The 10 Most Fun Heritage Railways in America
The many heritage railways in the United States are museums of moving history—a reminder of the industrial age that shaped and continues to shape the country in profound ways. Often, they’re also top-notch excursions: ideal scenic day trips that will take you through everything from the mountains of the Alaskan panhandle to the spruce forests of West Virginia. We’ve brought you ten of the very best heritage lines in the country. All aboard!
Roaring Camp Railroads was the brainchild of Norman Clark, who came from a family of railroad builders and who dreamed of preserving both the spirit of early California and the state's stunning redwoods by constructing a park where logging would be off limits. The company, opened in 1963 in Santa Cruz County, operates two lines, both about a 75-minute drive south of San Francisco. The Santa Cruz Beach Train, which goes from Roaring Camp down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, runs along the 1875 Santa Cruz & Felton route. The Redwood Forest Steam Train, meanwhile, runs along a wooded route with trestles. The 19th-century geared locomotives are better able to negotiate steep inclines than conventional steam trains.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is an image of the Old West. It was originally part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, constructed in 1882 to haul silver and gold ore from the mines of the San Juan Mountains. Not long thereafter, the Panic of 1893 struck, and the ensuing drop in the price of silver crippled the area’s mining industry. Aided by modest revenue from passengers, the railroad limped on until Florida citrus grower Charles Bradshaw bought the Silverton branch and rebranded it as a tourist line in 1980. Today, the railroad’s vintage 1920s steam trains run along a 45-mile stretch along the Animas River through pristine pine-covered mountains. The highly acclaimed heritage railway is also a federally designated National Historic Landmark.
Short of the Polar Express, the White Pass and Yukon is probably the northernmost place you’ll ever ride a steam train. The line was built in a narrow gauge (slightly smaller than the conventional standard gauge) to cut expenses and save on construction time, so crews blasted through mountains to build the line in an astonishingly quick three years. From the beginning, it doubled as a passenger line, and the current route links Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory, with the port of Skagway. Many cruise ships that stop here offer outings on the railroad as shore excursions. The line traverses craggy peaks, winds around glacial lakes, and through stately pine forests, offering breathtaking vistas along the way. Tip: Remember to take your passport, as most excursions cross the U.S.-Canadian border.
The 64-mile line connects Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado, crossing back and forth between the two states 11 times along the way, winding through high desert and pine forests. Like the Durango and Silverton, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad was originally part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway serving the mines of the San Juan Mountains. It’s also a National Historic Landmark—between wildlife spotting, rugged landscapes, and the romance of its steam locomotives, it’s deserving of the title. The Cumbres and Toltec was the USA Today Readers’ Choice train ride of 2016.
This relatively short excursion is a perfect ride for the whole family. Running on what was once part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the federally designated national historic district boasts a full calendar of themed events, including a Hayride Express and a Wild West Robbery aboard a collection of historic steam and diesel engines. This heritage line, which celebrated its 50th anniversary of tourist service this year, takes visitors through the rolling hills outside of Wilmington.
What’s now the Cass Scenic Railroad was originally constructed in 1901 to haul lumber for the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company. The once-prolific mill at Cass is no longer active, but the 11-mile train ride from the company town is still stunning. Restored geared locomotives pull riders up steep switchbacks to the top of Bald Knob, the third-highest mountain in West Virginia. The railroad tops out at an altitude of 4,700 feet, so riders can expect dramatic vistas (and chilly weather).
Naturalist John Muir, regarded as the "Father of the National Parks," once rode the Grand Canyon Railway and is said to have praised it for its limited environmental impact. When it first opened in 1901, the line was one of the only ways to see the Grand Canyon, but Muir would doubtless have mixed feelings about the subsequent construction of the interstate highway system that now often allows throngs of visitors to crowd the nature reserve. The ride begins in Williams, Arizona, and ends at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park—one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service. Like so many of these heritage railways, it was built to serve the area's mines, but the railroad's backers recognized its potential for tourism from the very beginning.
Steamtown is the spot for serious train buffs. While this National Historic Site offers seasonal outings (check the calendar before going), the central attraction is a museum with an enormous collection of historic steam locomotives and other railroad equipment. As you wander around the 40-acre rail yard surveying the great iron beasts of industry, you’ll gain a visceral understanding of the area’s history: Scranton was deep in coal country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and railroad infrastructure was crucial to its economic success. This was not genteel work. It was loud and sometimes dangerous, and at Steamtown you’ll see the scale and power of the machinery that made it possible.
This 25-mile route between Rusk and Palestine, Texas, was originally a prison enterprise. Built in 1881 by inmates in the state prison system, it was meant to transport raw materials to the iron works housed in the Rusk Penitentiary. It has since changed hands several times, and in its current form the railroad's steam and diesel engines take riders through the forests of East Texas between elegant Victorian-style depots. The railroad offers a popular Polar Express ride during the holiday season.
The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad offers more than just train rides, with special events ranging from wine-tasting to murder-mystery excursions. Those are nicely complemented by the route’s varied and picturesque route. The 16-mile line from Cumberland to Frostburg, Maryland, snakes through the Allegheny Mountains and passes farms and forests alongside the Potomac River.