I have taken the train across the United States, Boston to San Francisco, both ways twice. It is a trip like none other. You do not have to be a lover of trains to truly enjoy the trip either. There are not a lot of such cross-country trains, but they do exist. You can leave from any large city in the Northeast to start your trip. It is necessary, with one exception, that you go through Chicago to make a connection for the rest of the trip.
That one exception is a train that runs from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, and from there onward across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Los Angeles. The only difference with this train, the link that goes from New Orleans to Los Angeles only runs three days a week while all the routes departing Chicago daily including all holidays.
One of the routes leaving Chicago heads in a southwesterly direction taking you through Las Vegas before reaching Los Angeles. The next route, leaves Chicago for Denver, and thence through Salt Lake City before reaching the outskirts of San Francisco. The fourth train takes a northern route traveling Chicago to Milwaukee, Minneapolis and then across the northern states to Seattle.
My trip started in Boston. At the time the train left in the late afternoon and is named the Lakeshore Limited. It travels through Worcester and Springfield Massachusetts before reaching Albany New York. At this point the train is linked up with another train from New York City. From there the train travels through Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Toledo before reaching Chicago. Unfortunately, the lateness of the day keep the beautiful upstate New York scenery from view, however that is remedied on the return trip where the train enters western New York in the early dawning hours. This train is equipped with a diner, sleeping accommodations, along with regular coach cars. The sleeping accommodations give one a private compartment for daytime travel. Service aboard the train is friendly and the food is really pretty good, far better than anything any airline has to offer.
Once reaching Chicago you have a layover of several hours while you wait for your next train. The Chicago station is an entirely renovated facility that is very clean and offers good restaurants and other places for people to shop or just lounge.
The San Francisco leg of the trip leaves Chicago early in the afternoon. As with the previous train accommodations include coaches, a diner, and sleeping facilities. But unlike its eastern brother, it also has several high level cars from which one can enjoy a 360 degree vista of the passing countryside. This is particularly attractive after the train leaves Denver early the next morning and follows the Green River valley through some remote territory. You go a long time with no road in site as you hug the side of a river with the valley walls sweeping upwards on either side.
The next morning as you depart Nevada you enter the eastern edge of the Rockie Mountains. One stop, Colfax, is particularly close to Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful lakes anywhere in the U.S. During this portion of the journey the train slips through numerous short tunnels before re-emerging in the gorgeous mountainous countryside.
Unlike air travel, people on trains recognize they are going to be in each other’s company for quite some time, and there is a certain friendliness that arises from these circumstances. Even if you are making the trip alone, you will find many people who are more than happy to pass the hours in interesting conversations.
Also, as good as the food on the train is east of the Mississippi River, it is that much better to the west of it. AMTRAK has worked hard to maintain some of the old-time romanticism of rail travel and its good food and friendly atmosphere. On these trains, because of space limitations, you may well find yourself sharing your table with a stranger but that becomes an opportunity to meet someone new and interesting. The waiters are polite and efficient, and you never feel rushed.
I cannot recommend that everyone try this at least once in their lifetime. It is well worth the investment.