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Visiting National Parks by Train – Central and Western U.S.
In recent articles on the Traveler, we've discussed visiting national parks in Alaska and the eastern U.S. by train. As promised, here are some tips for riding the rails to parks in the central and western states.
In most cases, the obvious difference between train travel to eastern and western locales is the distance involved. While an Amtrak trek can certainly avoid some major traffic hassles in the big cities, a longer train trip across the wide open spaces in the West requires a different mind-set for travel. If you've got the time, enjoy the chance to view the passing scenery, and are comfortable with the more relaxed pace inherent in train travel, one of these trips may be for you.
A quick search of the Internet will turn up plenty of companies that specialize in complete packages for travel by train, so the following information is focused on independent travelers who prefer to make their own arrangements.
Here's a quick recap of tips for using the Amtrak website:
Start with the home page, where you can simply begin typing the name of a departure and destination city in the "From" and "To" fields. Enter the first few letters of the town correctly, and the rest of the name will be completed for you—if the town has Amtrak service. You'll also find a link to an alphabetical list of locations served, along with the three-letter station codes on that page. Note that some large cities include more than one station.
If you have a high speed Internet connection, the Interactive Route Atlas allows you to "search for stations and routes alphabetically, by state or by region. Each station and route shown on the map link to more information, including stations served, addresses, hours of operation and other details."
Ready to ponder a trip or two? Here are a few options for park-bound travelers.
Yosemite National Park (California) is one of the easiest major parks to visit by train—and without a car. Amtrak serves a station in Merced, California via their San Joaquin train; from Merced they offer a "Thruway Bus" connection between the train station and Mariposa, El Portal and Yosemite Valley.
The Thruway Bus option is available to a number of cities and towns in California; the service offers "direct train/bus transfers at train stations" and "coordinated fares and ticketing." Those fares must be purchased in advance as part of your rail trip. You'll find additional information about this option at this link.
Once in the park, you can use the free park shuttle to reach major destinations in Yosemite. Check on the shuttle schedules before making a trip, since they vary seasonally. The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System also provides bus transportation between the park and Merced.
Glacier National Park (Montana). Glacier's connection to railroad travel dates to the earliest days of the park, when the Great Northern Railroad had an active role in promoting the park and building hotels and other visitor facilities. Today, you can ride Amtrak's Empire Builder, which make the run between Chicago and Seattle. The train skirts the southern boundary of the park, with stops at both East Glacier Park and West Glacier.
The Belton Chalet at West Glacier was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1910 and offers a lodging option with a railroad history. The same is true of other hotels in the park now operated by the park concessioner, Glacier Park, Inc. The Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier is located near the Amtrak station.
Although the lack of a vehicle can make getting around in the park a bit difficult, options include tours in the classic Red Jammer buses during the summer. The tours can be arranged at the Belton Chalet and concessioner-operated hotels in the park. Glacier operates a free shuttle along the justly famous Going-to-the-Sun Road from about July 1 to early September, and it makes a stop at a limited number of lodging locations in the West Glacier area and the St. Mary area on the east side of the park. Check this link on the park website to see if the shuttle would meet your needs for in-park transportation. If you elect to rent a car after arriving in the area by train, you'll find a wide variety of lodging options in the area.
Roughly halfway between the East Glacier Park and West Glacier stations, the train also makes a flag stop (on demand only) at Essex, Montana, home of the Izaak Walton Inn. Serious train buffs may enjoy a stay at this historic railroad hotel.
You can rent a car in those towns to get to the South Rim, take a Thruway Bus from Flagstaff to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, or for a complete train experience, take the Grand Canyon Railway between Williams and the South Rim. Under the current schedule for the Southwest Chief, eastbound passengers arrive in Williams and Flagstaff in the late evening, and will need to spend the night there to connect to either the Grand Canyon Railway or the bus to the park the next morning.
Once you arrive at the Grand Canyon, the park's free shuttle system makes it easy to get around the South Rim without a car. Check that link on the park website for details, since the shuttle service varies seasonally.
Pacific Northwest Parks. Although no direct connection is offered by Amtrak to destinations such as Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park, the train offers an alternative to flying into Seattle. Once there, a rental car or other ground transportation arrangements will be needed for visitors arriving by either train or air. Several trains connect Seattle with Los Angeles (the Coast Starlight), Chicago (the Empire Builder), and points in between.
Other Parks in the West and Midwest. Numerous NPS sites can be reached by the combination of a train trip and a rental car, and the scenery along part of those routes is a bonus you won't get if you arrive in the gateway cities by air.
One example is the California Zephyr, which travels between Chicago and the outskirts of San Francisco at Emeryville, California. The leg of this trip between Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado, offers some superb scenery, and provides access to Rocky Mountain National Park (via the station in Granby, CO) and Colorado National Monument (via Grand Junction). The station at Green River, Utah offers a possible gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, although you'll have a wider range of options for rental vehicles in Grand Junction. A printable route guide offers a brief description of things you'll see along every Amtrak route; click here for the guide for the California Zephyr.
Gateway towns for several California parks can also be reached by train. The Pacific Surfliner runs between San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo; stops at Ventura and Santa Barbara offer access to Channel Islands National Park.
A favorite for rail buffs is the train known as the Coast Starlight. Amtrak offers the following description:
Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes, the Coast Starlight links the greatest cities on the West Coast. En route daily between Seattle and Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight passes through Portland, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Barbara.
The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is unsurpassed. The dramatic snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range and Mount Shasta, lush forests, fertile valleys and long stretches of Pacific Ocean shoreline provide a stunning backdrop for your journey.
This route offers access to San Francisco and numerous NPS sites in the Bay Area, including Point Reyes National Seashore, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and Muir Woods National Monument.
The Texas Eagle makes daily trips connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas and San Antonio. NPS sites on and near this train's route include Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the Gateway Arch) in St. Louis and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in San Antonio, Texas.
Three times a week, the Texas Eagle connects in San Antonio with the Sunset Limited, which runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles. If you arrange for a rental car or other ground transportation when you arrive at the gateway town, the Sunset Limited offers access to Big Bend National Park (via the station in Alpine, Texas) and Joshua Tree National Park (via Palm Springs, California).
If you enjoy train travel, options worth considering are Amtrak's USA Rail Passes and California Rail Pass, which can save you some money on longer trips with multiple stops.
Passengers on longer train excursions will find the trip to be much more enjoyable if they arrange for private sleeping accommodations. Along with sit-down meals in the dining car, those upgrades are some of the amenities that make travel by train a unique experience—if you're willing to pay the toll. You'll find links to details on options for sleeping, seating, dining and other on-board options at this link.
National park fans may find one other bonus on some Amtrak routes. The "Trails and Rails" programs is a cooperative effort between the NPS and Amtrak that puts interpreters (usually volunteers) from selected parks on some trains, usually during the peak visitor season. Check the Trails and Rails website for additional information; the page on the Amtrak website for each individual train also indicates if that route participates in the program.
Looking for an option to jet-setting or spending hours behind the wheel of your car? A trip by rail may be "just the ticket."