Rhythm of the Rails

Rhythm of the Rails

Judy Wade

Tourist trains revive routes of yesteryear

Like scenic sound bites, snippets of America’s railroads endure to provide nostalgic glimpses into an era when trackbound transportation was the prime means of moving about the nation. Train whistles still signal the excitement of an anticipated journey, except that today the journey itself has become the destination.

States like Colorado, where miles of track served the mining industry, and California with its agricultural enterprises, have the greatest number of tourist trains. Other areas also are coming on board, with trips as short as a few minutes as well as overnight adventures covering hundreds of miles.

Here is a sampling of North America’s great tourist trains:

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, Antonito, Colorado or Chama, New Mexico. Built in 1880, 64 miles of track wind through groves of pine and aspen, dramatic rock formations, and the spectacular Toltec Gorge formed by the Los Pinos River. A white-knuckle descent from the 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass pays homage to the engineering skills of the builders, who created a network of narrow-gauge steam railroads connecting commercial outposts in the Rocky Mountains. One-way day trips start in Antonito or Chama, with bus service back to the original destination. Departures Memorial Day through mid-October. (505) 756-2151, www.cumbresandtoltec.com.

Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona. From a historic station alive with the sounds of “gunfights” through high desert plains and pinon forests, this vintage train chugs two and a half hours northward to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Refurbished rail cars, some resplendent with red velvet love seats and ornate mahogany, are pulled by early-1900s steam engines from Memorial Day weekend through September. Diesel locomotives, dating to the 1940s and ’50s, are used the rest of the year. Continental breakfast is served on the 10 a.m. train, with hors d’oeuvres and a guaranteed “train robbery” part of the 3:30 p.m. return trip. Classes of service include a club car with overstuffed chairs, a domed observation car, and conventional train seating. Departures daily except Christmas Day. (800) THE-TRAIN, www.the train.com.

American Orient Express, various locations. Recreating glamourous rail travel of the 1940s and ’50s, fifteen sleek, vintage carriages a la the Super Chief and the Burlington Zephyr take just 100 passengers on nostalgic journeys. Seven-day itineraries throughout the country include the Antebellum South, Pacific Coast, Northwest and Glaciers, and National Parks of the West, plus a transcontinental journey of 10 days. Sleeping carriages offer vintage upper and lower Pullman berths and parlor suites with two lower berths. Itineraries are planned to take advantage of seasonal events, such as fall color. (800) 320-4206, www.american orientexpress.com.

White Pass & Yukon Route, Skagway, Alaska. The WP&YR was built between 1898 and 1900, connecting Alaska to Canada, and has served as a link between the tidewater port of Skagway and the Yukon. Today, the railway provides a three-hour roundtrip on the first 40 miles of the original 110-mile line, with two departures on most days. Passengers ride in restored parlor cars and new train cars, climbing 2,865 feet in just 20 miles. The WP&YR was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994. On Saturdays from June through August, the Baldwin Macado 282 steam engine #73 pulls an eight-hour scenic excursion to Lake Bennett, British Columbia, leaving at 8 a.m. and including lunch. Departures from early May to late September. (800) 343-7373, www.whitepassrailroad.com.

E&N Railiner, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. The E&N (a pair of towns named Esquimalt and Nanaimo) was the culmination of the railway built to connect the seaboard of British Columbia and the railway system of Canada. It was completed in 1886, is 140 miles long, and is run by VIA Rail for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Today, diesel cars dating to 1955 do once-a-day runs between Victoria and Courtenay, creating a pleasant day trip to Vancouver Island. Scenic vistas of a rainforest, the ocean, and islands, along with lakes, rivers, farms and mountains, showcase stunning scenery. Among hotel/train packages, Best Western offers three-day trips from Vancouver with an overnight in Parksville. Year-round departures. (800) 561-3949, www.viarail.ca.

Sierra Madre Express, Tucson, Arizona. Although passengers gather in Tucson, this spectacular train trip through Mexico’s Copper Canyon really begins in Nogales, Sonora, just across the border.

The eight-day, 1,200-mile roundtrip traces forested cliffs and descends into canyons in the state of Chihuahua in northwestern Mexico. Getting acquainted with the small, shy Tarahumara Indians and overnighting at lovely, remote hostelries provide a sense of going back in time. Some nights are spent aboard vintage restored Pullman cars. Trips are so popular that dates often sell out months in advance. Departures in May, September, December, and February. (800) 666-0346, www. sierramadreexpress.com.

Skunk Train, Fort Bragg, California. The Skunk Line runs 40 miles between Fort Bragg on the coast and Willits on U.S. Highway 101, crossing 30 bridges and trestles and entering two deep mountain tunnels along the scenic redwood route. An open observation car affords great views of colorful Pudding Creek and the silvery Noyo River shaded by enormous redwoods. The train chugs along the coastal “Redwood Route” at a leisurely 25 m.p.h, as it has since 1885. Built as a logging railroad to move redwood logs to coastal sawmills, the name “Skunk” comes from the yellow self-powered gas engine rail cars that old-timers say you could smell before you could see. Year-round departures. (800) 777-5865, www.skunktrain.com.

The 1880 Train, Hill City, South Dakota. The Black Hills Central Railroad operates three engines that follow the original route of the CB&Q Railroad laid down in the 1880s to service the mines and mills between Hill City and Keystone in western South Dakota. The 20-mile roundtrip winds through Black Hills National Forest, affording spectacular mountain views, including vistas of Harney Peak, the state’s highest point (7,242 feet). Departures mid-May to early October. (605) 574-2222; www.1880 train.com.

Hobo and Winnipesauke Railroads, Lincoln, New Hampshire. The Hobo offers a one-hour-and-20-minute excursion through woodsy territory along the Pemigewasset River, and the Winnipesauke runs for two hours along the shores of New Hampshire’s largest lake. Covering 55 miles of track completed in 1846, five restored locomotives dating to the 1920s through 1950s pull 13 cars (complete with cabooses) from the same era. Frequent daily departures from late May to Labor Day take advantage of New Hampshire’s best season. (603) 745-2135, www.hororr.com.

Hardin Southern Railroad, Hardin, Kentucky. This popular two-hour trip follows the historic century-old route of the Nashville Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway in far western Kentucky. The depot is located 30 miles to the south of Paducah, adjacent to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s vast Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area. A 1940 Electro-Motive engine pulling Pullman cars from the 1940s rides on rails laid in the 1890s. The Railroad Diner Restaurant at trackside serves authentic dining car food prepared from genuine railroad recipes. Saturday and Sunday departures from the end of May to the end of October. (270) 437-4555, www.hsrr.com.

COPYRIGHT 2000 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group