Climb aboard for a trip back in time with a ride along the rails on a vintage train. Once the transportation of the future, trains replaced covered wagons to take people west and ended the need for the Pony Express. A victim of modernization itself, passenger trains have been replaced by cars and airplanes. Today, riding a train offers a relaxing, fun, nostalgic experience while offering beautiful scenery.
My family has always enjoyed touring transportation museums and enjoying rides aboard so-called iron horses. Here’s a look at some of the best vintage train rides across America.
1. 1880 Train, Hill City, South Dakota
The Black Hills of South Dakota have long been cherished for their natural beauty. However, when gold was discovered in the 1870s, it set off a series of events that led to the forced removal of Native Americans, who had been promised the land because of its cultural significance. As the area developed, a railroad was constructed, running from Keystone to points in the Hills. Today, you can take in the sights of the old lumber and gold mining operations as you travel almost 10 miles from Hill City to Keystone aboard the 1880 Train. You’ll travel through a beautiful forest and open mountainside. The trip even includes a steep hill climb. Your ride aboard the steam engine-led train includes your choice of passenger car, from an enclosed car with cushioned seats or wooden benches with open windows. The 1880 Train offers round-trip and one-way rides between Hill City and Keystone. You can catch the train from either city’s train depot.
Pro Tip: The 1880 Train runs the trails from mid-May until mid-October.
2. North Shore Scenic Railroad, Duluth, Minnesota
Your trip along Lake Superior aboard the North Shore Scenic Railroad begins with a self-guided tour through the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, which offers a look at the region’s rail history. Once aboard the train, you can sit in enclosed cars with individual seats or take in the views from an open-air car with bench seats. As you travel along the north shore, you’ll be a few feet from Lake Superior, which offers amazing views of an ocean-sized Great Lake. A narrator relives the region’s history as you travel through wooded areas as well as small, picturesque communities en route to Two Harbors, a scenic lakeside town. North Shore Scenic Railroad offers a variety of trips along its 28-mile route.
Pro Tip: The North Shore Scenic Railroad rides the rails mid-May through October.
3. Great Smoky Mountains Railway, Bryson City, North Carolina
Explore western North Carolina aboard a train powered by steam or diesel on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Hop aboard a comfortable, enclosed dining car and enjoy a delicious meal as you travel through the Nantahala Gorge or beautiful forests and as you pass through the Cowee Tunnel en route to Dillsboro, a historic town where you can do a little sightseeing or enjoy a meal. Your ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad can also be experienced from an open-air car.
Editor’s Note: For additional Smoky Mountain inspiration, consider our picks for eight beautiful smoky mountain hiking trails here.
4. Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, Akron, Ohio
As the only railroad operating within a national park, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad features vintage train cars, from the locomotive to each passenger car. You can enjoy a meal inside a glass-domed dining car or sit in a classic passenger car. The train takes you through Cuyahoga National Park, alongside the Cuyahoga River. During your trip, you’ll take in the amazing views of the park’s forest as well as wildlife, including a beaver marsh and otters. A second route takes you to the Hale Farm, a living history farm that depicts life during the 1800s. You’ll tour classic farm buildings, see farm animals, and even watch cooking demonstrations using utensils common to the era. The railroad also hosts special dining excursions.
Pro Tip: Plan to spend 3 to 4 hours for your experience aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
5. Cape Cod Central Railroad, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Traveling over 27 miles of the former New Haven Railroad, Cape Cod Central Railroad takes you along sand dunes, cranberry bogs, and marshes as you experience areas of the cape that can only be seen by train. Using vintage locomotives and passenger cars, Cape Cod excursions depart from Buzzards Bay and Hyannis. Dining and lounge cars date back to the 1930s and ’40s, as well as a club car from 1917. Cape Cod Central Railroad also hosts special events and holiday-themed trips. Running June through October, you’ll want to plan 2 hours for the round-trip adventure.
6. Boone And Scenic Valley Railroad, Boone, Iowa
Travel back to the 1920s as you board a coach car to travel from Boone to the mining town of Fraser on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad. Besides coach cars, you can enjoy your tour from a bi-level commuter car or an open-air car. As you travel through the river valley to the old mining town, you’ll see a different view of Iowa as you pass through heavily wooded areas. Lunch and dinner tours are also popular with train riders. The Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad operates from Memorial Day weekend through October.
Pro Tip: Passengers are encouraged to arrive an hour before their tour. Ride tickets include admission to the James H. Andrews Railroad Museum, where you can learn about the history of Iowa’s railroads before or after your train ride.
7. Royal Gorge Route Railroad, Canon City, Colorado
Travel 1,000 feet below the mountains on this train ride. The scenery of southeastern Colorado alone is worth a ride on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. But, toss in the history that a vintage train brings, and your Royal Gorge experience becomes a bucket-list trip. Heading out from Canon City, you’ll pass alongside the Arkansas River as you travel through the canyon, looking up to the Rocky Mountains on either side. Enjoy your ride from the comfort of a dining car on one of the four dinner options, or catch a ride in a coach car. You’ll definitely want to spend time in the open-air cars soaking up the majestic views. Arrive early to check out the Santa Fe Depot before your adventure. Passengers should plan to spend 2 to 3 hours on the round-trip tour.
Editor’s Note: Find more area inspiration in our guide, How To Spend A Day At Royal Gorge.
8. Kansas Belle Dinner Train, Baldwin City, Kansas
Offering dinner train rides on Saturday evening and a Sunday afternoon lunch tour, the Kansas Belle Dinner Train only operates on weekends. With the Saturday tour offering a romantic dinner menu, you’ll often find diners dressed a little more formally for this 3-hour train ride. The Saturday trip features a five-course meal, from appetizer to dessert, with entrees that feature prime rib, Cornish hen, and fish. As you enjoy your dinner excursion, you’ll pass through the Kansas countryside. The Sunday trip is more family friendly, with a casual environment and a three-course meal. The dinner train also offers a children’s menu.
9. Cass Scenic Railroad, Cass, West Virginia
Traveling the same line from when it was built to support logging in 1901, the Cass Scenic Railroad traverses 22 miles over a 4.5-hour round trip that takes you almost 2,400 feet in elevation to Bald Knob on the second highest peak in West Virginia. During your travels, the steam-powered locomotive takes you past some of the most beautiful views on the Appalachian Mountains. You’ll see spruce trees among the dense forest, as well as valleys and other mountain peaks. While in Cass, check out the historical buildings and stores at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.
Pro Tip: The Cass Scenic Railroad runs May to November, but Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is open year-round.
10. Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, Blue Ridge, Georgia
Dating back to the 1880s, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway got its start as a rail line running from Marietta to Copperhill, Tennessee. Today, you’ll hop aboard the heritage train and enjoy a scenic 1-hour ride to the sister cities of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill. It’s a 6-minute walk from one community to the other, and while you’re there, you can spend up to 2 hours exploring or shopping before hopping back on the train for the 1-hour return trip to Blue Ridge.
Pro Tip: The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway runs March to December, closing in January and February.
11. Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona
Running daily from Williams, the Grand Canyon Railway takes you to a depot just a few feet from the Grand Canyon’s southern rim. With vintage steam and diesel engines, you’ll enjoy your ride in enclosed and air-conditioned passenger cars while traveling through ponderosa pine trees and then to a high plains desert before arriving at the canyon. You’ll want to arrive early at the Williams depot to check out the Western town, and then watch as the local sheriff takes on would-be bank robbers in a memorable shootout. Then, as you’re enjoying the ride to the canyon, you’ll be entertained by Western characters through song and skits. You may even see train robbers racing alongside the train on their faithful steeds. During your excursion, be on the lookout for any would-be robbers who may have sneaked onto the train. Your round-trip visit to the Grand Canyon includes spending three hours at the South Rim, where you can explore the canyon’s sights on your own or sign up for a guided tour.
Pro Tips: You may want to consider reserving a room at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel during your visit. Learn more about the Grand Canyon North Rim versus South Rim here.