4 Scenic USA Train Trips to Take Solo ASAP

by Sojourner

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Scenic USA train trips can seem challenging to find and plan to sightsee our own country. In addition, we are not known for our extensive and efficient train system, which can make it inaccessible. However, planning a fabulous train trip is possible.

Many scenic trains are on the west coast, though a few others are sprinkled throughout other parts of the country. And they can take some planning, but scenic train rides are worth it when you nail down the logistics. So here are four scenic USA train trips to add to your bucket list. 

What is the most beautiful train ride in the U.S.?

There is a lot of debate around scenic USA train trips to determine which is the most beautiful. The four listed below are often on the shortlist, with the California Zephyr usually coming out on top. But that does not mean everyone agrees.

Are there luxury trains in the U.S.?

Yes! Some scenic USA train trips can be luxurious. Many Amtrak rides are not considered luxury. But one luxury train option is the Rocky Mountaineer, which has routes from Denver to Moab. Another one is the Royal Gorge in Canon City, Colorado.

How much does it cost to travel across the U.S. by train?

Scenic train rides are only one of the cheapest forms of U.S. travel. The luxury rides can be $2K or more. Then splurging on an Amtrak roomette will cost you at least $600-$800 one-way (including all meals and shower access). 

Amtrak’s rail pass can make train travel cheaper, though it’s not as comfortable. So while coach tickets can be closer to $200, remember that you don’t get meals included, a shower, or a bed. So when creating your scenic train ride budget, be sure to factor in food costs if you don’t book a roomette. 

Four scenic USA train trips for solo travelers

View from the California Zephyr

1. Amtrak California Zephyr

The California Zephyr is often named the most beautiful train ride in the US. The most scenic part of this ride begins in Denver; however, it starts in Chicago and ends in Emeryville, California (or vice versa). On this train ride, travelers can ride through the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City, Glenwood Springs, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and more.  A 52-hour train ride, the California Zephyr is also one of the longest scenic train rides Amtrak offers. 

2. Amtrak Coast Starlight

If you want more views along the water of the Pacific Coast Highway, this is the train ride for you. As a coastal train trip, the Amtrak Coast Starlight starts in Los Angeles and ends in Seattle. You can also take it in the opposite direction, beginning in Seattle. 

Unlike the California Zephyr, you do not ride through the mountains. The Coast Starlight is also 35 hours long, so you spend one, not two, nights on the train. If the California Zephyr seems daunting, I recommend doing this first.

View from the Amtrak Cascades

3. Amtrak Empire Builder

Another scenic route starting in Chicago is Amtrak’s Empire Builder. This route takes you through Glacier National Park and parts of the Lewis and Clark trail ending in Seattle or Portland. It is 46 hours long with two nights on the train. 

After going through Glacier National Park, the train splits, with half the train continuing onto Seattle and the other half heading to Portland. Though it may vary, the Seattle portion of the train keeps the dining car for the last morning of the ride. Then the Portland portion of the train keeps the sightseer’s lounge (observation car) as you pass Mt. Hood.

4. Amtrak Cascades

A shorter route of the scenic USA train trips is the Amtrak Cascades, that crosses international borders. The Cascades is eight hours from Portland to Vancouver and four to five hours from Seattle to Vancouver. The most scenic part of the ride is from Seattle to Vancouver as you coast by the water of Puget Sound. 

How to pair scenic train routes on the west coast 

View from the Amtrak Coast Starlight

Since all these cross-country train trips end up on the west coast, consider doing two simultaneously. For example, the Amtrak Cascades is an incredible trip to add to the other scenic USA train trips. So after taking the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle, you can take the Cascades to Vancouver. 

Or, similar to my solo journey, I took the Empire Builder from Milwaukee to Portland. I stayed overnight in Portland and then took the Amtrak Cascades to Vancouver. You can do multiple combinations, and it’s an excellent way to do two trips in one.

Top 4 tips for cross-country train trips

Splurge on the roomette

Comfort is key. The longer, scenic USA train trips such as the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Coast Starlight include a roomette or bedroom option. For solo travelers, I recommend the roomette. The price includes a bed, meals, and shower access on the train. It’s worth it instead of sleeping in a seat in coach. 

Prepare for delays

Amtrak scenic train rides are widely known for their delays. Train travelers should always plan for these delays and not book anything immediately after their scheduled arrival. My experience on the California Zephyr included a 7-hour delay, which was made easy as I planned on going straight to San Francisco upon arrival. Prevent a headache and build that additional space into your schedule.

Relax and enjoy

Traveling by train is not one of the most adventurous forms of travel. You will not be hiking a volcano in Guatemala or partying on a boat in Mexico City. However, train travel is unique in encouraging you to take it easy and enjoy the ride – literally! So sit back, relax, and take in the views. 

Plan to fly back 

Flying is the best option if you decide not to take the train back on your trip. For all of my solo train rides, I have taken the train one way and flown back the other way. This tip also helps if you work with a 9 to 5 and only have many days off. Plus, I can only eat so much train food in one trip.

Why do I travel by train

Train travel has become one of my favorite forms of travel! I stumbled upon all the scenic USA train trips and have yet to look back. There is something about booking a roomette and having time to myself while enjoying beautiful views and meeting new people. I sleep well on them too.

Train travel goes well with slow travel. It is also one of the safest trips for solo female travelers. There are only a few places you can go when you take a scenic train trip. Therefore it forces you to relax, reflect, and learn to be still and exist in a way that other types of travel do not. And picking any one of these routes is a great place to start!

For more solo train travel tips, check out this post here!

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2 comments

Abby H. March 25, 2024 - 9:12 pm

Thank you! I am “Abby Abroad” on IG and excitedly planning my crosscountry US trip for July, so I am binging your content! I have a conference in San Diego the second week of July and want to be with family for July 4th; everything else is up to me, so I am grateful for your advice!

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Sojourner April 29, 2024 - 10:35 pm

Oh hi Abby! So excited to hear about your travels. I hope you enjoy your cross country trip – it sounds so fun!

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