5 Historic Train Trips That Immerse You in America’s Past

Hop aboard! Learn about U.S. history while enjoying these scenery-filled train treks.

An older female backpacker enjoying the scenery and taking photos during a train journey

by NEA Member Benefits

Can you think of a more appropriate, or relaxing, way to take in the U.S. and its history than on a historic train? No matter what your preferred flavor of history, there’s a train ride tailor-made for you. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery.

We found five trips across the country—some as short as an hour round-trip—you may want to try.

1. Chug along a historic California logging route

For those on the West Coast, Roaring Camp Railroads lets you discover California’s pioneer past as well as take in gorgeous northern California scenery. Located 6 miles from the beach town of Santa Cruz, the Roaring Camp Railroad offers a 1 hour and 15 minute round-trip steam-train ride up a winding narrow-gauge grade. You’ll pass through redwood forests while conductors narrate the area’s history.

The train station is part of a re-creation of an 1880s logging town, when narrow-gauge steam engines hauled redwood logs down the mountain. Round-trip train tickets start at $32 for adults and the trains operate every day except Christmas.

Don’t miss: Nearby, don’t miss the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, spend a day in Santa Cruz and stop in Pescadero for lunch. Also consider taking a ride on the Skunk Train in Mendocino County.

2. Tour the Connecticut River Valley via steam train and riverboat

For a trip lighter on learning but heavy on culture and natural beauty, try the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat. Choose between a 2.5 hour train plus riverboat trip and a 1 hour train-only trip. The Essex Steam Train & Riverboat is the last steam train and riverboat connection in the U.S. and one of only two throughout the world.

The trains include Mikado locomotives with 1920s–1950s coaches and parlor and dining cars.

According to Essex Steam Train & Riverboat, the most popular train is the no. 3025 locomotive, “because it is a true ‘Phoenix.’ We purchased it at an auction after the locomotive had been an engine house that burned. The locomotive was a mess, but we dismantled it and shipped the pieces to our shop in Essex.” Employees and volunteers then joined forces to rebuild it over a 3 year period.

Also popular are the 500 series coach cars—all are over 100 years old. And during restoration of the popular parlor car Great Republic, employees found 1950s newspapers in the closet and ticket stubs under seat cushions, adding to the charm.

On the Becky Thatcher riverboat, you’ll spot the Gillette Castle, Goodspeed Opera House and the Haddam Swing Bridge, and bird-watchers will love the diverse waterfowl.

Tickets range from $18-$30 for adults for the Stream Train or the Steam Train & Riverboat Connection and $82.50 for the Essex Clipper Dinner Train.

Don’t miss: While in Essex, visit the Griswold Inn, which has been operating since 1776. Besides the Gillette Castle and Goodspeed Opera House, take in a (free) Yale campus and art gallery tour.

3. Explore Cape Cod’s colonial history by rail

Get your Colonial Era fix in Massachusetts. The Cape Cod Central Railroad runs through sand dunes and salt marshes with glimpses of the bay. The 2-hour round-trip train ride takes starts in Hyannis, Massachusetts, and goes through West Barnstable and Sandwich and down to the Cape Cod Canal.

The Cape Cod Central Railroad has 6 engines in total: the nos. 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 1501, which are painted in a Cape Cod cranberry color. Coaches of note are the Sandy Neck (built in 1937), Great Island (1937) and Race Point (1942)—all table cars—and the historic Illinois Central lounge car named the Cape Codder (1917).

Service levels and options include Coastal Excursion with standard, first and diamond class, and Dinner Train with first, diamond and platinum class, as well as the Lunch Train and Brunch Train. Trains run May through October.

Don’t miss: While the ride itself is more relaxing than edifying, visit nearby Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which offers historical “encounters” with the Wampanoag People and the Colonial English community in the 1600s. While in Plymouth, also visit Plymouth Rock, the National Monument to the Forefathers and Burial Hill. Favorite destinations in Cape Cod include Chatham Pier and Fish Market, Nobska Point Lighthouse and the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum.

4. Learn about the Old West while taking in majestic mountain views

In 1860s southwest Colorado, miners staked their fortunes on digging for silver.  Not long after, the booming mining camps sparked the development of the railroad and the surrounding communities of Durango and Silverton.

Learn about this colorful time in old west history at The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, which boasts painstakingly preserved original equipment and coal-fired, steam-powered locomotives that take you on a 9-hour round-trip train ride or a combination train-and-bus ride.

There are 4 classes of service—standard, deluxe, first and presidential—and a variety of options, such as open-air observation gondolas and narration by historic figures. Favorite coaches include the San Juan, a 30-passenger closed-vestibule coach built in 1887, and the Alamosa Parlor Car, which features table-and-chair seating and was built in 1881.

You’ll have an hour to explore Silverton, but you may want to go back by car to spend more time there. Prices for adults ranged from $89 to $219 as of this writing, and the trains run to Silverton from early May to late October. If you’ll be in the area over the winter months, the Cascade Canyon Train takes you through the San Juan National Forest and along the Animas River from late November through early May.

Don’t miss: Learn more about the Old West in and around Durango. Downtown Durango is a Nationally Registered Historic District, and the Animas Museum tells the story of outlaws and lawmen. Take a pit stop at Pagosa Springs to bathe in their soothing hot springs. Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad out of Antonito, Colorado also gets great reviews.

5. Explore the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

If you’re the rugged type, explore America’s pioneer past in the Great Plains. To get your train fix, first stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which calls itself America’s Railroad Capital and whose first residents were men who worked on the First Transcontinental Railroad. The Cheyenne Depot and the Big Boy Steam Engine are two of the area’s most well-known attractions for train enthusiasts.

The site of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, where the Northern Cheyenne and other Native Americans defeated General George Custer, is now a national monument in south-central Montana. Go on a guided tour presented in conjunction with the Crow Tribe and Native American tour guides. While there, also visit the Indian Memorial and Custer National Cemetery.

Don’t miss:  Consider also spending time in nearby Yellowstone National Park, a 3 hour and 30 minute drive from the monument.

Save on your next getaway