Amtrak trips out West: 7 amazing train vacations

For an adventure with Wild West towns, Spanish missions, national parks and historic landmarks, book a trip on Amtrak for an epic experience. Multiple long-distance trains travel across the Western United States, so you can choose the route based on your sightseeing interests.

To start planning your Amtrak vacation, see the options below from major US cities.

1. Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park
Photo by David Broad/Wikimedia Commons

Take a trip on the Empire Builder from cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle to experience Glacier National Park and Great Northern Railway history.

Founded in 1889, the Great Northern Railway connected Saint Paul, Minnesota with Seattle, Washington. To increase ridership, the railroad company petitioned the US government to create Glacier National Park, which was near their railroad tracks.

The effort paid off. Glacier National Park was established in 1910, and the railroad company built lodges and chalets that you can still stay in today:

The Great Northern Railway also built several lodges inside Glacier National Park (Granite Park Chalet, Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel and Sperry Chalet), but you’ll need a car to get there. Exit at the Whitefish Amtrak Station for rental cars or to reach an airport.

2. Route 66

Route 66 in Mojave Desert
Photo by Tony Hisgett/Flickr.com

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief travels near Route 66, the first all-weather road that connected Chicago with Los Angeles. Board the train in Chicago to officially kick of the journey from the start of the highway, but once you are outside of Chicago, the train doesn’t connect with Route 66 again until Las Vegas, New Mexico.

For a trip that’s all along the historic road, start in Albuquerque and travel to Los Angeles. You can also get off the train for one night or more at one of the below Amtrak stations to see Route 66 up close:

  • Las Vegas, New Mexico
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Gallup, New Mexico
  • Winslow, Arizona
  • Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Kingman, Arizona (Historic Route 66 Museum)
  • Needles, California*
  • Barstow, California*
  • Victorville, California*
  • San Bernardino, California
  • Los Angeles, California

*Westbound trains arrive in these cities after midnight

3. Colorado Rocky Mountains

California Zephyr in Glenwood Canyon
Photo by Loco Steve/Flickr.com

The majestic Colorado Rocky Mountains straddle the Continental Divide and separate the Western US from the Great Plains. The California Zephyr will take you there from cities including Emeryville (near San Francisco), Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Omaha and Denver. It’s one of the most scenic Amtrak routes with beautiful views all year long.

If you start the trip in Chicago, you’ll spend a night on the train before reaching the Rockies, but you’ll get to see the massive mountains rise in the distance on the approach.

To experience just the mountain journey, we recommend starting in Denver. From there, you can take a day trip to Salt Lake City, or travel to one of the Amtrak stations in the mountains so you can hike, ski and visit local attractions. See Colorado train trip ideas to learn more.

4. Donner Pass and Lake Tahoe

Donner Lake
Photo by JJG53/Flickr.com

If you recall from history class, the Donner Party was a group of pioneers that traveled out west in a wagon train in 1846. They got caught in a blizzard and almost half of them died after spending months next to what is now Donner Lake (pictured above).

Amtrak’s California Zephyr train travels through this area today from cities including Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Emeryville. You can view Donner Lake out the windows along with the Sierra Nevada mountains, which made the last leg of the journey west difficult for many settlers.

To visit Donner Memorial State Park and enjoy outdoor activities at nearby North Lake Tahoe, you’ll need to rent a car. Exit the train in Truckee, California, which is a historic town that was originally built along a wagon road. You can arrange for a taxi or rideshare service to take you to the nearby Enterprise Rent-A-Car office.

With the car, you can choose from many different lodging options in the mountains or near the water. Plan to say at least one night in the area.

5. Old West Towns

Las Vegas, New Mexico
Photo by Kent Kanouse

Dodge City, Kansas and Las Vegas, New Mexico (pictured above) are two great places to experience the Wild West on the Southwest Chief route.

In Dodge City, Boot Hill Museum is one of the top attractions to visit, with interactive displays, artifacts and activities that recreate the town’s past. You can also check out the Gunfighers Wax Museum and walk the Dodge City Trail of Fame.

Las Vegas, New Mexico is eight hours away from Dodge City via train and has over 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. It hasn’t changed much since Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Jesse James and other outlaws walked the streets. Be sure to check out the Plaza Hotel that opened in 1882. Former President Theodore Roosevelt visited here in 1899 as part of a Rough Riders reunion.

Both cities have hotels and downtown districts in walking distance of Amtrak stations. Holiday Inn Express & Suites is closest to the Dodge City Amtrak Station and the Castaneda Hotel, which was formerly a Harvey House for railroad passengers, is closest to the Las Vegas, New Mexico Amtrak Station.

If you’re looking for a flight for the return trip, Albuquerque and Kansas City are the closest Amtrak stops with major airports. To start the trip, you can begin in and near Los Angeles or cities including Chicago and Kansas City.

6. Spanish Missions

Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Photo by Wally Gobetz/Flickr.com

San Antonio, Texas is just one of many places where you can view historic Spanish missions in the United States. The Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited Amtrak routes stop here, with departures from cities in Texas, as well as Chicago, St. Louis, Little Rock, New Orleans, Tucson and Los Angeles.

The must-visit destinations include The Alamo (also known as Mission San Antonio de Valero), Mission Concepción, Mission San José (pictured above), Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. View the missions trip guide to learn more or plan to go on a guided tour.

After you’ve seen all the sights, you can return home on Amtrak or book a flight out of San Antonio or another major city on the Texas Eagle or Sunset Limited routes. Note that The Alamo is in walking distance of the San Antonio Amtrak Station along with the San Antonio River Walk and several hotels (Staybridge Suites is closest to the station).

7. Grand Canyon and Flagstaff

Grand Canyon South Rim
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For views of an amazing natural wonder, plan a trip to the Grand Canyon via Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. The closest station is Flagstaff, and you’ll need to rent a car (pick up service available during office hours), book a shuttle or go on a tour to reach the Grand Canyon from there.

Perks of renting a car include being able to visit other top area attractions including Walnut Canyon National Monument, Lowell Observatory, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort.

Even if you don’t rent a car, you can explore Historic Downtown Flagstaff and Route 66, check out the many art galleries, visit the Clara M. Lovett Art Museum and go on an electric bike tour. Lyft and Uber services are also options for getting around, although all the above activities are walkable if you stay at a hotel or vacation rental downtown.

Tip: Train arrival time in Flagstaff is better if you are traveling west vs east. To travel west, you can start the trip in Chicago, Kansas City or Albuquerque, which all have major airports.

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