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Western Trains

Via readers blow the whistle on their favorite train rides and exhibits in the West.

Via Readers
Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad in Felton, Calif.
Photo caption
The Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad in Felton, Calif., steams ahead.

Smell the coal smoke and hear the mighty engines roar. The many foamers (avid rail fans) among the VIA's readers share their joy in the region's railways and train exhibits.

ALASKA RAILROAD Fairbanks to Seward, Alaska. "Each window framed a landscape of such breathtaking beauty that we were reluctant to leave our seats," says Marcie Bushnell of Eugene, Ore. "The domed railcars brought us even closer to the romping beluga whales in Turnagain Arm, the majesty of 20,000-foot Denali, and the jaw-dropping depth of Hurricane Gulch. Not to mention the wildlife—moose, eagles, ospreys, bears, and caribou." (800) 544-0552,

CALIFORNIA STATE RAILROAD MUSEUM Sacramento. "We've taken trains and visited railroad museums all across the country," writes Ed Presley of Auburn, Calif., "but this one tops them all. It has everything from steam locomotives to model trains, plus a steam train ride along the Sacramento River." (916) 445-6645,

CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR Emeryville, Calif., to Chicago on Amtrak. "Like riding through the best geography textbook ever," says Elinor Roberts of Berkeley, Calif. "In the Sierra, hills of dusty brown and dark green. By the Colorado River, bald eagles. In Nebraska, farmlands with red barns and pickups in the driveways. We shared meals with a World War II vet, a nuclear scientist who was afraid of flying, a schoolteacher. Do it again? In a heartbeat." (800) 872-7245,

THE CHARLIE RUSSELL CHEW-CHOO Kingston Junction to Denton, Mont. "You'll think you're in one of Charles Russell's Wild West paintings," writes Ginger Dingus of Mill Valley, Calif. "Bandits on horseback chase the train and ‘rob' the passengers, then celebrate by riding their horses straight into the trackside saloon, just like in Russell's work In Without Knocking." (800) 860-9646,

COAST STARLIGHT Seattle to Los Angeles on Amtrak. "Both thrilling and ultrarelaxing," says Grace DeLap of Oregon City, Ore. "We've ridden many trains in many countries, but the Starlight tops them all: surprisingly good food, winetasting, parlor car freebie snacks, astounding scenery—wild rhododendrons, Willamette Pass, Mount Shasta, San Francisco's lights on the bay, beaches. And it's right here on the West Coast!" (800) 872-7245,

DURANGO & SILVERTON NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD Durango to Silverton, Colo. "I have ridden many, many railroads, from New England to California, but this one is the best, " says David Hinshaw of Sacramento, Calif. "An authentic, black smoke–belching steam locomotive begins its run in Durango near the swift Animas River, then climbs steadily through rugged terrain—you can look down into the spectacular gorge—until it reaches the former mining town of Silverton (elevation 9,305 feet), surrounded by majestic peaks, all over 10,000 feet." (877) 872-4607,

EMPIRE BUILDER Seattle or Portland to Chicago on Amtrak. "What a refreshing concept—looking out the window and not being in a rush to get to your destination," writes John Maybury of Pacifica, Calif. "This train winds along the Columbia River and over the Rockies, passing by lakes, rivers, and mountains all across Idaho and Montana, much of the line going through national parks and forests." (800) 872-7245,

HEBER VALLEY HISTORIC RAILROAD Heber City, Utah. "It's a beautiful trip through farmland, alongside a lake, and deep into Provo Canyon on the slow-moving ‘Heber Creeper,' " says Chuck Davis of Eagle, Idaho. "With coaches, open-air cars, and an old Union Pacific steam locomotive." (435) 654-5601,

MEDFORD RAILROAD PARK Medford, Ore. "Something for everyone," promises Bill Meyer of Medford. "Small-scale steam trains you can ride on, a beautiful garden railroad, telegraph stations, an HO-scale [model] layout, plus full-size rolling stock and engines."

MOUNT HOOD RAILROAD Hood River, Ore. "Any child, or child at heart, can enjoy the thrill of this train, with its Pullman coaches and red caboose," writes Dan Johnson of Salem, Ore. "It's a narrated excursion that takes you through forests and fruit orchards and drops you for a layover in Parkdale, with time to browse. The views of Mount Hood are spectacular." (800) 872-4661,

NEVADA NORTHERN RAILWAY Ely, Nev. "A complete, fully working railroad from 1905," writes George Carnes of Ely. "It's like stepping back in time. Everything is authentic: depot, engine house, three original steam locomotives, rare wooden passenger cars, freight cars, water towers, and more. And it's one of the few places where you can buy a ticket to get your hands on the throttle of a rolling steam or diesel engine." (866) 407-8326,

NILES CANYON RAILWAY Sunol, Calif. "I love the steam locomotive, No. 2, better than the diesel locomotive, No. 1423," writes Paul Andreini, age 8, of Martinez, Calif. "If you just love trains, get on when they run both!" (925) 862-9063,

REDWOOD VALLEY RAILWAY Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley, Calif. "The beautiful miniature trains wind through this gorgeous, wooded park, whistling through the trees and thrilling everyone aboard," says Annie Simmons of Petaluma, Calif. "I think adults love it more than the kids do." (510) 548-6100.

ROCKY MOUNTAINEER Vancouver, B.C., to Calgary, Alberta. "Some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world," writes David Holcomb of Groveland, Calif. "Kamloops, Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff. At one point, while we were looking at a hanging glacier, half the glacier face broke off and cascaded down the mountain. Service on the train was exemplary; meals in the dining car were first-class." (604) 606-7245,

SHASTA SUNSET DINNER Train McCloud, Calif. "A three-hour ride through mountainous forests with great views is the extra you can enjoy with the fine dinner and libations in the beautifully restored dining cars," says Norman Linn of McCloud. (800) 733-2141.

THUNDER MOUNTAIN LINE Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. "Wonderful," writes Carol Riffle of Fruitland, Idaho. "The scenery couldn't be more beautiful, and most of the time a banjo and guitar duo is aboard. The train ambles along the Payette River, used by kayakers and rafters, while in spring there are thousands of tulips blooming along the tracks." (877) 432-7245,

WHITE PASS & YUKON ROUTE RAILROAD Skagway, Alaska, to Fraser, B.C. "Stupendous!" writes Cheryl Johnson of Oakhurst, Calif. "For 28 miles, this historic narrow gauge railroad twists and turns through rugged mountains and beside waterfalls. My husband spent the entire trip standing between cars taking pictures." (800) 343-7373,

WILLAMETTE SHORE TROLLEY Lake Oswego, Ore. "A lovely ride north into Portland," writes Lois Barnum of Lake Oswego. "A highlight, especially for children, is the long, curving tunnel, where you can't see either end from the center." (503) 697-7436.

Know of a splendid historic hotel in the West? Our September/October issue will feature your favorites. Write to On the Road, VIA, 150 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102. Or email us at If we quote from your letter, we'll send you $50 and a VIA T-shirt.

ROARING CAMP AND BIG TREES RAILROAD Felton, Calif. "A Shay steam engine, built for steep grades, takes a winding route through the redwoods to the top of Bear Mountain," says Dale Benedix of Capitola, Calif. "A second line travels from the mountain to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk." (831) 335-4484,

Photography by John Elk III

This article was first published in May 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.