Extraordinary landscapes and wildlife, untouched nature and quiet trails to meander for hours (with a good map and plenty of water, of course): America’s national parks make for a great summer alternative to your usual beach vacation.
Many don’t even require a car to visit. Several Amtrak routes travel in fact to or near some of these epic natural playgrounds, meaning you can bid farewell to highway traffic and money spent on gas, and focus instead on soaking in the views as you sit in plush seats with plenty of space for your camping gear.
Best of all, these journeys are often pretty scenic themselves, passing by dense trees and deep-blue rivers, vast canyons, and jaw-dropping gorges.
There’s something quite nostalgic—adventurous, even—about setting out to discover America’s wilderness by train. The slow ride becomes an experience itself, harkening back to a time when the world was explored at a leisurely pace.
These Amtrak national parks train rides are among the best to access five of the United States’ most stunning parks. Take note, then book one—or two—for the months ahead. Your inner explorer will thank you.
Yosemite National Park, California
The country’s third oldest park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Yosemite knows how to wow. Giant sequoias, plunging waterfalls, and majestic granite cliffs—hello El Capitan and Half Dome—welcome visitors to this untouched side of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, offering outdoor adventures spanning rock climbing, rafting, and horseback riding, as well as plenty of beautiful hiking paths.
The Amtrak San Joaquins train from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Sacramento (and Fresno seasonally) is the most stress-free way to get there. On the way, you’ll ride through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, home to fields of tomatoes, peach trees, and almond orchards, before arriving in the small town of Merced. A connecting YARTS bus (which is included in the train ticket) takes you all the way into Yosemite from there, via the Arch Rock Entrance. You can also get off farther south at the Fresno train station and take YARTS through the South Entrance instead. The total travel time is close to six hours, but you’ll skip traffic lines and parking headaches, and arrive at Yosemite ready to explore.
Plan to stay at least two days (if camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of rustic-chic options near the park), and include a stop at the Tunnel View lookout or El Capitan Meadow to snap a photo of El Capitan and marvel at the tumbling Bridalveil Falls. Not a pro-hiker? Rent a bike for an easy eight-mile ride to the Mirror Lake Trailhead, which boasts frontal views of the Half Dome.
Glacier National Park, Montana
With glacier-carved peaks and valleys running to the Canadian border, 700 miles of hiking trails, and over 130 spectacular lakes—don’t miss the Hidden Lake—Glacier National Park shows off the sheer beauty of Montana’s Rocky Mountains range. This is a haven for serious hikers, and a park so big you might want to plan at least a four-night visit, split between the West Glacier and the East Glacier (two different sides of the park), as they each have very different views, trails, wildlife, and even weather.
To reach it, hop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. The route is almost as atmospheric as the park itself, snaking through major portions of the Lewis and Clark trail, across the North Dakota plains and through Big Sky country in Montana, with majestic landscapes from start to finish. Once you arrive at Glacier National Park, you can choose to get off on the western or eastern side—or opt for the halfway stop of Essex, in the park’s southernmost area.
Don’t leave without hitting the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which climbs up and over the Continental Divide and is said to be the US's most stunning 50-mile road. No car? No problem. Red Jammer Buses, a series of vintage touring vehicles that are as iconic to Glacier National Park as any of its natural features, run several trips along the road and around the park daily.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
For a true “slow travel” experience, board the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles and enjoy the otherworldly views of the great American Southwest as you head to the Grand Canyon, one of the world’s seven natural wonders. The unique geological site draws some six million visitors a year, and for good reason: Few places on the planet hold that same timeless beauty.
This Amtrak national parks train takes you there in about 43 hours, riding along the Mississippi river and through seven states (it’s eight with California, its final destination), past missions and pueblos, ranches and wheat fields, desert areas and mountain ranges.
You’ll zigzag through winding canyon passages that are barely wider than the train car, before hopping off on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. From here, catch a Thruway bus connection to the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona—a century-old railway that screams wild wild West, with cowboy characters and folk musicians on board to keep you entertained.
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Word to the wise: New Mexico and Colorado boast some of the best daytime vistas, so make sure to get a good seat in the Sightseer Lounge or Dining Car. For a touch of extra privacy and comfort, book a bedroom or roomette, then check into one of the many lovely accommodations in the area.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Indiana Dunes National Park joined the national parks ranks in 2019. It’s easy to see why: With over 15,000 acres of dunes, oak savannas, wetlands, marshes, rivers, and forests, this oasis along the southern shore of Lake Michigan is home to some of the most diverse natural ecosystems in the country.
It is also one of the easiest parks to visit on Amtrak. All you have to do is board one of the three Michigan Services lines from Chicago to Pontiac, Missouri, for a ride that passes through the Midwest’s gorgeous grounds, from stunning lakeshores and undulating hills to grasslands, lakes, and lush woods. Get off at Michigan City, and you’ll be only a few miles away from the main entrance. From there, go marvel at the 126-feet-tall dune known as Mount Baldy—a wandering dune that moves or shifts every year—then delve into the almost 70 miles of biking and hiking trails. Or, if it’s especially hot, head to one of Indiana Dunes National Park’s great beaches.
Besides camping grounds, the best accommodation nearby is the Brewery Lodge and Supper Club, a quaint boutique hotel surrounded by woods, streams, and ponds.
Harpers Ferry Historical National Park, West Virginia
At the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in West Virginia, Harpers Ferry Historical National Park blends scenic trails, dense forest, museums, and historical landmarks (the 19th-century town of Harpers Ferry itself has a rich past).
This is the site of the 1859 John Brown’s Raid, an effort by abolitionist John Brown to initiate a slave revolt in Southern states by taking over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry; and the place where the first successful American railroad began service in 1836. But it’s also a nature lover’s paradise, with thick woodlands and a section of the Appalachian Trail cutting through its grounds.
Amtrak's Capitol Limited line between Washington, DC, and Chicago stops in Harpers Ferry seven days a week (although reservations are required), arriving at a depot inside the park. En route, it crosses over the B&O bridge from Maryland to West Virginia, delivering pretty great views of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the way.
Once you’re here, head for the trails (there are some 20 miles of them) or visit the historical town with a guided tour. Staying the night? Harper Ferry’s Lower Town Historic District offers a few good accommodations in restored inns and cottages.