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Summer Special: Visiting National Parks by Train


Amtrak's Empire Builder near Glacier National Park. Amtrak photo.

If you'd like to visit some parks this summer but don't relish the thought of airport security hassles or long hours in the car, perhaps train travel is the answer. You can view the scenery at ground level, move around the car and stretch your legs during the trip, and enjoy a real meal in the dining car while the train keeping rolling toward your destination.

Sound appealing? Here's a sampling of options for trips to parks around the country via Amtrak.

There are plenty of historical ties between the early days of national parks and the railroads, and nowhere is that connection stronger than Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railroad played a key role in developing the park and transporting the majority of its visitors in the early 1900s. Amtrak's Empire Builder now makes the run between Chicago and Seattle and skirts the southern boundary of the park with stops at the gateway communities of East Glacier Park and West Glacier (Belton).  Between those two stations is a flag stop at Essex, home of an historic railroad hotel, the Izaak Walton Inn.

The Empire Builder also offers an alternative to flying into Seattle for destinations such as Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park. A rental car would be needed in either case for the last leg of the trip. Seattle can also be reached by train from west coast cites such as Los Angeles via a perennial favorite with rail buffs, the Coast Starlight.

This route is a favorite with train buffs. Amtrak notes, "Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes, the Coast Starlight links the greatest cities on the West Coast. En route daily between Seattle and Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight passes through Portland, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Barbara."

"The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is unsurpassed. The dramatic snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range and Mount Shasta, lush forests, fertile valleys and long stretches of Pacific Ocean shoreline provide a stunning backdrop for your journey."

This route offers access to San Francisco and numerous NPS sites in the Bay Area, including Point Reyes National Seashore, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and Muir Woods National Monument.

Yet another western icon, Grand Canyon National Park, can be reached via Amtrak's Southwest Chief, which stops at both Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona, during its service between L.A. and Chicago.

You can rent a car in those towns to get to the South Rim, take a Thruway Bus from Flagstaff to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, or for a complete train experience, take the Grand Canyon Railway between Williams and the South Rim. Amtrak schedules may require an overnight in Williams and Flagstaff to connect to either the privately operated Grand Canyon Railway or a bus to the park the next morning. Once you arrive at the Grand Canyon, the park's free shuttle system makes it easy to get around the South Rim without a car.

Another western option, the California Zephyr  travels between Chicago and the outskirts of San Francisco at Emeryville, California. The leg of this trip between Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado, offers some superb scenery, and provides access to Rocky Mountain National Park (via the station in Granby, CO) and Colorado National Monument (via Grand Junction). The station at Green River, Utah, offers a possible gateway to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, although you'll have a wider range of options for rental vehicles in Grand Junction.

Yosemite National Park is one of the easiest western parks to visit by train—and without a car. Amtrak serves a station in Merced, California, via their San Joaquin train; from Merced they offer a "Thruway Bus" connection between the train station and Mariposa, El Portal and Yosemite Valley. Once in the park, you can use the free park shuttle to reach major destinations in Yosemite. Check on the shuttle schedules before making a trip, since they vary seasonally. The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System also provides bus transportation between the park and Merced.

Nowhere in the country is travel to parks easier than in the East, and an Amtrak brochure sums up one big advantage of taking the train to some locations in that region: "Sit in traffic on I-95 or sit in comfort aboard the Northeast Regional." There are destinations, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, where the hassles of traffic, navigation and finding a parking spot can definitely make travel by car anything but a vacation for many of us.

If you already live in parts of the northeast, the train may actually be your fastest way to reach some of these parks; if you live elsewhere, you might find the rail option makes the trip more enjoyable.

Boston offers plenty of history, and many of the key sites are part of Boston National Historical Park, including Old South Meeting House, Old State House, Paul Revere House and Old North Church. Nearby Charlestown Navy Yard is home to USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

The fastest Amtrak trip from Washington, Philadelphia or New York City to downtown Boston is on the Acela Express, which cuts time off the trip with limited stops and offers some amenities and services not available on other trains.

There are numerous other options to and from those cities and other destinations in the Northeast;  you'll find links to all of them here.

New York City also offers multiple NPS options. Although the best known NPS areas in and near the city are the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island , there are plenty of other NPS options listed at this link to the National Parks of New York Harbor.

Other northeastern cities with key parks include Philadelphia, home to Independence National Historical Park and Baltimore, which offers a chance to visit Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

Among the easiest NPS areas in the country to reach by train are those in the nation's capital. Once you arrive at Union Station you don't even need to leave the building to make a connection to the city's Metro system—or you can just walk from the station to some key sites. There are plenty of NPS options in the nation's capital, including the famous monuments and memorials to Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, along with Ford's Theater, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National World War II Memorial. Unless you're a seasoned veteran of searching out NPS sites in the DC area, odds are there are others you haven't seen; click here for links to all of them. 

Eastern park visits aren't limited to the big cities, although a trip to most of the following destinations will required you to arrange for a rental car or other ground transportation, just as you would if you arrived by air. Here are just a few of many possibilities:

The New River Gorge National River in West Virginia is one of the few NPS areas where trains still serve multiple stations in the park itself. Amtrak's train known as the Cardinal travels three days a week between Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City, and makes scheduled stops at Hinton and Prince, West Virginia. The station at Thurmond functions as a flag stop for passengers with advance reservations.

The Capitol Limited makes daily trips connecting Chicago, Pittsburg, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. It stops near Harper's Ferry National Historical Park.

The Northeast Regional allows a visit to Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. The Amtrak station is within a mile of the privately operated Colonial Williamsburg, and the Historic Triangle Shuttle runs from April 15 through October 31, 2011; the shuttle makes it possible to combine a visit to Williamsburg with the NPS sites at Yorktown and Jamestown.

Finally, for a real "train to the parks" adventure, don't overlook Alaska. You can't get there by train from the Lower 48, but once you've arrived by air or sea the Alaska Railroad offers a spectacular way to reach both Denali National Park and Preserve and the town of Seward, the gateway community for Kenai Fjords National Park. If you enjoy spectacular mountain scenery, the train trip between Seward and Anchorage is one you don't want to miss. You'll find more details about these trips in this previous story on the Traveler.

National park fans may find one other bonus on some Amtrak routes. The "Trails and Rails" programs is a cooperative effort between the NPS and Amtrak that puts interpreters (usually volunteers) from selected parks on some trains, usually during the peak visitor season. Check the Trails and Rails websitefor additional information; this page on the Amtrak website includes information on trains and parks that participate in the program.

Ready to think about hitting the rails? The above suggestions are just a sampling of options for park visits, and the Amtrak website has lots of information for planning a trip. The site includes an interactive route atlas, timetables and information on deals and discounts.

In most cases, the obvious difference between train travel to eastern and western locales is the distance involved. While an Amtrak trek can certainly avoid some major traffic hassles in the big cities, a longer train trip across the wide open spaces in the West requires a different mind-set for travel. If you've got the time, enjoy the chance to view the passing scenery, and are comfortable with the more relaxed pace inherent in train travel, one of these trips may be for you.

If it's been a while since you've ridden a train, consider giving it a try. Ridership on Amtrak is up and on-time performance has improved, but given the current budget battles in Washington, the future of passenger rail travel on at least some routes in the U.S. is once again a subject of debate. If you want to visit a park by train, this might be the year.

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Amtrak passes right through Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Or, you can transfer from Amtrak to the South Shore line in Chicago, Michigan City, or South Bend and the South Shore line has three stops in the park. Visitors from Europe often get to this park by train.

Thank you for putting this post together. I have started looking at options for summer trips west and stubled across the USA Rail Pass. It allows a traveler to travel as much as 8 segements for $389 (194.50 for children).
Looks like this will result in considerable savings on a longer trip with multiple desinations. For example, looking at options to go from Chicago, to Glacier, to Rocky Mountain, back to Chicago.  With the pass it ends up being a really good deal. 

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