The clackety-clack of the railroad track provides an appropriately soothing soundtrack for this time-honored, stress-free style of travel. No traffic. No worries over the weather forecast. These featured trains have sightseeing cars, dining cars and sleeper cars with private accommodations. So sit back and enjoy this classic experience while some of North America’s most wondrous scenery ticks by.
1. Alaska: Anchorage to Seward
Why stare at a strip of asphalt when you can be gawking out the dome of a sightseeing car? Of more than 500 miles of Alaska Railroad routes, the 4.5-hour trip from Anchorage to Seward may well be its most scenic.
- Marvel at close-up views of blue-ice glaciers.
- Take a boat cruise in the wildlife-rich waters of Resurrection Bay.
The Coastal Classic train route quickly leaves the city of Anchorage behind, traversing the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, where moose often browse in Potter’s Marsh. Soon, the track hugs Turnagain Arm, a narrow sliver of water branching off of Cook Inlet. Beluga whales frequent the waters, feeding on salmon. On the train’s other side, Dall sheep often browse on the cliffs alongside the track.
After passing through the wildlife-rich Placer River Valley, the Coastal Classic swings south into the heart of the Kenai Peninsula. You’ll roll through a mountainous region inaccessible by car, passing through tunnels, over river gorges and below the blue-ice tongues of glaciers.
Descending out of the Kenai Mountains, the train passes the brilliant turquoise waters of Kenai Lake and weaves through thick forests of Sitka spruce. Soon it arrives in Seward, a fishing port perched at the head of Resurrection Bay. Explore the historic downtown and the Alaska SeaLife Center. You can return to Anchorage the same day or get out on Resurrection Bay the next day with a wildlife cruise or to tour Kenai Fjords National Park.
Lesson plan idea:
- Explore the Alaska SeaLife Center’s distance learning programs.
Stretching from Vancouver 2,775 miles to Toronto, the views along the route of VIA Rail’s Canadian are like a national portrait: glacier-caked mountains, tumbling rivers, boreal forests, vast prairies and cosmopolitan cities. In this 18-hour trip, you’ll experience some of its most magnificent views.
- Gaze up at 12,972-foot Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies.
- Cap off your trip with a road trip along the Icefields Parkway.
Your voyage begins in Vancouver, British Columbia. Set between the Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean’s Strait of Georgia, the city is rich in both cosmopolitan culture and natural beauty. Embark in early evening at Pacific Central Station, Vancouver’s grand Neoclassical depot.
The Canadian arrives in Kamloops near daybreak and begins the earnest climb into the mountains. As you travel northeast, the Canadian Rockies become increasingly dramatic, chiseled into sharp spires, jagged pyramids and canted blocks, many of them crowned with the blue ice of glaciers.
As the Canadian crests Yellowhead Pass, you’ve crossed the Continental Divide and the provincial border from British Columbia into Alberta. In another 18 miles, the train pulls into Jasper, one of Canada’s most renowned mountain towns and the gateway to Jasper National Park. Rent a car or sign on with an outfitter to explore the park’s vast array of trails, scenic drives and other outdoorsy opportunities.
Lesson plan idea:
- Learn more about glaciers from the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
3. Eastern Seaboard: New York City to Savannah
Delve deep into the Deep South on the Amtrak Palmetto. The train transports you from the frenetic Northeast Corridor to somnolent Southern cities filled with grand old homes and moss-draped oaks. You’ll travel through history too, through places that have played a role in the American Revolution and Civil War.
- Take in the view of Washington as the Palmetto exits a tunnel under the U.S. Capitol.
- Spend a day touring Fort Sumter and other Civil War sites in Charleston.
Depart from New York City’s Penn Station, and in a few hours, you’ll already have whisked through some of America’s most historic cities: Philadelphia, birthplace of the American Revolution and home to Independence National Historical Park; Baltimore with its lively Inner Harbor and War of 1812 battle site; Washington, D.C., with its monuments and museums befitting the nation’s capital; and Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital of the Civil War.
The scenery and culture grow distinctly Southern as the train rolls through the Carolinas. Once a region largely devoted to cotton and tobacco production, today North Carolina is a high-tech research hub, especially around Raleigh. In South Carolina, Charleston draws visitors to its downtown filled with 18th-century architecture and historical tours. The Palmetto’s final stop is another Southern charmer: Savannah, Georgia, where shady squares welcome you to linger.
Lesson plan idea:
- Examine Civil War lesson plans and activities developed in conjunction with the PBS Ken Burns film The Civil War.