A trip to a U.S. or Canadian national park by train is a two-fold pleasure: the ride to the park, and the time you actually spend in the park. The combination is unbeatable for those who enjoy viewing the journey from a ring-side seat and also prefer nature vacations.
There are a number of Amtrak trains that travel to or close to U.S. National Parks. In Canada, you can travel by Via Rail or chose the Rocky Mountaineer.
In the U.S., Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels from Chicago to Glacier National Park in Montana. Another Amtrak train - the San Joaquin -- travels to Sequoia National Park as well as close to Yosemite National Park, both in California. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, stops just minutes away from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, or you can pick up the Grand Canyon Railway via a bus connection at Williams Junction, Arizona, to Williams, 65 miles south of Grand Canyon. However you choose to see the Grand Canyon, don’t miss it.
Whichever park and train combination you choose, you can’t lose. Each park has unique features and appeal. We chose Amtrak’s Empire Builder for our trip to Glacier National Park, and began our journey at Union Station in Washington, DC.
First, we boarded the Capitol Limited for a 17-hour ride to Chicago. Depending on which day you travel, the trip can take up to 24 hours.
With several hours until the Empire Builder headed west, we had time to visit the Chicago Art Institute with a friend before boarding the next train. For the journey west, we chose a sleeping car. The second leg of the trip passed through Minneapolis, St. Paul, to Spokane, and on to Portland or Seattle. We chose Seattle, where we met with another friend. A major attraction en route was Glacier National Park.
Part of the excitement was getting off the train at Essex, Montana, where there was just a platform, no shelter. This set the tone for the trip, and heralded the remoteness and rugged nature of the park.
We felt far removed from the workaday life we were living in Alexandria, Virginia, a city of about 150,000 just outside of Washington, DC. We hadn’t spent much time in the Western part of the county, except in California, and can still envision the park’s landscape filled with glaciers, lakes and evergreen forests set off by jagged mountains unlike most we’d seen before. We were awed by the enormity of the park -- more than 1 million acres and more than 740 miles of trails.
The white world of snow and ice was a perfect place for us to try snowshoeing, mountain biking on ice-covered roads and hiking on snow-covered trails. If you tend to be athletic and don’t mind the cold for limited periods of time, this is a challenge worth the effort! Just make sure you’re dressed for the weather.
One place to stay is the Izaak Walton Inn & Resort, which at the edge of the park in Essex. You’ll be conveniently situated to enjoy the park, then retreat to the historic lodge. Another option at the inn is to stay in a one-of-a-kind luxury rail car featuring gas fireplaces in the master bedroom, heated floor and full kitchens. Each car has space for up to four people, so it can be suitable for families.
Even if you prefer warm-weather vacations, the Glacier Park trip allows you to stretch your idea of leisure to include a half-day guided snow-shoe tour and the mountain ice biking in April.
Slow down long enough to take in the views - lakes, evergreen, rugged mountain peaks. Established as a park in 1910, Glacier has 131 named lakes and 631 lakes without names. Find the ones you like! www.amtrak.com
CANADIAN RAIL TRAVEL
Traveling by train in Canada means a myriad of experiences. If you choose an adventure in Canada, consider Jasper National Park.
One of the most exciting parts of the trip is stopping at the Athabasca Glacier, which is accessible by sno-coaches that drive across the ice, allowing passengers to get out and walk on the ice. Watching the blue-white waters rush just beneath the surface of sections of the ice is mesmerizing. Glaciers won’t last forever, and hidden cracks can be dangerous. Stay within the barriers for your own safety. Walking the glacier imprints images that can last a lifetime.
VIA Rail, Canada’s largest passenger rail service, takes passengers to several national parks in Canada. The Canadian, which travels between Toronto and Vancouver stopping in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Jasper, goes to Jasper National Park, Banff National Park and Elk Island National Park. The Jasper-Prince Rupert train also goes near Jasper National Park; travelers can take a Brewster shuttle transfer from the Jasper Station or rent a car to reach Banff National Park. The Winnipeg-Churchill train brings passengers to the Northern region of Manitoba, where polar bears, caribou, beluga whales and elk abound. Travelers can reach Riding Mountain National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, via the Winnipeg-Churchill route, as it is just eight miles north of Dauphin. Visit www.viarail.ca or www.freshtrackscanada.com.