You may have heard the old saying “life is about the journey and not the destination”.
Well, train travel is regarded by many to be a far more romantic, nostalgic, and sophisticated way to travel, no matter if you’re boarding a commuter train between major cities or opting for a scenic off the beaten path rail journey.
Demand for high-end scenic train journeys is growing in the U.S. Many American’s are looking to travel a bit closer to home in the era of Covid and are looking for a way to avoid the chaos and congestion of airports altogether.
American rail companies boast new state-of-the-art rail cars and are restoring first-class carriage full meal service in a bid to lure eager travelers, especially along the East Coast with its wide array of popular sightseeing cities steeped in American heritage and incredible natural scenery.
Whether you’re looking to book a rail trip from Washington, DC to New York City or want to pass through the Great Smoky Mountains, seeing the East coast of America by train provides a safe, reliable, economical, and comfortable way to travel.
Here are five unique East Coast train journeys you should consider.
Travel America’s East Coast by Train
Massachusetts: Cape Cod Central Railroad
Come explore Cape Cod, one of the first East Coast sites to be settled by Europeans and possibly visited by the great Norse explorer Leif Eriksson.
From spring to fall, the Cape Cod Central Railroad offers up several different rail journeys ranging between 2-3 hours.
While most come to Cape Cod for its beaches, embarking on its scenic train journeys allow you to take in the Cape’s many other natural features and learn about its rich history.
You’ll embark from either Buzzards Bay or Hyannis and make your way over the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, visiting Sandwich which is the Cape’s oldest village.
They also offer up one of America’s finest dinner trains, presenting a white-linen, five-course gourmet meal set to candlelight and enchanting music. Alternatively, you can opt for a breakfast or brunch train journey, as well as one of their wine or beer tasting trains.
There’s a special Halloween train where you’re encouraged to dress up, as well as a Polar Express-themed train ride come the holiday season where Santa and elves board the train.
Image credit: sneakerdog (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
New York City-Vermont: Ethan Allen Express
The Ethan Allen Express runs between New York City’s Penn Station and Rutland, Vermont. This 5-6 hour, nearly 250-mile journey will see you taking in the Hudson River Valley, Catskills, and Vermont’s Green Mountains, making a number of stops including Saratoga Springs and Albany.
Spring journeys will provide plenty of wildflower viewing while autumn becomes ablaze with the Northeast’s iconic fiery foliage. The route also provides access to the Killington Ski Area during winter.
Experience all the magic of Manhattan on one end, while enjoying a much calmer scene in Rutland’s Historic District on the other.
The route is run by Amtrak which also operates the longer, roughly 14-hour Vermonter train journey between Washington D.C. and St. Albans, Vermont.
This longer route will have you passing through a large number of Northeastern states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Philadelphia just to name a few.
New Hampshire: Mount Washington Cog Railway
Looking to travel through three climate zones, likely feel hurricane-force winds, and set foot on the highest point in New England?
The Mount Washington Cog Railway will allow you to do just that during a 3-hour return journey. This unique rail journey takes passengers up well over 6,000 feet to the summit of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in the Northeastern United States.
Not only is the MW Cog Railway the second steepest railway in the world, it also can boast that it was the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway and only one still operating in North America.
You can choose between taking a biodiesel locomotive or opt for a coal-fired steam engine that is over a hundred years old and still chugging along strong. While you won’t be travelling very fast along the dramatic ascent (roughly just 3 mph!), this gondola-like journey really allows you time to appreciate the incredible surrounding natural scenery as you climb.
At the summit, observation decks allow you to witness two countries on a clear day. In one direction is Quebec, Canada and in another lies the Eastern Seaboard and Atlantic Ocean.
The rail tracks cross over several hiking trails including a section of the Appalachian Trail. Some visitors choose to make the challenging hike up Mount Washington and then book a ticket on the railway back down.
During winter, all trains terminate at Waumbek Station which sits at about 4,000 feet where you can disembark, take in the snowy views, and warm up with a hot beverage around a fire pit.
North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Your rail journey through the remote countryside of Western North Carolina begins at Bryson City’s historic depot. There are two different journeys to choose from including Nantahala Gorge or Tuckasegee River, both of which are around 4 hours long.
The Nantahala Gorge trip is a 44-mile round trip that takes you over the Fontana Lake’s historic Trellis Bridge before entering the Nantahala Gorge. A scheduled stopover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center allows passengers the option to book a side excursion to do a bit of ziplining, white water rafting, or backwoods jeep touring.
Meanwhile, the Tuckasegee River’s 32-mile round trip will see you passing through the Cowee Tunnel and witness shooting locations from a number of Hollywood films that featured the railway.
This journey also makes a brief stopover in the charming town of Dillsboro which acts as the halfway point before turning back to Bryson City.
You have the option of booking a diesel engine or steam engine journey, with first-class passengers being treated to dining. There are also special evening rides that feature a delicious barbecue, and all trips come with free admission to the local train museum in Bryson City.
Pennsylvania: Strasburg Rail Road
Experience America’s oldest continuously operating railroad with this short 9-mile, 45-minute family-friendly journey through Pennsylvania’s idyllic Amish Country.
The steam locomotive pulls a mix of restored first-class, open-air, and coach passenger cars as it takes you through Lancaster County’s beautiful countryside.
You can extend the experience by asking to be let out at one of the picnic groves along the route which include the Leaman Place Grove and Groff’s Grove. The lovely recreational areas offer up the perfect place to enjoy a self-brought lunch and kids will love the play areas.
There are also special journeys along the short track including a wine & cheese experience or being led by a Norfolk & Western Class J 611 locomotive. You can also go behind the scenes at the mechanical shop to see what goes into maintaining these historic locomotives and passenger cars.
While the U.S. may not be known as a big train journey destination, as you can there are actually quite a number of rail experiences to be found.
After you’re done exploring the East Coast, you can look into booking a coast to coast train trip or simply check out the incredible rail journeys on offer in places like Alaska or the rugged American Southwest.
Now may be the most opportune time to take a train trip if you’re looking to avoid the many hassles associated with air travel or self-drive road trips.
Most train companies are now following stringent disinfection protocols while equipping carriages with onboard filtration systems and requiring that their employees get vaccinated to ensure the safety of their passengers.
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