Amtrak’s big shiny trains travel to all the major US cities and cross some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes. Their rugged charm sets them apart from more mundane means of transport and although this may not be the quickest way to get around the pace is perfect for sightseeing. You can choose your companions, read a book, let your thoughts unfurl, sleep horizontally and generally enjoy most of the comforts of home. It’s much more fun than being isolated above the clouds or driving past endless highway billboards.
Amtrak operates nearly all America’s passenger trains and the following are among the most enjoyable scenic routes:
The California Zephyr is one of the world’s great trains, going from Chicago to San Francisco by way of America’s heartland and the high plains of Colorado, then climbing into the Rocky Mountains via the Oregon Trail. Pioneers came this way, as did gold prospectors, the pony express and the first continental telegraph. After Salt Lake City, you cross Bonneville Salt Flats and the beautiful but dangerous Sierra Nevada.
The Sunset Limited’s epic journey takes you coast to coast from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The train makes a dizzy crossing of the Mississippi River on the Huey P Long Bridge in the Crescent City before travelling among bayous, white egrets, alligators, mansions and fields of sugar cane. After San Antonio it joins the Rio Grande, taking a day to cross the sagebrush and mesquite prairies of Texas.
The Southwest Chief travels between Chicago and the Pacific, following part of the Santa Fe Trail first used by Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, wagon trains and stage coaches. You cross the Mojave Desert and pass Dodge City’s famous Boot Hill burial ground. From Williams in Arizona you can travel to the Grand Canyon by train.
The Crescent goes from New York to New Orleans through the Blue Ridge Mountains and idyllic Shenandoah National Park with its dogwoods and cedars. Beyond Atlanta lie sleepy southern towns with quaint general stores and sun-bleached houses. The train also makes a dramatic crossing of Lake Pontchartrain, skimming a few feet above the water on a six-mile causeway.
The Coast Starlight operates between Seattle and Los Angeles by way of Washington, Oregon and California. It passes some of America’s highest mountains, such as volcanic Mt Hood, as well as the emerald forests and waterfalls of Twin Peaks country. Beyond San Luis Obispo it runs on tracks set high on cliffs, with splendid views of the Pacific surf and beaches.