Train rides of all types—from steam train jaunts that chug a few miles into the woods to Amtrak Superliner endurance rides that span the continent—are most popular in the summertime. But taking winter trip can be even more exhilarating. Instead of admiring the moving landscape from an air-conditioned coach, passengers watch mountains turn from green to white and icicle-laden boughs from the heated comfort of their cozy quarters. A flurry of holiday-themed trains between Thanksgiving and New Year’s add an extra dollop of fun, especially for families. Here are eight holiday trips to celebrate the season. All aboard!
The Polar Express: Nationwide
The Polar Express, a Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book and Tom Hanks movie, is re-created in 40 Polar Express rides in 24 states (plus eight trains in Canada and England combined), putting more than a million annual passengers in train seats. The story is read and performed by onboard actors, while Santa, his elves, and dancing chefs who serve hot chocolate and treats add to the fun en route to the “North Pole.” Most are on heritage railroads in scenic spots like the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, and the Catskills.
Aurora Winter Train: Alaska
This seasonal scenic train heads north from Anchorage to the snow-covered peaks of Denali, America’s tallest mountain. You can detrain after three hours at Talkeetna to Nordic ski in the shadow of Denali—and with any luck spot a trackside moose—or continue on for another nine hours to Fairbanks for some epic northern lights viewing. Trains leave every Saturday morning, with return trips every Sunday. Select midweek departures between Thanksgiving and March let you return after a few days, if you want more time to explore.
Christmas Story Train: Strasburg, Pennsylvania
Cutting through Pennsylvania Dutch country in Lancaster County, Strasburg is America’s oldest short-line railroad, operating since the mid-1800s. Hear Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” come alive on the Christmas story train while passing through the countryside. Holiday excursions also include Santa trains and a Christmas Tree train—with a stop to load your chosen tree onto a flatcar to take home.
Canyon & Christmas trains: Arizona
“Snowbirds” who escape the Midwest chill in December by flocking to Arizona still pine for memories of a Christmas away from the desert. No worries. With a short drive from Phoenix to Clarkdale (near Sedona), they will see pinion pines and red rock buttes hugging the Verde River on the four-hour Verde Canyon train. During the holiday season, climb aboard the Magical Christmas Journey express ride to the “North Pole.” Santa’s Workshop and an ugly sweater factory are among a dozen holiday sights kids see.
The Ski Train: Colorado
The Ski Train is a joyride even for non-skiers. The double-decker ride connects Denver’s 1914 Beaux-Arts station with the Winter Park ski area. One minute you’re in downtown Denver’s stunning Beaux-Arts Union Station, and two hours later, you’re stepping off the train, 100 feet from a Winter Park ski lift. See breathtaking views of the Flatirons as you chug above Boulder, then more vistas while snaking into the Rockies before crossing beneath the Continental Divide in a six-mile-long tunnel. Trains run from January 14 to April 3 on the weekends.
Amtrak California Zephyr: Chicago to San Francisco
Long-distance train trippers adore the Zephyr in any season, but winter adds the appeal of sugary snow outside the window as you roar over the Rockies and Sierras—and in between, Utah’s Red Rock Country. Departing daily all winter from both Chicago and San Francisco, the 51-hour odyssey offers hotel-level service in a bedroom or suite with a private bathroom and shower. Or, break up the trip with stops to sleep (and ski) in Denver or Salt Lake City.
Holiday Trains: Arkansas and Missouri
A & M train rides aboard antique parlor and coach cars encompass an array of 10 different holiday-themed excursions in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri. These range from one-hour Santa trains to a Christmas parade train to watch holiday floats light up the night. The railroad also runs three-hour scenic rides into the Boston Mountains (part of the Ozarks) and on trestles across the Arkansas River Basin.
Cascade Canyon Winter Train: Colorado
This memorable five-hour steam train ride takes passengers through the snowclad peaks of the Rockies and remote wilderness of San Juan National Forest. Enjoy a fireside lunch or a scenic stroll along the picturesque Animus River during your hour-long pit stop.
Bob Cooper, a San Francisco-based travel and outdoors writer, is a longtime contributor to National Geographic Traveler magazine.
This story originally published on November 26, 2018.