Ride the Rails: Top 10 Train Trips for Families

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Tired of the confined spaces of cars and planes? Sick of dealing with the rigmarole of rest stops and airports? Us too. So why not try trains?

Whether for sheer entertainment, for relaxing cross-country experiences, or for access to places that can't be reached by conventional methods, trains offer a novel travel experience many families will enjoy and treasure.


But before we get into the full-fledged train lines, let's visit a theme-park attraction inspired by a special train made famous in children's stories. Ready to hop aboard?


Thomas Land

Thomas the Tank Engine has inspired amusement park exhibits around the world, including one in Staffordshire, England, at Drayton Manor Park. The "Thomas and Friends" themed attraction features about a dozen rides, and patrons can also ride in replicas of Thomas, Percy and Rosie during their visit.

After a day at the park, we'll need to head into the Wild West to catch our next train.



Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

If you're visiting the Rockies, consider taking in some of the highlights by train.
If you're visiting the Rockies, consider taking in some of the highlights by train.
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Originally built in 1880 along the border of Colorado and New Mexico, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the longest and highest narrow gauge train line in North America, reaching a peak elevation of more than 10,000 feet crossing over Cumbres Pass. Then there's Tanglefoot Curve, an arc so extreme it seems the train cars will form a complete circle, and Cascade Trestle, which takes the train soaring more than a hundred feet above the landscape below.

Families can also tour the historic railway yards at each end of the 64-mile line, and during a few select rides each summer, kids can enjoy on-board entertainment, when the Cinder Bear regales youthful riders with stories, songs and games.



California Zephyr

For families looking to travel cross-country, the California Zephyr is a viable option. Although probably pricier than taking the gang on the road, the comfort and relaxation of traveling by train can quickly outweigh the alternative -- cramped, crabby passengers begging for potty breaks, roadside food of questionable quality, and the constant loading and unloading of luggage, strollers, toys and all the rest.

On the Zephyr, which runs between Chicago and San Francisco, travelers can take in both natural and urban sights. The train line runs through Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver and Omaha, along with smaller cities and towns that fill in the gaps along the way. In terms of scenic views, travelers will see the Sierra Nevada range, the Rocky Mountains and countless other breathtaking scenes. Sleeping cars and dining cars are icing on the cake.



Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington Cog Railway has a steep climb to tackle in order to make its way to the top.
Mount Washington Cog Railway has a steep climb to tackle in order to make its way to the top.

The Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire is one of the steepest railways in the world -- at some points its gradient is more than 37 percent. Built all the way back in 1869, the Cog railway was the first of its kind to tackle a mountain, and the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States at that.

Families can stretch their legs and explore the summit of Mount Washington for about an hour during the middle of the 3-hour roundtrip train ride, enjoying the breathtaking views from the lofty summit. When the weather is clear, you can see straight to the Atlantic Ocean.



Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Back in Colorado, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad might look familiar to older family members -- it's been featured in several movies, including "Ticket to Tomahawk," "Across the Wide Missouri," "Denver & Rio Grande," "Viva Zapata" and "Around the World in 80 Days."

In the course of winding its way along the Animas River, the train actually crosses the fast-flowing water five times during each trip, so everyone has the chance to spot wildlife and see great views of the surrounding terrain. There's also a train museum where visitors can see relics of railroading history. Kids and families can poke around in the cabin of a display locomotive and see a luggage car that was a prop in the movie "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid."



Cape Cod Central Railroad

A cranberry harvest is quite the sight.
A cranberry harvest is quite the sight.

A fun diversion while visiting Cape Cod in Massachusetts is a spin on the Cape Cod Central Railroad. Whether you choose to ride the narrated scenic tour (with views of cranberry bogs, woodlands and marshes) or the Family Supper Train (with balloon twisting, face painting and tunes) there's something for everyone. On the latter, there's also kid-friendly fare, in case your little ones don't go in for the traditional dining-car experience.


Denali Star

The thought of touring Alaska might seem like an unattainable dream for some families, but railways can make that dream a reality with relative ease. Take the Denali Star, the flagship rail line of the Alaska Railroad Corporations.

The train line runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and riders might catch a glimpse of moose, caribou, bears, beavers, wolves and waterfowl. Amid the stunning landscape, Mount McKinley looms large on the horizon, and upon arrival, Fairbanks has all the feel of a traditional frontier town.



Chocolate Train

You read that right -- the Chocolate Train lives up to its name. This Swiss train line starts out on the Swiss Riviera, running from Montreux to Gruyères and on to Broc. Montreux is surrounded by a sea of vineyards, while Gruyères is home to a superb cheese-making operation renowned the world over. There are also castles and other historic sites at both locales for families to explore. But Broc is where you'll be able to satisfy your sweet tooth, at the Cailler-Nestle chocolate factory. See the Alps and sample some sugary goodness -- what's not to love?


West Coast Railways

Riding across the Glenfinnan Viaduct will be a big treat for little Harry Potter fans.
Riding across the Glenfinnan Viaduct will be a big treat for little Harry Potter fans.

Do your kids love the story of Harry Potter and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Then this is the ultimate train trip for them. The Jacobite steam train, operated by West Coast Railways in Scotland, runs on the same line that carried the Hogwarts Express back to school each fall -- and some of the engines and carriages are the actual ones that were used during the movies' filming. You'll even cross over the Glenfinnan viaduct, a landmark that will look very familiar to fans of the Harry Potter franchise.


Grand Canyon Railway

Grand Canyon is an impressive sight. Make sure your family is eager to take in the view.
Grand Canyon is an impressive sight. Make sure your family is eager to take in the view.

Looking out over the rim of the Grand Canyon has the power to blow visitors away. The amazing vista is evidence of both the powerful forces of nature that formed it and the raw beauty of undulating rock formations left behind. But crawling out of a cramped vehicle -- carsick, cranky and hot -- might not be the ideal option for many families if they're aiming to forge cherished memories. Enter the Grand Canyon Railway. This 65-mile train line whisks visitors from the closest interstate right to the rim, where families can take a guided tour to scenic points, explore the local historic district or visit the gift shops.

But for parents looking to really wow their kids, the time to visit this train line isn't during spring break or summer vacation -- it's late November and throughout December. That's when the Grand Canyon Railway also operates as the Polar Express. This nighttime rail adventure features cavorting elves, Christmas caroling and chocolate chip cookies. Then the train pulls up at Santa's Village, and the big guy himself gets aboard to give everyone a special gift. That beats a line at the mall any day.



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  • Alaska Railroad Corporation Web site. (May 4, 2011) http://www.alaskarailroad.com/
  • Cadman, Brie. "Ten Train Trips for Kids." Divine Caroline. (May 4, 2011) http://www.divinecaroline.com/22212/45784-ten-train-trips-kids
  • Cailler-Nestle chocolate factory Web site. (May 4, 2011) http://www.cailler.ch/en/Home.aspx
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