Trance Continental: America’s Roads & Rails

The Transcontinental Railroad, also known as “the Overland Route,” changed the way America thought about itself. Once that golden spike was hammered into place in 1869, there was an easy way to get from sea to shining sea — carried by a magical machine through the purple mountain majesties and across the fruited plain. In fact, the words to “America the Beautiful” were written after Katherine Lee Bates took a train from Massachusetts to Colorado in the 1800s and was awed by the grandeur of the landscape she saw on either side of those gleaming steel rails.

Well, that experience is still there for those savvy enough to book a ride on one of North America’s most scenic railways. Many of today’s trains emphasize everything that’s pleasant about traveling by rail: the ability to get up and walk around, top-class service, the gentle rocking of the cars, and the ever-changing spectacle outside the window.

Dover Harbor

Operating out of Washington, D.C., the Dover Harbor is one of the last heavyweight Pullman passenger cars still in regular service. This classic car is as much of an attraction as anywhere it passes through. It was built in 1923 as a combine-baggage-library car, but rebuilt in 1934 to include a kitchen, a lounge, and double bedrooms. Today, under the auspices of the D.C. chapter of the  National Railway Historical Society, those fittings and furnishings gleam like new. The car sleeps 10 but accommodates 24 daytime guests, and can be booked by the public for day trips and overnights near its home. But because it’s fully compatible with modern main line railways, this railcar can be chartered for longer trips anywhere Amtrak travels, with white-jacketed porters and stewards serving fresh meals and turning down the berths every night. Recent journeys have taken Dover Harbor through Virginia’s Tidewater region bound for Colonial Williamsburg, on overnights to Philadelphia, and longer tours to cities as far afield as Boston, Chicago, Denver, and New Orleans.

Pudding Creek Express

Northern California’s famous “Skunk Train” rides for 7 miles along the Pudding Creek Estuary, a 75-minute round trip between quaint Fort Bragg and the parkland of Glen Blair Junction. The area is a haven for hikers and beachcombers because of its natural beauty — and the line features a Redwood Route into the Noyo River Canyon which the more intrepid adventurer can ride aboard a two-person electric railbike. For a more relaxing ride, the Skunk Train travels through Mendocino County’s majestic redwood forest with a bar car selling snacks, soft drinks, beer, wine, and spirits, and an open car for full immersion in the outdoors without any pedaling. Expect to see ospreys, blue herons, lush wetlands, and primeval woodlands.


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