train at Grand Junction, Colorado and utilize the commercial van service to Moab, Utah.
7/7 The Coast Starlight to Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Courtesy of Amtrak
Crater Lake National Park is located in the Cascade Mountains. Sapphire blue in color, it’s the seventh deepest lake in the world and the deepest lake in the U.S. It was formed by a volcanic eruption and continues to be fed by Oregon’s abundant rain and snow, making it is one of the purest lakes anywhere. The park offers endless possibilities to hike, camp and soak in the lush scenery of the Pacific Northwest.
Widely regarded as one of the most picturesque train routes, the Coast Starlight travels each day between Seattle and Los Angeles, passing through Portland, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay area and Santa Barbara. The train stops at Klamath Falls, where visitors may connect to the Crater Lake shuttle in summer. As an added incentive, children 15 and under ride the shuttle free.
By Allison Tibaldi