Great Train Rides of the Southwest: Travel the rails on one of these classic trains

By Sherry Jackson

There’s a thrill, an excitement, a nostalgic feeling one gets when riding a train. The slower pace makes us slow down and enjoy the scenery while giving us a glimpse into a bygone era.

Whether it’s a short ride to a mining town in an open-air car or a longer trek up the coast of California in a luxury coach, riding on a train feels like an indulgence. It’s a unique experience providing an appreciation to the engineering of the railways and railcars. Through valleys, canyons and coastlines, men built those tracks.

Fortunately, in the Southwest, we have several train rides to choose from. So, sit back and enjoy a ride on the rails.

Verde Canyon Railroad

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. That’s the tagline of the Verde Canyon Railroad, and it sums up this train ride nicely. The 20-mile trek from the small town of Clarkdale to the old western settlement of Perkinsville traverses alongside the Verde River and through the Verde Canyon. Large panoramic windows provide guests a great view of the towering red rocks, Indian ruins, bridges and a 680-foot tunnel as the FP7 locomotive (two of only 10 remaining in the United States) pulls air-conditioned coaches, open-air cars and first-class seating as it chugs along. Dubbed Arizona’s longest-running nature show, riders are always on the lookout for bald eagles, falcons, hawks, bears, deer, wild burros and other wildlife.

Onboard, first-class guests enjoy a champagne or cider toast upon leaving the depot and an appetizer bar while aboard. Bottled water is provided. Cocktails and other beverages are available for purchase. Coach-class passengers can purchase beverages and snacks.

Once reaching Perkinsville, now home to the Perkins family working cattle ranch, there’s a 20-minute stop (no getting off the train though) while the conductors move the engine from one end of the train to the other for the return trip. The round-trip experience takes 3 1/2 to 4 hours. September through December is the busy season with fall color viewing, so be sure to make reservations well in advance.

Tip: Plan enough time to peruse the shops and restaurants in the nearby historic town of Cottonwood before or after the train.

Reservations: 1-800-293-7245 or

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Once ridden by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a moving National Historic Landmark. Passengers can board at Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico, the two cities in which it travels.

Built in 1880, the 64-mile historic railroad is the longest, highest and most authentic steam railroad in America and is one of the best ways to enjoy the majestic landscape of the Rocky Mountains, San Juan Mountains, the Cumbres Pass and the Conejos Valley. Passengers may recognize the railroad, as it’s appeared in many Hollywood films including Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Indiana Jones, The Shootout starring Gregory Peck and Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner.

The train chugs along at a top speed of 14 mph, through tunnels and over high trestles, as it passes through groves of colorful aspen trees and alpine meadows. Along the way, passengers may see deer, elk, antelope and even an occasional bear. Full-day rides include a hot lunch at scenic Osier Station, the midway point of the journey. Combination train/motor coach and half-day excursions are available.

Victorian-style parlor cars offer lounge-style comfort and panoramic windows. Personal attendants serve a continental breakfast with snacks and soft drinks available. Tourist cars have extra room and individual seating and coach cars offers comfortable bench seating. Open-air gondola cars are available for all riders for fresh air and photo opportunities.

Tip: In September and October, special dinner trains offer sunset views, murder/mystery dinners and speakeasy-themed entertainment.

Reservations: 1-888-286-2737 or

Grand Canyon Railway

Arguably the best way to explore the Grand Canyon, the Grand Canyon Railway loads passengers in Williams (30 miles west of Flagstaff) and transports them to the South Rim while traversing through ponderosa pine forests and scenic desert landscapes.

Guests are treated to a Wild West shootout at the depot station. Aboard, roaming musicians, an attempted train robbery and knowledge attendants provide entertainment.

Six classes of railcars are available: bench-style seating in Pullman class; coach class; oversized-seats, bar service and complimentary snacks in first class; glass-enclosed observation dome; the two-tiered luxury dome for ages 15 years and older, and the luxurious parlor class.

The train has daily departures (two during peak periods) from Williams, and the 65-mile trip takes a little over two hours each way. Passengers will have about four hours to explore the Grand Canyon before the train departs.

Those looking to stay the night can take advantage of the adjacent 298-room Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, which offers several combination ride/stay packages.

Tip: November through December is the popular evening Polar Express train. Santa makes an appearance and passengers can get into the holiday spirit with hot chocolate, chocolate-chip cookies and caroling. Tickets usually sellout, so buy early.

Reservations: 1-800-THE-TRAIN or

Virginia & Truckee Railroad

About halfway between Carson City and Reno in western Nevada, the historic, short-line Virginia & Truckee Railroad offers seven daily departures during the summer and weekend tours from its original 1870 depot and museum in Virginia City. Special event and themed trains operate during the fall.

The railroad was originally built in 1869 and was used to haul gold and silver from nearby mines. As many as 45 trains departed daily from the Virginia City depot.

Passengers can ride aboard a 100-year-old caboose or open-air car while listening to the conductor narrate the history of the bonanza Comstock Mining country. Diesel locomotives or 100-year-old steam engines pull the cars along the railways original route.

The 35-minute round-trip journey takes passengers to the historic town of Gold Hill where customers can get off the train, explore the town and then board the next train. Along the way, be on the lookout for wildlife including hawks, coyotes and even an occasional mountain lion.

Tip: Weekends, May through October, catch a train in Carson City to Virginia City. The 1.5-hour trek each way gives passengers a three-hour layover in Virginia City-plenty of time to explore the town.

Reservations: 775-847-0380 or

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner

Experience California via train instead of being stuck in traffic. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner traverses 351 miles along southern California’s rugged coastline from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

The train offers magnificent views of beaches and oceans along the way. Total time from start to finish is just under six hours for the train ride, but the best way to do this journey is by purchasing a multicity ticket allowing for exploration at different points along the way. There are 11 daily round-trip departures and 29 stations. Surfboards and bikes are allowed onboard for any activity passengers may want to partake.

Stops in Carlsbad, Oceanside Anaheim, Los Angeles, Burbank and Santa Barbara, among others, provide passengers plenty of opportunities to sightsee southern California’s most popular destinations. Onboard, the train offers reclining seats, free Wi-Fi and power outlets along with a café bar with snacks, sweets, light meals and beverages.

Upgrade to business class and riders get more leg room, a guaranteed seat, a complimentary glass of wine, nonalcoholic beverages, and light snacks, a dedicated attendant in the car and priority boarding in San Diego.

Tip: Business class passengers who start or end in LA get special access to the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge with complimentary coffee, tea, soft drinks and snacks. Relax on comfy sofas, watch some TV, read a newspaper or use the free Wi-Fi.

Reservations: 1-800-USA-RAIL or