A winter train ride in North America can sometimes feel like riding in a snow globe, as you get to watch lakes, mountains, rivers, and forests rush by while sitting warm and cozy in your railcar. Whether you choose an Amtrak route from the Midwest to the Grand Canyon, a ski train between downtown Denver and the slopes, or a California wine train that embraces the holiday spirit, trains and winter fun go together like hot chocolate and marshmallows. Here are some of the best winter train rides in North America, where you can truly appreciate the diverse natural beauty of the continent.
Aurora Winter Train: Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska
Alaska Railroad can get you from Anchorage to Fairbanks in about 12 hours — providing spectacular views of the Alaskan wilderness along the way. From pristine lakes and snow-capped mountains to wildlife like moose, caribou, and bears, the route immerses you in the natural beauty of the country’s largest state. This includes an up close and personal view of Denali, the highest peak in North America.
Between December and January, you can only make this trip on Saturdays, but starting in mid-February until April there are two to three departures a week from Anchorage.
Empire Builder: Chicago to Portland, Oregon
This 46-hour Amtrak route runs every day of the year, allowing wintertime riders to see the splendor of the American West under a blanket of snow. Starting in Chicago and finishing in Seattle, via Minneapolis/St. Paul, Spokane, and Portland, the Empire Builder route passes through the majesty of Glacier National Park dressed in its winter best. Other highlights include views of Seattle’s Columbia River Gorge and the snowcapped peaks of Washington’s Beacon Rock and Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Cascade Canyon Winter Train: Durango, Colorado
Cascade Canyon in San Juan National Forest is a popular hiking trail in the summer, but in the winter, you can also enjoy the natural beauty of the area without having to get off the train. Starting in Durango, the Cascade Canyon Winter Train takes you 26 miles around the edge of the gorge during the 5.25-hour round trip. The canyon itself was once mined for silver and gold and although the resource dried up years ago, there are still plenty of precious photo ops to be had when there’s snow on the ground. The train runs on select dates from November to May.
Seattle and Canadian Rockies Winter Discovery: Seattle to Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
Amtrak’s Seattle and the Canadian Rockies Discovery trip begins in Washington and takes you over the border on a nine-day Canadian adventure. With stops in Vancouver, Jasper, Banff, and Calgary, you’re sure to see all the best views the Canadian Rockies have to offer. The itinerary also includes a ski gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain for epic vistas of the snow-covered peaks, and a winter wildlife tour in Jasper National Park.
Colorado Ski Train: Denver to Winter Park, Colorado
The Winter Park Express is an Amtrak train that delivers you from Denver Union Station to the doorstep of the Winter Park Resort. The ski train only runs from Friday to Sunday between January and March, so it’s up to you if you want to stay for just the weekend or a whole week. Tickets go on sale in December and tend to sell out fast, so get them early if you can. If you’re flying into Denver, you can take public transportation to Union Station and hop on right from there — no cab or rental car necessary. Try to snag a seat in the sightseer lounge so you can enjoy the best views as the train climbs up into the mountains and passes through impressively constructed tunnels to get you to your destination.
Napa Valley Wine Train: Napa, California
The Napa Valley Wine Train is one of the most glamorous ways to explore this famous California wine region. At any time of year, you can sip wine while watching the vineyards roll by outside the window. During the holidays however, you can buy a ticket for the Santa Train and instead of wine, enjoy a tasting of hot cocoa and freshly baked cookies, plus a visit from the red-suited man of the season. Or, upgrade your journey to include a three-course gourmet meal (with kid-friendly menus) in one of the luxury cars. The holiday-themed trips run between late November and December 23.
Winter Escape to the Grand Canyon: Chicago to Williams, Arizona
Vacation by Rail’s Winter Escape to the Grand Canyon is a six-day round-trip journey that delivers you from the white-out winter scenery of the Great Lakes region and into the colorful Southwest. Leaving from Chicago, you’ll see plenty of snow-covered views before arriving in Flagstaff, where you can make the rest of the way to the Grand Canyon by transferring to the Grand Canyon Railway — a shuttle will connect you from Flagstaff to Williams, Arizona. After spending time exploring the natural wonder at your own pace, you can return to the Windy City the same way you came.
Coast Starlight Train: Seattle to Los Angeles
For a truly magical winter experience, don’t dismiss the beauty of the West Coast in winter. Get your ticket for the Coast Starlight, a 36-hour Amtrak route that runs year-round from Seattle to Los Angeles, making stops in Portland, Klamath Falls, San Luis Obispo, and Sacramento. The trip starts strong with dramatic Pacific Northwest scenery including forests, lakes, rivers, and the snow-capped Cascade mountains. Then, watch the snow melt away as you travel south through California to Los Angeles.
California Zephyr: Chicago to San Francisco
If you want to truly see the extent of America’s gorgeous and diverse scenery in wintertime, you can’t do better than Amtrak’s California Zephyr. This roughly two-day winter train excursion takes you from Chicago to San Francisco, passing through the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, ensuring fantastic views all the way through. You can hop aboard any day of the year, but the Midwest’s first snowfall typically happens in late November.
Adirondack Train: New York City to Montreal
Departing daily from New York City to Montreal, Amtrak’s Adirondack train travels through New York State’s expansive mountain range. Snow lovers can marvel at the icy peaks and white-dusted trees that cover the landscape. The trip takes about 10 hours, so it can be done in a day, or get off in Albany and check out the strikingly eclectic 1880s New York State Capitol building. You can also head to a nearby ski resort like Maple Ski Ridge, which is about a 30-minute drive from the city.
Ethan Allen Express Train: New York City to Burlington, Vermont
Vermont may be famous for its fall foliage, but come back in the winter and you’re in for another beautiful spectacle. Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express goes from New York City to Burlington, Vermont, passing scenic winter views of the Hudson Valley and the Green Mountains. The trip takes about eight hours to complete, but you can break it up with stops to explore charming towns along the way, or maybe even find a cozy bed-and-breakfast with a wood-burning fireplace to spend the night on this leisurely journey north.
Winter in the Rockies: Vancouver to Banff, Alberta, Canada
Winter in the Rockies will take you from Vancouver to the real-life winter wonderland that is Banff, Alberta, cutting through both Jasper National Park and the iconic Lake Louise. Along the way, you’ll have a front row seat to Canada’s Rocky Mountain views and an opportunity to get out and explore the wintry landscapes. With this vacation package, you can disembark to ice skate on Lac Beauvert or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride across the frozen landscape. Once you arrive in Banff, hit the ski slopes or go for a well-deserved soak in the natural hot springs.