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North America by Train

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad


Bookended by two historic mountain towns in southeast Colorado, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad journey begins in Durango. Train aficionados will be interested in the rail yard’s roundhouse museum and a behind-the-scenes tour of the machine shop, rail yard and round table.

The train climbs nearly 3,000 feet to tiny Silverton, Colorado, which boasts Victorian-era architecture from the state’s mining boom in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Along the way, wildlife sightings include elk, black bear, bighorn sheep and moose, as well as eagles and hawks.

According to Carrie Whitley, sales manager for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the route is inaccessible except by rail or helicopter. The train runs year-round, but in winter months, it turns around at the halfway point.

“In winter, the train stops at Cascade Canyon, which is in the middle of San Juan Nation Park wilderness,” said Whitley. “The pavilion has a huge fireplace, and there’s a bridge over the nearby river. People grab their hot chocolate and enjoy the winter wonderland.”

Charter coaches accommodate up to 40 people. Deluxe coaches, which are individually decorated, accommodate up to 24 passengers and include an attendant with beverage service. Groups have the option of riding the train round trip or taking a one-way trip to Silverton, where their motorcoach can meet them to continue their tour.


Mount Washington Cog Railway 

New Hampshire

Located in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Mount Washington Cog Railway takes groups to the summit of Mount Washington, New England’s highest peak at 6,288 feet. In 1976, the railway was designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark. When the Cog was inaugurated in 1868, it was touted as the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway.

The experience starts at the Marshfield Base Station. Inside, the museum exhibits highlight the mountain’s natural and man-made history. Groups can choose the three-hour round trip on a vintage coach powered by a historic steam locomotive or opt for a ride powered by a modern biodiesel engine.

At the summit on a clear day, passengers have an hour to ogle the 360-degree view that includes New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont and extends to the Atlantic Ocean. They can also explore the summit’s three notable sites: the Sherman Adams Visitors Center, the Mount Washington Observatory’s Weather Museum and the 1853 Tip Top House, which was the 1853 hostelry built when hiking was the only means of reaching the mountain peak.

“Included in the ticket is the newly revamped extreme weather museum at the visitors center,” said the railway’s group sales associate Elise Thompson. “It’s quite interesting, since Mount Washington’s winter conditions rival those of Mount Everest and the polar regions.”


Amtrak California Zephyr

Western United States

The California Zephyr crosses two mountain ranges as it travels from the skyscrapers of Chicago to the San Francisco Bay. The train cuts through the plains of Nebraska and the heart of the Rockies on its trek to the West Coast. It follows a portion of the original 1860s transcontinental railroad between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Sacramento, California.

“One advantage to the train is that a group can travel together on the same train instead of being spread across several motorcoaches on a typical road trip,” said Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak government affairs and corporate communications.

The Zephyr runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco with plenty of opportunities for stopovers. Some travelers might want to ski at Winter Park or Glenwood Springs, which is the gateway to Aspen, Colorado. Others might want to game in Reno, Nevada.

“We can build the reservation to the group’s needs and include stopovers,” said Magliari. “We also offer four styles of sleeping accommodations onboard, but many people choose to go cross-country in coach because of the wide, reclining seats with headrests and footrests.”

The National Park Service and Amtrak have partnered to create the Trails and Rails interpretive program for passengers.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.