If you’re lucky enough to live in a city or a country with a bustling rail network, chances are you’ve rarely thought of train travel as little more than a modern convenience (and certainly preferable to a bus). But the history of rail travel – both from a commercial and commuter level – is one that tracks (pun intended) the very history of our technological advances from the steam age. This is particularly evident across the vastness of North America, where rail lines became the lifeblood of communities – often being their only connection to supplies and services. Still to this day you’ll find parts of the country where that’s true.
But, for the most part, they are far less relied upon today thanks to the availability of faster and often cheaper transport alternatives. This has left the country with a number of unused or under utilised rail lines. Never ones to shy away from a tourist opportunity, the very existence of these lines – and the trains that used to work on them – are now seen as a way to travel back in time, rather than take you anywhere new. These “scenic” experiences, offer a chance to view the area from a unique lens, whilst riding a preserved-in-time form of transit, before taking you right back to where you parked your car.
Here’s a look at some of the finest vintage train and scenic rail experiences in the US and Canada. We’ll start with a service in New England that adds a five course dinner to the experience…
Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train (North Woodstock, NH)
In New England, in a beautiful area dubbed “The Gateway to the White Mountains” – North Woodstock, NH – sits a twenty mile rail track that in the early 1800s was a timberline occupied by The Boston and Maine Railroad.
Today, the track houses the Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train, a set of restored 1950’s vintage rail cars that offer a five course dinner over a two hour, 32km (twenty mile) trip as the sun sets. The best seats on the train are in the dome, where I was lucky enough to sit, offering an incredible view of the sunset and the surrounding areas.
They only operate seasonally – from the late days of Spring in May, until the leaves change colour and fall to the ground in October. The menu, which changes each season (see their latest HERE), is delicious and of high quality, with a number of options to choose from – including vegetarian and gluten free choices. They give you your menu for the day as soon as you check in, so you have plenty of time to make a decision on what you’re going too eat.
The service is fantastic, the experience one-of-a-kind and as you head south you’ll see everything from a jack-o-lantern golf course, to a Christmas Tree farm, and no less than three trestle bridges that the train passes over, before turning around to return to where you started. A truly magical place to enjoy a meal – and it’s an experience you should absolutely add to your bucket list.
For bookings and more details, head to https://www.nhdinnertrain.com/.
While it may be the only “Dinner Train” we know of in the area, this certainly isn’t the only scenic train travel in New Hampshire. In Lincoln you’ll find Hobo Railroad, which offers “old-fashioned Train Rides along the western shore of Lake Winnipesaukee or along the Pemigewasset River”, and the Conway Scenic Railroad, in Conway, NH. That trip is an 18km (11 mile), 55 minute round trip experience, leaving from a 1874-built Victorian North Conway train station, and riding on a Steam locomotive built in Montreal in 1921.
Verde Canyon Railroad (Clarkdale, AZ)
On the other side of the country, in Clarkdale, Arizona, a few hours away from the Grand Canyon, you’ll find the Verde Canyon Railroad. This scenic service operates on a line that originally opened for commercial purposes since 1912, before becoming this fabulous tourism attraction in 1990. Like in New England, here you travel along the 32km (twenty mile) stretch of railroad, and back again.
The carriages date back to the 30s, with the car I rode in – the Santa Fe – still enjoys all the original trimmings from 1938. Along the way, you enjoy classic songs about riding the train (see: Johnny Cash, the original “Locomotion”, etc.), and prerecorded narration along the four hour journey as you enjoy a lunch, and some drinks and snacks. And though the sun beams down, there are open carriages for you to take in the fresh air and the surrounds of the picturesque canyon. It’s truly something special.
Read more about my adventures in and around the Grand Canyon in Arizona HERE, including a look at the Grand Canyon Railway (pictured below), which takes you between Williams, Arizona and the Grand Canyon – and back again. That trip, which does provide an option to stay overnight or return later that day, adds to the experience with a fake robbery en route, and other experiences that aim to take you back to the days when the train first operated.
Portage Flyer Train at Muskoka Heritage Place (Huntsville, Ontario)
In Huntsville, Ontario, about three hours north of Toronto, you’ll find the Rotary Village Station at 100 Forbes Hill Drive, part of Muskoka Heritage Place. Here sits the Portage Flyer Train, a steam train that operated from 1904 not far from this location.
At its inception, it held the honour as the world’s smallest commercial railroad, travelling along The Muskoka River between North and South Portage Ontario near the village of Dwight. While its current journey isn’t exactly the same route it took up until 1959, the 30 minute return journey between Rotary Village Station and Fairy Lake Station still sits alongside The Muskoka River, and gives guests the opportuinty to learn more about the history of this train, and Steam Trains in general, thanks to the Steam Museum that sits at the Rotary Village Station.
Like most of the trains on this list, this is an experience meant to not just give you a chance for some unique sightseeing, but also for the chance to sit on a train beaming with history. But it’s not a service that runs for long – The Portage Flyer steam train is only in operation from the beginning of July until the end of August.
Head HERE for more details about how to jump on this historic train, and to learn more about its history.
The Steam Trains at Disneyland (Anaheim, CA)
Walt Disney was a well known train enthusiast, so the fact that a steam train sat at the entrance of Disneyland when it opened on July 17, 1955, may have come as little surprise to those who knew the man.
It’s one of 13 opening day attractions that still operate at the park, serving as both a transportation tool to move around the park, and an opportunity to ride locomotives from the turn of the century. You may even spot some dinosaurs along the journey; and ultimately it’s meant to be enjoyed in a full loop, whether bit by bit across the day, or all in one go.
One of the two original steam engines that debuted with the park on July 17th, 1955, actually returned to service in March of this year – the E.P. Ripley – as the Disney100 celebrations continue at the park. The train takes its name from Edward Payson Ripley, one of the founders of the Atchison and Topeka Railroad (later the Santa Fe Railroad, established in 1859).
For more details about the park, head to https://disneyland.disney.go.com/
Trains are something you’ll find at plenty of theme parks and tourist attractions around the USA – even the Santa Barbara Zoo has a railroad that runs around its exterior. Freedomland U.S.A. – a park that ran from 1960 to 1964 in New York) – used to have trains where they would do fake robberies. You’ll note that the Grand Canyon Railroad continues that tradition. And then there’s the Hogwarts Express, at Universal Studios Orlando, which is both a real train that runs between the two sections of the Harry Potter section of the theme park, and doubles as an audio visual experience that takes the characters from the film and puts them on board. It’s a pretty impressive experience given it only travels 676 metres (2,218 feet).
Georgetown Loop Mining Railroad (Georgetown, CO)
Getting to experience the Rocky Mountains by rail is something that everyone should do once in their lives, and just 72km (45 miles) west of Denver, you can do just that with the Georgetown Loop Railroad and Mining Park. The train ride takes around an hour, with the option to depart from one of two stations that sit two miles apart – Silver Plume or Georgetown – which will also be where you return. You can also add a silver mine tour to the experience, and learn how to pan for gold, making this a prime location for school field trips.
The three-foot narrow gauge railroad was completed in 1884, running 7.2 km (4.5 miles), and ascending 195.1 m (640 feet). Steam locomotives #40 and #111 service the route, having being originally constructed in 1919 and 1924, respectively, by Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, for the International Railways of Central America, where they worked until the 1960’s.
They offer departures seven days a week from June to September, with select dates for the rest of the year.
For a full schedule and more details, head here: https://www.georgetownlooprr.com/
Agawa Canyon Tour Train (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario)
If you want to enjoy a longer scenic journey, look no further than the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, seven hours north west of Toronto, on the Michigan border. This journey will take your whole day, with a four hour journey across 183 km (114 miles) to Agawa Canyon Park, a 90 minute stop in said park, and a four and a half hour trip back. In this respect, it’s not unlike the Grand Canyon Railway mentioned earlier – where while you do have a destination, you end up where you started at the end of the day.
As you leave the city, the train gets lost in the wilderness, with the mixed forests of the Canadian Shield leading to the shores of lakes, rivers and eventually the Agawa Canyon, which you descend into across the last ten miles of the journey. A GPS triggered audio commentary helps tell the history of the area, and additional cameras on the exterior of the train can be viewed on screens inside, to accompany what you see outside the large tinted windows.
Head here for more details: https://agawatrain.com/
Green Mountain Railroad (Burlington, VT)
And finally, we return to New England for another dinner-by-return-rail experience. The Champlain Valley Dinner Train in Burlington, Vermont, is a three hour return journey that takes you to Middlebury and back, accompanied by a three course meal, cocktails and a beautiful sunset over Lake Champlain.
For more details head here: http://www.rails-vt.com/cvdinnertrain
The Green Mountain Railroad also offer a cocktail and live music focused event on Saturdays, called the Cocktails on the Rails. All of these experiences are set in classic 1930s dining cars designed to transport passengers back to the “golden age of trains”, which, ultimately, all the experiences on this list are trying to do.
For fans of the history of trains, train travel, of unique scenic experiences in general, and of great food, be sure to look up these experiences the next time you’re travelling around North America – this list surely only scratches the surface of what’s available in the US and Canada.
With thanks to Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train and Verde Canyon Railroad, who provided experiences to the author. Photos by the author unless otherwise credited.