The 10 Best North American Rail Trips Under $25
By Sascha Segan
Sometimes getting there is more than half the fun, especially if you're traveling on a train. The U.S. and Canada are blessed with dozens of scenic railroads, but they all have three flaws: Their schedules are sporadic, they tend to lack terminals in popular tourist locations, and they're typically expensive.
Enter our beloved (and at times besieged) national railways, Amtrak and VIA Rail, along with their commuter-rail cousins. On these public lines, you can get tickets on some scenic journeys for well under $25 each way. Many routes have more than one train per day, and you can feel free to stay overnight or to return by train, bus, or car.
If you're looking for an affordable getaway, consider a scenic trip on one of these top public railway lines. We've also included one private railway where the view is well worth the under-$25 ticket price.
Courtesy of Amtrak
Vermont: Brattleboro to White River Junction, from $14 each way
The once-daily Vermonter offers an affordable way to meander through the Green Mountain State. The 90-minute segment between Brattleboro and White River Junction follows the Connecticut River, taking in small New England towns, low mountain vistas, and covered bridges. White River Junction is full of art studios and coffee shops; you can stay there, take a bus back, or continue on another two hours to Burlington.
West Virginia: Charleston to Hinton, from $16 each way
The spectacular New River Gorge is the star of this day trip on Amtrak's once-daily Cardinal train. Along the two-hour trip from Charleston (in West Virginia, not South Carolina), you pass Sandstone Falls, watch rivers split and join, see hawks wheel in the sky, and cross rugged terrain where no roads go. Hinton is home to a quirky little wooden clock museum and is a great base for hiking in the gorge.
Colorado: Denver to Granby, from $24 each way
Climb into the Rockies on this perfectly timed Amtrak day trip aboard the California Zephyr train. The two-and-a-half-hour trip goes up, winding up the Front Range above Denver and far into the Rocky Mountains, passing the Winter Park ski resort along with several canyons and tunnels that you wouldn't be able to view from a car. Granby is known as the gateway to Rocky Mountains National Park.
New York State: New York City to Cold Spring/Beacon, from $14/$16 each way
The humble Metro-North Hudson Line—one of the greatest bargains in American railroading—cruises right up the Hudson River at least once per hour. From the left side of the train going north and the right side going south, you ride along the edge of the river with an often-unobstructed view of the New Jersey Palisades and some grand bridges. About an hour north of the city you'll encounter two great little destinations one stop apart: Cold Spring, well-known for its antique shops, and Beacon, with a gigantic contemporary art museum (Dia:Beacon) and a scrappy, slightly scruffy main street of quirky restaurants and stores.
Oregon: Portland to Bingen, Washington, $11
The Columbia River Gorge is Portland’s playground, and there’s a daily Amtrak train which takes you there, every afternoon. The short trip from Portland to Bingen-White Salmon station in Washington state takes an hour and a half, and puts you just a short cab ride away from Hood River, full of charming B&Bs and walking paths. You can take the train back the next morning or wait for the afternoon’s Greyhound bus, which costs about the same as the train. Our attractions map gives you some great ideas of what to do in Hood River.
Washington: Seattle to Everett, $5
The northbound Sounder hugs the Puget Sound coast, delivering gorgeous waterfront views for the duration of its hourlong journey. Sit on the left, going northbound, for blue water, forested islands, and, if you’re lucky, orcas. Unfortunately, the train schedule doesn’t support round-trips from Seattle, but there’s a Sound Transit express bus back every 15 minutes. Trains leave northbound between 4:05pm and 5:35pm; take the bus back.
Courtesy of Amtrak
California: San Diego to San Juan Capistrano, from $22 each way
The frequent Pacific Surfliner trains hug the Southern California coastline on the pleasant 90-minute journey from San Diego to the beach town of San Juan Capistrano, with its authentic mission-era architecture and compact downtown area. After taking in the town, you can return to San Diego or head further north to Disneyland and Los Angeles—although the scenery gets less attractive as you enter L.A.'s megacity sprawl.
California: Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo, from $22 each way
From Ventura to San Luis Obispo (pictured), the Pacific Surfliner train hugs the Pacific coastline for 102 miles, making it a great ride for views. There's a morning and afternoon train each day, and you can get on as far south as L.A. or even San Diego—although coming north from L.A. you have to pass some dull suburbia before you hit the ocean. If you leave from Santa Barbara, this section takes you between two historic yet laid-back central California coast towns, amid two-and-a-half hours of blue vistas.
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Canada: Toronto to Niagara Falls, from $18.49 each way
You've got great attractions at both ends of this popular trip: the towering city of Toronto and dramatic Niagara Falls. Leaving Toronto, the train hugs Lake Ontario—on a clear day, you can see Rochester, New York. After some ambling through small cities like Hamilton, the train comes around the other side of the lake, rolling through wine country with the Toronto skyline across the water on the left. If you’re interested in the journey, you have to look for the once-daily VIA Rail train, as there are also a bunch of local GO Transit itineraries which turn into a bus about halfway. They’re convenient for getting back, though.
Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway
Pennsylvania: Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, $14
The United States is crisscrossed with “heritage railways,” great little journeys that let you spend some time on a train as part of a longer road trip. Most of them are more expensive than our $25 limit, but the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway is a true bargain at $13. Based in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, it’s only 90 minutes away from Philadelphia and much of suburban New Jersey. You get a 70-minute ride through beautiful low mountains in 1917-era coaches pulled by diesel engines. For another five bucks or so, you can ride in an open-air car.