Explore America’s National Parks by Train

Celebrate two milestones this year

On May 10, 1869, the ceremonial golden spike was hammered in the ground near Promontory, Utah, and transcontinental rail travel was made possible.

While the cost has risen a bit since then, you can re-create the journey with Amtrak, and even travel along some of the same routes as First Transcontinental Railroad to celebrate the 150th anniversary of transcontinental rail travel.

Along the way, you can visit another American icon celebrating a milestone in 2019.

It might have taken more than 35 years from when the first bill was introduced to get National Park status for the Grand Canyon, but the Arizona landmark is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a national park. Officially designated as such by an act of Congress on February 26, 1919, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has become the second-most visited national park in the United States behind the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee.

When you combine a rail adventure with the classic natural beauty of our national park system, it’s almost magical. The connection between our nation’s national parks and the train has always been strong.

Many people don’t realize that America’s early railroad companies were instrumental in creating our national parks. Because of their energetic public relations efforts, the Northern Pacific Railroad aided in the national park designation of Yellowstone in 1872. The Southern Pacific Railroad worked diligently behind the scenes to help Yosemite and Crater Lake obtain their national park statuses in 1890 and 1902, respectively. Also, the Great Northern Railway paved the way for the creation of Glacier National Park in 1910.

In fact, in March of this year, the location where the golden spike celebrated the completion of the transcontinental railway was changed from a historical site to the Golden Spike National Historical Park.

Hop aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder and enjoy a scenic ride that traces the footsteps of Lewis and Clark as it makes its way to destinations like Glacier National Park. Embark on the Southwest Chief for a majestic journey through the desert to Grand Canyon National Park. Enjoy the stunning scenery of the Rocky Mountains and the countryside along Interstate 80 aboard the California Zephyr.

Each national park provides a distinct and memorable experience, so choose one that fits you best. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous – visit them all.

All of the routes mentioned run daily, starting and ending in Chicago. The Lake Shore Limited services Chicago and also runs daily, with various stops throughout Ohio.

Grand Canyon National Park

Start making your plans to visit during its centennial celebration to take full advantage of everything the park has to offer. From hiking down into the canyon or just enjoying the view from the rim, the park provides something for those who love the outdoors.

The Grand Canyon Railway started taking visitors to the Grand Canyon before it was even a national park, back in 1901. Now, you can travel from Williams, Arizona, into the park and also spend the night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Be sure to ask about the AAA “Rails to the Rim” package. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief runs daily from Chicago to Williams, Arizona.

For a different experience, you can see the “other side” of the Grand Canyon by paying a visit to the North Rim, which is typically only open from May 15 through Oct. 15 because of snow. It also features lodging, restaurants and shops but is only frequented by 10 percent of the guests who visit the Grand Canyon.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is America’s oldest and largest national park.

Here, you’ll find more than 300 geysers, including Old Faithful, and hundreds of species of wild birds and exotic plants. Outdoor activities abound, including hiking, kayaking, fly fishing, skiing and snowshoeing.

Take the California Zephyr from Chicago to Salt Lake City, just 90 minutes south of Golden Spike National Historical Park.

Continue heading north to explore West Yellowstone’s lower loop, where you’ll see Old Faithful Geyser, the Old Faithful Inn, Isa Lake on the Continental Divide and other landmarks.

Glacier National Park

Deep valleys, ancient forests and alpine scenery are only part of what makes Montana’s Glacier National Park so utterly incredible. It’s also home to more than 130 pristine lakes, five national historic landmarks and more than one million acres that boast parts of two mountain ranges, more than 1,000 species of plants and hundreds of species of animals. There’s no better way to experience it than on Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago. The Amtrak station in Glacier National Park is located less than 300 steps away from Glacier Park Lodge, making it the most hassle-free way to travel.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park includes a significant mountain range in western North America that stretches more than 3,000 miles from the northernmost part of British Columbia in western Canada to New Mexico. This popular destination is mainly known for hiking, mountain biking and skiing. Tectonic activity and erosion over time by glaciers have sculpted the Rockies into dramatic peaks and valleys. With more than 300 miles of hiking trails, wildlife, and fun-filled days with starry nights, the Rockies offer an unparalleled mountain experience.

A guided tour is a great way to explore all the park’s must-see attractions. While the snowy mountains seem like the highlight of the park’s sights, 600-acre Grand Lake steals the show. Colorado’s biggest and deepest natural lake, Grand Lake stands firm at the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Like the Empire Builder, the California Zephyr gets you close, as the station in Granby, Colorado, is less than 15 miles from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, just beyond Grand Lake.

Amtrak offers a variety of plans and packages to build your perfect trip. You can create a package with tours of various cities and sites as well as hotel stays included, or work with your AAA Travel Agent to build your vacation, using Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass. The USA Rail Pass can be as short as 15 days with eight segments or as long as 45 days with 18 segments. And the fare for children ages 2-12 is 50 percent of an adult’s ticket when traveling with a full-fare paying adult. Amtrak also offers senior, military and group discounts. Speak with your Travel Agent to find the best deal for you. You’ll also want to look into various accommodations onboard your journey, which could vary depending on the route you choose.

Exploring our national parks by rail is an excellent alternative to traditional travel options, and Amtrak provides a personal adventure for travelers looking to check these destinations off their bucket lists.

Planning a trip shouldn’t be stressful. Leave it to our AAA travel agents to work with you each step of the way.

Spenser F. Barnes is a freelance writer based in California.