5 train trips for car-free weekends in North America

A railway renaissance of new and revived train routes is connecting walkable cities from South Florida to Western Canada.

In the first half of the 20th century, weekend escapes in the United States often meant hopping a train to a nearby town, city, or country inn. Though rail travel declined in America for years, high-priced gas, scarce car rentals, and highway congestion are spurring the revival of several old train routes along the East and West Coasts, plus the creation of new ones.

Take Amtrak’s Berkshire Flyer. In July, for the first time in 50 years, this passenger train originating in New York City arrived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, connecting city dwellers with Berkshires mountain towns, Shaker sites, and Tanglewood Music Center. Starting December 5, the number of daily trains connecting Manhattan to upstate destinations (the booming Hudson Valley, the Catskills) will increase from 10 to 12.

(Explore a new trail through the beauty of the Berkshires.)

Another factor powering the rail revival is the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, championed by President Joe Biden. (Biden is nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” due to his regular train commute to and from Delaware during his decades in the U.S. Senate.) The bill gives $66 billion to the federally funded American railway, which will subsidize new routes, the resumption of services discontinued during the Eisenhower administration, and proposed city-to-city connections.

The blueprint is Amtrak’s Corridor Vision Plan, an ambitious 15-year program proposing new and restored services that could impact 160 communities around the country. Potential new routes might link Boston to Albany, New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Train systems run by individual states or private entities are also expanding.

The hope is that better, more expansive train service attracts a new generation of railroad fans. “Younger passengers make up a large portion of overall ridership across national and regional lines,” says Madison Butler, communications manager for the Rail Passengers Association of America. “The most common reasons are respect for the environment, affordability, and a reduction on automobile dependency.”

Here are five new or restored routes that let you ditch your car for a weekend trip, plus tips on what to do in the walkable cities they reach.

Miami to West Palm Beach, Florida

Florida’s Brightline, the only privately funded intercity train system in the U.S., resumed nearly hourly services from Miami to West Palm Beach (with a stop in Fort Lauderdale) in late 2021. The sleek electric- and diesel-powered trains can go as fast as 79 miles per hour, meaning the journey from Miami Central station to West Palm takes just 75 minutes. Continuing service north to Orlando launches next year.

(Learn how to make your next beach trip more sustainable.)

What to do: You’ll land in downtown West Palm, laidback sister city to Palm Beach, the historically posh resort just across Lake Worth lagoon to the east. From the train station, it’s a five-minute stroll to Clematis Street, where early 20th-century and modern buildings hold restaurants, bakeries, and bars. Other West Palm Beach attractions include the Norton Museum of Art, with its Chinese antiques, contemporary photography, and sculpture garden. 

Just across the bridge in Palm Beach—rent a bike or take a ride share—find sun and surf on Municipal Beach and the Gilded Age mansion-turned-museum of Henry Morrison Flagler.

San Francisco to Truckee, California

The full route of Amtrak’s California Zephyr—revived in May after a pandemic suspension—takes 51 hours to travel from the Bay Area to Chicago (or vice versa). But if you take the leg just from San Francisco to Truckee, California, a five-hour trip lands you in one of the most historic, scenic towns in the Lake Tahoe area.

(Ride along as one writer takes Amtrak across the U.S.)

What to do: Truckee’s throwback railroad depot sits in the center of the historic 19th-century downtown, a short walk from indie shops, restaurants, and the Truckee Hotel, which dates to 1873. Train buffs can check out the small Truckee Railroad Museum with its vintage caboose and kids’ activities; readers shouldn’t miss Word After Word Books, with titles by national and regional authors and a cool bargain basement. 

The northern Sierra Mountains setting also fuels outdoor activities including cross-country skiing, rafting on the Truckee River, and hiking near the infamous Donner Pass

New York City to Burlington, Vermont

Revived in July 2022, the Ethan Allen Express takes just under eight hours to travel from New York City to Burlington, Vermont. It passes New York State’s Adirondack Mountains and Vermont’s Green Mountains en route to Burlington, the state capital and one of America’s hippest small cities.

What to do: Stroll the four-block-long, pedestrian-only stretch of downtown’s Church Street, where redbrick sidewalks lead to a hundred restaurants, pubs, and shops, including outdoor clothing retailers such as homegrown Vermont Flannel. Saturdays, the Burlington Farmers Market offers up local cheeses and produce.

The city is backdropped by Lake Champlain, best explored via the Burlington Greenway, an eight-mile-long bike and walking path. (Rent wheels from the Green Ride bikeshare.) The South End, a lakeside 19th-20th century industrial neighborhood, has been transformed with restaurants, cideries, and art spaces, including the Soda Plant, a converted 1917 ginger ale factory with galleries, shops, and cafés.

Washington, D.C., to Roanoke, Virginia

It’s about a five-hour train trip from Washington, D.C.’s Union Station to Roanoke, Virginia. In July, high demand led Amtrak to add a second daily train to and from the historic Blue Ridge Mountains city. This expanded Route 46, a shared service of Amtrak and the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA), resulted in a 28.9 percent increase in ridership for July over the previous month.

What to do: Roanoke was a shipping and railroad center from the 19th through early 20th century, a legacy documented via the vintage steam locomotives and passenger cars at its Virginia Museum of Transportation. The walkable, historic downtown includes the City Market, with its Saturday crafts and food bazaar, and the Liberty Trust, a new boutique hotel in a restored 1920 bank building.

Roanoke’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail make it ideal for outdoor recreation. Rent a bike to explore the Roanoke Valley Greenways trail network or take a 90-minute round-trip hike up Mill Mountain for dazzling city views and a close-up of the 88-foot-tall, neon-lit Roanoke Star.

Seattle, Washington, to Vancouver, Canada

Amtrak Cascades service from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia—suspended for two years during the pandemic—resumed on September 26. The four-and-a-half-hour train journey offers a spectacular ride along the Pacific Ocean against a backdrop of the Cascade Range.

What to do: Passengers land in Vancouver’s monumental 1919 Pacific Central Station, a short walk, SkyTrain ride, or water taxi trip to iconic neighborhoods including cobblestoned Gastown and Chinatown, with its new Chinatown Storytelling Centre that chronicles community history using archival photos, artifacts, and virtual reality. 

Other top stops: iconic Stanley Park (First Nations totem poles, 988 acres of waterside paths) and the up-and-coming Lower Lonsdale/Shipyard District neighborhood. The latter holds summertime Friday night markets with food and live music plus the new Museum of North Vancouver, with Indigenous artifacts and contemporary art.

Go with Nat Geo: Learn more about National Geographic’s expert-led train expeditions through stunning scenery and storied landscapes.
Everett Potter is an East Coast writer and train travel expert. Follow him on Instagram and at Everett Potter’s Travel Report.

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