The Great Escape: Touring North America by Train

The Great Escape: Touring North America by Train

Traveling by train might sound old-fashioned, but it remains one of the best, most environment-friendly ways to see some of America's wildest places. Here are 10 trips of a lifetime.

By James McCommons/Paintings by J. Craig Thorpe
Published: September-October 2010

The Adirondack 
(Amtrak)
Running daily between New York City and Montreal, this train skirts the eastern edge of six-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest tract of land protected by a U.S. state. The Adirondack makes six stops at communities in the park's eastern region. The trip takes about six hours from Montreal and five hours from New York.

Local transit shuttles at the Fort Edward and Westport stations run to Glens Falls, Lake George, and Lake Placid. At Port Kent passengers can board the seasonal ferry to Vermont, a passage popular with bikers along Lake Champlain. Motorcoach connections are possible at other stops, although you'll need to taxi over to the local bus station. Otherwise, you may want to consider renting a car to tour the park.

You can find cappuccino and gourmet coffee on the road, and dine at grand old hunting lodges--all the while stopping at trailheads for hikes into big tracts of roadless country. As the land has healed from logging, extirpated species, including moose, fisher, beaver, marten, osprey, and lynx, are making comebacks.

If you prefer to stay on the train and enjoy the scenery, onboard docents, working in partnership with the National Park Service, narrate the journey with tidbits about nature and the region's Revolutionary War/War of 1812 history. In the fall foliage season, Amtrak adds a vintage domed observation car, which allows passengers stunning 360-degree views.

For information: AmtrakAdirondack Park

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway 
(Alaska and Canada)
Starting in Skagway, Alaska, at sea level, this train climbs 2,865 feet in 20 miles up steep grades to reach its high point at White Pass in the Canadian Yukon. This was the route of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, hailed by miners as the "last great adventure." The railroad isn't long--just 110 miles to Whitehorse--but the route leads through dense old-growth forests, glacier fields, and a colorful past. At first the miners hiked to the gold fields carrying their provisions on their backs. A railroad was needed, but such rugged country required a narrower gauge of track, tunnels, trestles, and carving the roadbed out of sheer mountains. Today the picturesque ride takes about three hours one way.

 For day hikes, trekkers can get off at two locations, Laughton trailhead and Denver Glacier, where the U.S. Forest Service has renovated an old caboose into a cabin for overnight stays. Follow in the footsteps of gold rushers with a challenging hike on the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail, which begins near Skagway and ends up at Lake Bennett, where you can catch the train back down. 

For information: White Pass & Yukon Route RailwayTongass National Forest

The Cardinal 
(Amtrak)
Three days a week the Cardinal runs a circuitous route from New York to Chicago via Washington, D.C. The train is so named because six states--Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois--it passes through have designated the Northern cardinal as their state bird.

The Cardinal is a mom-and-pop sort of train with just one sleeping car (shared with the crew) and a single server/cook in the diner. Passengers often board at unstaffed stations and buy their tickets from the conductor.

The West Virginia portion of the route runs along the New River Gorge National River, a linear national park that protects 70,000 acres of land and 53 river miles. The rugged gorge is as much as 1,000 feet deeper than the surrounding Appalachian Plateau. Hikers and birders can detrain at Hinton, Prince, and Thurmond. The latter is about a seven-hour ride from Washington. Within a short distance are primitive campgrounds, trails for hikers and bikers, and whitewater for rafters and kayakers.

For information: AmtrakNew River Gorge National River

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James McCommons

James McCommons is the author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding Across America.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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