10 best Amtrak routes to ride in winter

Train trips in the winter offer magical views of snow, and are a way to reach ski resorts and beaches depending on if you want to embrace or escape the cold. To start planning your trip, here are some of the best Amtrak routes and destinations to check out during the winter months.

California Zephyr

California Zephyr in Donner Pass
Photo by Loco Steve

Take a ride through the snow-filled Colorado Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada on the California Zephyr. This stunning winter trip gives you the option to go skiing and experience many other winter activities in Winter Park, Salt Lake City and Lake Tahoe.

The Fraser/Winter Park Amtrak Station has a free shuttle that will take you to nearby resorts, and Enterprise and Budget rental cars are in walking distance of the Salt Lake City Amtrak Station (although you may need to wait until the next day to pick up your car depending on the train arrival). If you want to go to Lake Tahoe, you will need to book your tickets to Truckee, California and take a taxi, Uber or Lyft to one of the airport car rental companies.

You can board the California Zephyr in cities including Chicago, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Emeryville, California (near San Francisco). To quickly get to the Colorado mountain part of the journey, start the trip in Denver. A day trip is an option if you travel from Denver to Salt Lake City, and you can book a flight home from Salt Lake.

Winter Park Express

Winter Park Ski Resort
Photo by Robert Meszaros

Amtrak’s Winter Park Express is a seasonal ski train that departs from Denver on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s a must-do if you are in the Denver area and plan to ski or enjoy one of the many other winter activities at Winter Park. Fares are inexpensive, and there’s no extra charge for bringing your own equipment. This train operates from January 14, 2022 to April 3, 2022. Download the Amtrak app to purchase tickets. If you need to travel Monday-Thursday, you can book tickets on the California Zephyr.

Empire Builder

If you’re looking for a true winter wonderland, the Empire Builder travels through the Montana Rocky Mountains and snowy evergreen forests in Oregon and Washington. Whitefish is in the Rockies and has lodging, an airport, rental cars, restaurants and many different types of winter activities if you want to get off the train there for a night or two or fly home from this location.

A roundtrip train ride is recommended to view the most scenery, such as from Portland or Seattle to Whitefish and back. Because of the early sunset times, you’ll only be able to view the Rocky Mountains when traveling east, and you’ll only be able to see the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest on westbound trains.

In addition to Portland and Seattle, you can get on the Empire Builder in cities including Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Minot — all have airports, which makes it easy to customize your trip length in case you don’t want to travel the entire route.

Coast Starlight

Coast Starlight Amtrak train on Salt Creek trestle
Photo by Bruce Fingerhood

The Coast Starlight travels between Los Angeles and Seattle, with Oregon providing the most winter scenery and beautiful views of the Cascade Mountain Range (especially on northbound trains). If you live in Southern California, this route is a great way to experience winter. You’ll spend a night on the train and wake up to snow-capped mountains — and arguably the most scenic portion of the trip. Be ready to look out the windows just after sunrise as the train travels between Chemult and Eugene, Oregon.

Consider staying a night or two in Eugene to enjoy food, a winter hike and hopefully some snow before traveling home, or head to Portland, which has skiing at nearby Mt. Hood.

In the other direction, you can also use the Coast Starlight to escape the cold and reach warmer weather and beaches in and near Los Angeles. However, because of the early sunset times in the winter, you’ll see less of Oregon and the mountains when traveling southbound.

Vermonter

If you live on the East Coast, your snow train is the Vermonter. One train travels to and from Vermont each day from cities including Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City. Check the snow cover ahead of time to ensure wintery scenery and good ski conditions before booking your tickets.

Plan to stay at least one night in Vermont due to the train schedule. Burlington is one good option. There is an Enterprise car rental office, hotels and restaurants within a 15-minute drive of the Amtrak station. Plus, you can drive about 30 minutes to Cochran’s Ski Area and Bolton Valley Resort.

Montpelier is another great place to exit the train. With a rental car you can easily drive to Smugglers’ Notch, Stowe Mountain, Mad River Glen and Sugarbush for skiing and other winter sports.

Note that the best views are on southbound trains, and if you don’t want to ride Amtrak roundtrip, you can fly into Burlington International Airport and start a southbound trip at the nearby Essex Junction-Burlington Station.

Ethan Allen Express

Killington Ski Lift
Photo by GetAway Vacations

Another option for snowy Vermont scenery is the Ethan Allen Express train. As a bonus, you can go skiing without renting a car. The train departs from New York City and various stations in Upstate New York, with the final stop in Rutland, Vermont. After you arrive, you can walk five minutes to connect with a bus to Killington. The bus stops at the Killington Grand Hotel Resort, which has a bridge to the ski slopes.

If you don’t want to go skiing, you can stay in the charming and historic downtown Rutland (at least one overnight stay is required for the return train trip).

City of New Orleans

New Orleans streetcar
Photo by Bernard Spragg

The City of New Orleans isn’t the most scenic Amtrak route, but it’s an easy escape from cold weather in the Midwest. After an evening departure from Chicago and other cities in Illinois, you’ll spend a night on the train and wake up in the South. New Orleans is the end-of-the-line, and January is one of the best months to visit if you want to avoid crowds and experience the average high of 65 degrees. You can also use the train to travel to New Orleans festivals in February. Roomettes and bedrooms are available if you want private sleeping accommodations.

Silver Star and Silver Meteor

West Palm Beach Amtrak Station
Photo by by Phillip Pessar

For sunshine and warm weather, book a trip on the Florida-bound Silver Star or Silver Meteor. These long-distance routes connect New York City (and many other East Coast cities) with Miami, and stop at many stations in Florida along the way. Jacksonville is the first Florida stop for both trains, and both also stop in Orlando and South Florida.

The West Palm Beach Amtrak Station is closest to the ocean if you are looking for an easy beach getaway, or head to Fort Lauderdale in January to experience the Greater Fort Lauderdale Food and Wine Festival. Wintertime is also a great time to visit Tampa to enjoy mild temperatures, Busch Gardens and the annual Gasparilla Pirate Fest (note: only the Silver Star travels to Tampa).

Auto Train

Ormond Beach
Photo by Daniel Piraino

Also great for a Florida getaway, the Auto Train travels non-stop between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida. Besides non-stop travel, the other big perk is that you can bring a car with you, so once you arrive in Florida, you can drive to a variety of destinations. Daytona, New Smyrna and Ormond Beach are about 45 minutes away via car, Cape Canaveral is 1 hour and 10 minutes away, Universal Studios is 35 minutes away, and Walt Disney World is a 50-minute drive from Sanford.

To ride the Auto Train, you must transport a vehicle and pay the related fees. View vehicle requirements to learn more — in some cases jet skis, trikes and choppers might be accepted.

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