Train travel may be the most leisurely, scenic, and affordable way to visit small towns in the U.S. Since 1971, when the first Amtrak train departed New York City on its way to Philadelphia, Amtrak, known as America’s Railroad, has taken eager travelers, lulled by the clickety-clack of the tracks and enamored by the sense of kinship with fellow travelers, to visit America’s backyards.
Fifty years after that first departure, Amtrak now serves 500 destinations across 46 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces — totaling more than 21,400 miles of routes.
The company continues its dedication to sustainable travel with new innovations such as the partnership between Amtrak and Alstom to introduce the new Acela train. Riders along the Northeast Corridor will experience speeds of up to 160 miles per hour, enhanced safety components, and a greener way to travel, as the Acela is designed to use 40 percent less energy per person than the existing fleet. Recycling bins, seats made from recycled leather, and sustainable food and beverage options enhance the mission even further. Here’s a video to enjoy a sneak peek at the new Acela fleet.
While I haven’t traveled all of the routes (yet), I have experienced many. My favorite destinations are often the “off the beaten track” small towns that many travelers pass through without realizing that a gem is waiting to be discovered. As the train rolls through the countryside, passengers peek into the small towns and back yards as they pass, often greeted with a wave from bicyclists or residents sitting outside.
As Amtrak celebrates its 50th anniversary, we’d like to celebrate the parts of small-town America where Amtrak delivers passengers — often right in the center of town — to experience charm and hospitality. Check out these eight incredible small town stops.
1. Old Orchard Beach, Maine / Downeaster
The Downeaster train runs multiple round trips daily from Boston to Brunswick, Maine, taking riders to historical cities and majestic beaches.
Just 2.5 hours from Boston, the Downeaster enters the train station located in the center of Old Orchard Beach. This quintessential New England beach town offers the beach, an amusement park, and numerous motels and restaurants.
This small town oozes with charm. Spend a day at the beach – charter a boat, rent a kayak, or simply soak up the rays at the beach. At the end of the day, enjoy a comedy dinner with a view of The Pier.
If you plan to spend the night and get back on the train the next day, there are numerous lodging options, from a quaint cottage at Beach Villa Motel at Cottages to a beach resort at Alouette Beach Resort.
2. Staunton, Virginia / Cardinal
Amtrak’s Cardinal train runs three days a week from New York to Chicago. It’s a gorgeous train ride I’ve taken several times from D.C. to Chicago, getting off the train in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The ride allows views of the Shenandoah Valley, the white-water rivers of West Virginia, and the mountains of Allegheny and Blue Ridge. It’s an intimate look at the sweetness of the areas.
Four scenic hours from D.C. brings you to Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of former President Woodrow Wilson. The train station is downtown and within walking distance of three historic hotels, the American Shakespeare Center, museums, restaurants, and brewpubs.
Enjoy a one-day tour visiting the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, or plan a longer stay at one of the historic bed and breakfasts, such as Montclair Bed & Breakfast, a restored circa-1880 Italianate townhouse in downtown Staunton.
3. Durham, North Carolina / Carolinian And Piedmont
Traveling daily from New York to Charlotte, the Carolinian and Piedmont trains stop in big cities and small towns alike. The Piedmont runs through the North Carolina segment from Charlotte to Raleigh.
Either 6.5 hours from Washington or 2.5 hours from Charlotte, spend a day or more exploring the history, galleries, and one of my favorite farmer’s markets in Durham. There’s the civil rights trail as well as rich African-American history in this town.
Downtown, enjoy some of the award-winning eateries and locally-owned shops, including more than 200 black-owned businesses.
The Durham Farmers’ Market is open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon from April through November. In addition to local produce and meats, you’ll find exotic mushrooms, local honey, artisan foods from vendors such as Cilantro Artisan Foods, baked goods, and cheeses from businesses such as Boxcar Handmade Cheese. I’ve spent hours perusing all the local goodies and always find something I’ve never found at other markets.
4. Hudson, New York / Empire Service
The Empire Service runs multiple times daily from New York to Niagara Falls.
Two very scenic hours from NYC, you’ll find the small town of Hudson with Hudson River views, art galleries, and boutique shops. Take a cruise on the Hudson River with Hudson Cruises, Inc., whether you prefer a sightseeing cruise, a murder mystery dinner cruise, or a lighthouse tour.
If you enjoy modern amenities in a historic home, stay at The Inn at 34 where breakfast is prepared using herbs and vegetables from the on-site garden, and home-baked breads and pastries made in their kitchen.
5. Meridian, Mississippi / Crescent
Travel the American South on the Crescent train that travels from New York to New Orleans three days per week.
If you board in Atlanta, you’ll arrive in Meridian in about 7.5 hours. Meridian attributes its growth to the railroads, and they developed the Depot Historic District that occupies four city blocks. Enjoy time outdoors at a nearby lake, or explore the Civil Rights Trail and Civil War Trail.
Also on the Crescent route, consider a stop in the delightful small town of Gainesville, Georgia.
6. La Plata, Missouri / Southwest Chief
The Southwest Chief runs three days a week from Chicago to Los Angeles with stops throughout the Midwest and Southwest. It’s a beautiful and rustic route, especially once the train arrives in New Mexico.
Four hours from Chicago is La Plata, with a modern railroad-themed hotel. It’s near the train station and has earned a five-star Tripadvisor rating as the world’s only Amtrak history museum. Dining choices are limited to a Mexican restaurant and takeout pizza from a gas station, so plan on getting a rental car if you stay the night at the Depot Inn and Suites.
7. Flagstaff, Arizona / Southwest Chief
To take in all of the rocky views through New Mexico and Arizona, stay on the Southwest Chief to Flagstaff. You’ll arrive at a gorgeous depot located in the center of town. Walk across the street to enjoy the eclectic dining and shopping in this quaint town. Visit the Lowell Observatory, national parks and monuments, and of course, the Grand Canyon.
Traveling in the fall? Here’s how to spend a beautiful fall weekend in Flagstaff.
8. Santa Barbara, California / Coast Starlight
The Coast Starlight route contains some of the most spectacular in the U.S., at times following the ocean from Seattle to Los Angeles three times per week.
Just 2.5 hours from Los Angeles, visit the coastal city of Santa Barbara to find the best of California, with mountain views, beaches, vineyards, and an eclectic community. There’s so much to do, depending on your interests. Consider one of these itineraries and choose between outdoor activities, wine activities, arts and culture, food and drink, or Santa Barbara lifestyle.
For the ultimate luxury getaway, stay at the El Encanto. The hotel is located at the top of a hillside and has bungalows and landscaped gardens with sweeping views of the ocean and Santa Barbara below. Or stay on the beach at Hilton Santa Barbara. In addition to the mountain and ocean views, enjoy the on-site amenities, such as multiple dining options, a pool, salon, spa, tennis, and fitness center.
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