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Amtrak & Via Rail Canada User Guide
Travel the most scenic routes

Via Rail Canada's "Canadian" train nearing Jasper National Park on a trip from Vancouver to Toronto. Passengers are seated in a "vista dome" carriage, with larger windows than usual.

Passengers in a "vista dome" on Via Rail Canada's "Canadian" train as they near Jasper National Park in Alberta on a trip from Vancouver to Toronto. The type of windows in the dome let them look up at the mountains easily.

Both Amtrak and Via Rail Canada offer beautiful routes, some of the finest in the world. Each has either "dome cars" or high-level coaches and lounge cars with big windows on many long-distance trains that increase your viewing pleasure.

However, some rail routes are much more scenic than others

These are the most beautiful Amtrak and Via Rail routes to book:

California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco Bay Area)

Amtrak's California Zephyr becomes scenic even before you leave the Chicago area—you pass near luxury homes and gardens in several of the richest suburbs in the United States.

The Zephyr takes an awesomely scenic route through the heart of the Colorado Rockies at times beyond paved roads.

Leaving Chicago, you cross the Mississippi River, and wake up the next morning near Denver nearly one mile higher than when you departed.

Suddenly, you see the Colorado Rockies rising nearly straight up from the high prairie.

Today, you may feel that you are travelling nearly straight up after leaving Denver. This is the most rugged rail crossing of the Rockies by far.

Snow capped peaks—sometimes even into summer—rise on all sides, and you'll pass through forests and along great whitewater rivers. Watch out before you reach Glenwood Springs. Those running the adjacent rapids on the right tend to "moon" the train, which brings much laughter.

The next morning, you'll travel over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.

That afternoon, as you glide along San Francisco Bay, you'll see the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Amtrak coaches meet your train and take you across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge into San Francisco..

Anytime of year is a great time to take this trip. Especially during the winter, westbound works better for the best scenery.

Amtrak maximizes your enjoyment by providing high-level seating and large windows on the California Zephyr.

California Zephyr stopovers

Boy diving into the Glenwood Hot Springs pool in winterjust across a bridge from the Amtrak's California Zephyr stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

The Glenwood Hot Springs pool just across a bridge from the Amtrak's California Zephyr stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Convenient public transit takes you from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, Colorado.

Three places make fine stopovers along the California Zephyr route. Note though that when you break journey between the origin and destination points of your Amtrak trains you may have to pay more.

In Denver, you can take the Gray Line of Denver day-long tour to Pikes Peak, the Garden of the Gods, the Air Force Academy, and Colorado Springs.

You'll ride a steep cog railroad, which will deposit you on the 4,270+ metre, 14,000+ foot summit of Pikes Peak. Needless to say, the views are fantastic.

If travelling between late May or early June (date depends on when winter snow cleared) until mid-September, Gray Line also has a simply wonderful day tour to Rocky Mountain National Park. Both tours should be booked in advance.

The Zephyr also passes through the spa town of Glenwood Springs.

At Glenwood Springs, the two-block long spring-fed outdoor swimming pool alone is worth a one-night stop. The pool stays open all year. I love this pool.

Also within walking distance of Amtrak, you'll find the Glenwood Springs Hostel.

Because this is the closest hostel to the Aspen ski area, book very early if travelling during the winter.

At Reno, using a rental car is the best way to reach nearby Lake Tahoe. This easily allows you to explore the many natural areas around the lake.

Coast Starlight (Los Angeles to Seattle via San Francisco Bay Area)

An Amtrak "Sightseeer high-level lounge car used on its long-distance western trains and on its Capital Limited between Chicago and Washington, DC.

Above: An Amtrak "Sightseer high-level lounge car used on its long-distance western trains and on its Capital Limited between Chicago and Washington, DC. Note the windows, which maximize viewing. Seats are not reserved and are open to all passengers.

The scenery along the Coast Starlight route between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area becomes superb while it it follows California's beautiful coastline. .

The landscape is almost pristine in places—much the same as before the Spanish came.

This is the scenery that Amtrak features in so much of its promotional literature.

Although the southbound train transits the beautiful Mount Shasta area of northern California at night, northbound Coast Starlight passengers do see the Cascade mountains in Oregon during the day and Mount Shasta in summer..

The Coast Starlight route between Los Angeles and Seattle works best northbound, especially during the winter months. Be sure to ask for a window seat on the left prior to boarding prior to leaving Los Angeles.

Even in the summer, a late southbound train makes you miss the best scenery, which is between Oxnard and San Luis Obispo in California.

Canadian - Canadien (Toronto - Vancouver)

Via Rail's "Canadian" train transits the Canadian Rockies through Jasper National Park, a lovely route.

Later during the trip, the train passes by many lakes and forests ("the bush") of the Canadian Shield in northern Ontario, a rugged area.

This route is best travelled eastbound, especially during the winter, for maximum mountain scenery.

Even during the summer, a late westbound train could put you through Jasper National Park at night.

If you must travel westbound, be sure to break journey at Jasper.

Jasper National Park also gives you access to Banff National Park, including Lake Louise, via the Icefields Parkway by coach, one of the most scenic routes in the world.

Canadian train alternatives

Rocky Mountaineer Railtours offers deluxe (and expensive) tour trains from Vancouver to Calgary via Kamloops (or vice-versa) using the former Canadian/Canadien route via Banff and other national parks. This I believe is the most scenic rail route in North America. Simply sublime.

Travellers overnight in Kamloops for maximum scenery.

As a budget alternative, the spectacular Greyhound route between Vancouver and Calgary passes through Banff, Yoho, Glacier (the park in Canada), and Mount Revelstoke national parks. You will enjoy it year round.

Especially during the winter when there is less daylight, but also highly recommended in summer, include an overnight stop between Banff and Vancouver in Kamloops or Revelstoke.

As with all Canadian Rockies trips, book all accommodation well ahead of time to avoid hassles.

Cascade (Seattle to Vancouver)

Much of the Amtrak Cascade route between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, lies along Puget Sound, a very scenic area.

You view several volcanoes in the distance, including Mount Baker and Mount Olympus. Baker remains very quietly active.

Currently, the Cascade trip works best northbound or southbound in the morning, especially during the winter.

Make sure that you book the Amtrak train. as most Amtrak service between Seattle and Vancouver is by considerably less scenic Amtrak coach service.

Adirondack (New York City - Montreal)

Travelling on this daytime train between New York City and Montreal is super scenic, and surprisingly your enjoyment starts while still in Manhattan.

Often the tracks follow the edge of the wide Hudson River.

You have great views of beautiful Bear Mountain and the historic West Point military academy across the river.

Former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Hyde Park home and other mansions overlook the rails.

North of Albany, the Adirondack route climbs into rugged northern New York State countryside. You may not believe—in fact, will like not believe—that you are in New York State.

From Montreal, be sure to take a short side trip on Via Rail to Quebec City, one of Canada's most interesting destinations. It has the "Québécois ambiance" that city centre Montreal often lacks.

I highly recommends taking the Adirondack northbound, in order not to miss any of its best scenery.

Vermonter (Washington, DC - NYC - Burlington, VT)

This pleasant train passes through idyllic farmland and forested hills in Vermont, Massachusetts, and northern Connecticut. It's not as scenic as the Adirondack route, but still very nice.

Unfortunately, it lacks a convenient connection to Montreal. .

Capitol Limited (Washington, DC - Chicago)

This train transits some great scenery. However, you must travel eastbound, as the westbound Capitol Limited passes by much of the scenery at night.

It takes the most rugged route between Chicago and the east coast..

At Washington, there are convenient connections to Philadelphia and New York City.

Because of tunnel height restrictions on many eastern routes, the Capitol Limited is one of the few trains east of Chicago to offer high-level viewing, which makes it especially worth travelling.

I love this route.

Cardinal (Washington, DC - Chicago)

The Cardinal, the other train between Chicago and Washington, D.C., takes more time due to a longer route, but its route is very scenic.

The Cardinal glides along the famous New River Gorge in West Virginia and through a beautiful area of mountains along the Virginia and West Virginia border.

Once again, this train works better eastbound for maximum scenery during the day all year.

The Cardinal operates just three times per week.

For an interesting walking tour while waiting to change trains at Chicago Union Station, see Changing trains in Chicago.

The Pennsylvanian (New York City - Pittsburgh)

The Pennsylvanian does not offer high-level coaches, complete meals, or much service, but it spends much of the day travelling through the beautiful mountains of Pennsylvania.

At Pittsburgh, you can connect to or from the Capitol Limited to or from Chicago. At Philadelphia, you can easily from or to Washington, DC.

Southwest Limited (Chicago - Los Angeles via New Mexico)

Not quite as scenic as the California Zephyr, but nevertheless one of Dr. Voyageur's favourite trains the Southwest Limited runs between Los Angeles and Chicago.

This fast train follows the old Santa Fe Railroad line, and often runs adjacent to old Route 66.I like eastbound somewhat better, although both directions are scenic and historic.

Ideal stops along the Southwest Limited route are Flagstaff, the gateway to the Grand Canyon, and Santa Fe (via a light-rail line from Albuquerque or via a short van transfer from Lamy Station).

In some cases, Amtrak can include your transfers to the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe New Mexico in your ticket at no extra charge.

Pacific Surfliners (Southern California)

I love these trains.

The Pacific Surfliner trains from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Anaheim (Disneyland) pass along many scenic beaches.

In fact, the San Clemente station on this route sits directly adjacent to a beach. Within several steps you are on the sand.

Between Los Angeles and San Diego, the combination of

  • running along the shore below cliffs, seeing thousands of people sunbathing on warm days,
  • passing by large industrial parks and rail yards,
  • travelling through a large Marine Corps training centre,
  • and going over the big concrete river where many movies and TV shows are filmed

make these ideal trains for children. You'll love them, too.

The world famous San Diego Zoo is within walking distance of Amtrak's San Diego terminal.

There's also a trolley to the Mexican border. (See "Santa Fe Depot" for service from the Amtrak station.)

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