One of the most significant events in U.S. history occurred in the middle of nowhere. On May 10, 1869, the driving in of the last spike celebrated the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads rails at Promontory Summit, Utah.
Only a few years after the Civil War, the inscription on the spike said it all: “May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.”
Transcontinental railroad travel was now possible for the first time. The grueling journey of 6 months by horse-drawn wagon for mail deliveries and the transporting goods between the east and west would be reduced to 6 days.
The “tap tap tap” of the hammer rang out across the country, and jubilation erupted from coast to coast: “D! O! N! E! Done!”
Today, there is more emphasis on speeding through Utah on highways than on the scenic joys of train travel. But Utah’s preservation of its rail history makes this a great state to visit for train enthusiasts.
1. Golden Spike National Historic Site
Promontory Summit, Utah
The 1869 Golden Spike Ceremony occurred in a valley on the north end of the Great Salt Lake. While remote, the area is now only 90-minutes from Salt Lake City (SLC) by road.
The Golden Spike National Historical Park preserves 2,735 acres of land surrounding a 15-mile stretch of the original Transcontinental Railroad.
Summer re-enactments of the ceremony culminate in replicas of the Union Pacific No. 119 and Jupiter engines plowing in like massive smoking beasts coming nose-to-nose.
Costumed re-enactments start Memorial Day Weekend and continue every Saturday until Labor Day Weekend, roughly late May to early September. Arrive before 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. to view the Locomotive Ranger Program.
Visiting outside these times, visitors still get to see the Last Spike Site, hike the Big Fill Loop that showcases railway construction techniques, drive on the original railroad grade, and view the Victorian-era replica locomotives in the Engine House. A 20-minute video documents the toll the railroad took on the Chinese, Irish, and Black laborers and nearby Native Americans.
Pro Tip: Come gassed up (no gas for 27 miles) and bring food and drink. Check local weather. The Spiral Jetty, a work of art on the Great Salt Lake, is 40 minutes away. Read the instructions before going.
2. Union Station
Disappointed in the railroads’ decision to build the transcontinental line around the northern end of Great Salt Lake and not through SLC, Brigham Young, the president of the Mormon Church, did not attend the Golden Spike ceremony, but donated land in Ogden, a town 35 miles north of SLC, for the railroads to build their yards and station. The Church community held its last spike ceremony on January 10, 1870, to celebrate the Utah Central Railroad line from Ogden to SLC.
For 50 years, the stately depot at Ogden became a major hub for transcontinental rail services. The town had a slogan: “You can’t get anywhere without coming to Ogden.”
The present Ogden Union Station was built in 1924 in the imposing Spanish Colonial Revival style. The cavernous Grand Lobby is enough to make one whistle in awe. The center portion is 56 feet high. Two huge murals by Edward Laning depict the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
3. Utah State Railroad Museum And The Spencer S. Eccles Rail Center
Ogden Union Station became the official Utah State Railroad Museum in 1988. My grandchildren loved the model train that whizzed above their heads through a vast diorama of the western states. As visitors enter, they pass under timbers used to construct the historic Lucin Trestle across the Great Salt Lake.
One room is interactive, where visitors can hammer in railroad spikes, play with toy trains, and pretend to drive the engine. Docents love to tell stories about Utah’s railways. On the way in, you’ll listen politely, but once you have seen the exhibits, you’ll chase them with a thousand questions.
Spencer S. Eccles Rail Center is outside and free to enter. Famous trains that served Ogden included the Denver Zephyr, the Rio Grande Zephyr, Amtrak’s Pioneer, and Desert Wind. Many railways donated their big locomotives to the center. Standing next to them, one feels dwarfed by their immensity. Other rolling stock includes switch engines, boxcars, cabooses, the 2002 Winter Olympic Cauldron Car, and a steam-powered rotary snow plow.
- Arrive in Ogden by train. Catch the FrontRunner from SLC’s North Temple Station. The ride is 52 minutes and costs around $3.
- Ogden’s historic 25th Street is walkable from the station.
- The entry price to the Utah State Railroad Museum covers the John M. Browning Firearms Museum, Browning-Kimball Classic Car Museum, and the Utah Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
4. California Zephyr
Salt Lake City, Utah
Ogden no longer serves transcontinental rail passengers, but the California Zephyr picks up passengers at SLC on its run from Chicago to San Francisco.
If you want a taste of being aboard the California Zephyr, Amtrak has a 3-day return Glenwood Springs Getaway. The train passes Ruby Canyon and over Soldier Summit east of Provo, Utah, to Glenwood Springs in Colorado. The package includes two nights of hotel accommodation at Glenwood Springs, a gondola ride to the top of Iron Mountain, a walking tour of the Glenwood Caverns, and a visit to the Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves. Plus, there will be chances to soak in mineral hot springs and explore the town.
While the Eastbound Zephyr arrives in SLC at roughly 3:30 a.m., I’d be prepared to sleep off the early start at the hot pool at Glenwood Springs when the Zephyr arrives around midday. The hot springs are walkable from the station, or there’s a complimentary shuttle.
Pro Tip: In Utah, the Zephyr stops in Helper (explored below) and at Green River, where some people pre-book a shuttle for the 50-mile trip to Moab.
5. The Western Mining And Railroad Museum
Helper is the only U.S. town named after a locomotive. Helper locomotives would push a heavy train up to Soldier Summit before returning to help the next one.
About a 2-hour drive from SLC, this cute town is in Carbon County, named for the rich coal deposits. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad established the town when the railroad came through the area and needed coal to fuel their steam engines. Helper became the hub for services needed by the miners and their families.
The coal miners and railroad workers were recruited from countries such as Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and France. Over 20 different languages could be heard on the streets of Helper.
I learned such facts at The Western Mining and Railroad Museum. This three-floor museum in an old hotel is brimming with historic memorabilia. I imagine the locals coming in and saying, “look what I found in my garage.”
Check out the mock-up coal mine, a jail, a company store, a schoolroom, Veterans Honor Hall, miniature locomotives, and even dinosaur fossils and footprints. A model train chugs around a tiny track. My grandson loved clambering on the caboose outside.
Helper is now home to many artists. The downtown has beautifully preserved Art Deco storefronts, galleries, and eateries. There are no big chain hotels but there are a few charming Airbnbs.
Pro Tip: Amtrak’s California Zephyr connects Helper with SLC on a 3-hour journey, or you can time your road trip to see the Zephyr pull in at Helper Station.
6. Rocky Mountaineer SilverLeaf Service
Moab, Utah (To Denver)
In 2021, the Rocky Mountaineer launched a new route, the Rockies to the Red Rocks, covering the 350 miles between Moab, Utah, and Denver with an overnight stopover at Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The trip can also be made in reverse.
Moab is notoriously hard to reach. The Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train taking guests there. Those with pre-booked tours are picked up in vans. Motorcoaches take others straight to Moab. Some people stay a few days; others rent cars or fly to Salt Lake.
The Rocky Mountaineer is known for its oversized glass-dome windows, regionally-inspired meals served in Silverservice comfort, signature cocktails, superior hotels, and all-inclusive transfers and luggage handling. Here are the packages.
Pro Tip: If it is the journey rather than the luxury experience you crave, the California Zephyr covers much of the same track except for the new route section closer to Moab.
7. Heber Valley Railroad
Heber City, Utah
Heber Valley Railroad is a tourist railway operating since the 1970s. Located 50 minutes from SLC or 15 minutes from Park City, this journey is for those who love old-fashioned trains. The railway operates a historic Baldwin steam locomotive over ex-Denver, Rio Grande & Western Railroad trackage pulling restored 1920s-era rail cars. Historically known as the Heber Creeper — due to the train’s crawl through the winding canyons in the 1900s — the freight and passenger service linked the community to the world.
Today, the 16-mile tourist route winds through farms and the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains before tracing the west bank of Deer Creek Reservoir and following the Provo River into Provo Canyon. The train is a testament to the efforts of the local community to preserve this example of the Golden Years of U.S. railroading.
As well as daily scenic rides, there are themed rides such as the Wizard’s Train, Cowboy Train, SuperHeroes, and the North Pole Express. My grandson went on the Halloween Train. “Kid-friendly scary,” my daughter said of the haunted carriage. Adults enjoy murder mysteries and sunset excursions. Journeys range from 1.5 to 3 hours on both steam and vintage diesel trains. Prices vary depending on the event, and a schedule is available here.
Pro Tip: Dairy Keen is a train-themed restaurant in Heber. Inside is a Harry Potter Hogwarts Express model and train tables where kids can play.
8. Tooele Valley Railroad Museum
Tooele County, Utah
Tooele County is 30 minutes from SLC on the western side of the Great Salt Lake. The Tooele Valley Museum and Historical Park, also known as Tooele’s Railroad Museum, is on the site of the former railway station. The original line ran 7 miles from a connection with the Union Pacific and Western Pacific Railroads to a terminus at the International Smelter that processed lead, zinc, and copper ores.
The museum’s centerpiece is Tooele Valley Railway’s Steam Locomotive Number 11. Built in 1910 by the American Locomotive Company in Brooks, New York, this was Utah’s last operating steam locomotive when it was retired in 1963. Clamber inside one of humankind’s greatest transportation inventions. Inside the museum are miniature trains to delight children of all ages.
The attraction is free but with limited opening hours between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Model trains and miniature train rides are available on Saturdays. As a small museum, it is best to call ahead.
Pro Tips: I loved the Visitor Experience at Bingham Canyon Mine, a 40-minute drive away. The 1-hour experience includes a shuttle service to the mine overlook to see the ginormous vehicles looking like toys in one of the largest open-pit excavations in the world. Tickets cost $6 but must be pre-booked. The experience is open from April-October, weather permitting.
My article concentrates on rail-related experiences that travelers might enjoy. Train buffs will find the more detailed information they crave at UtahRails.net.