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America's finest steam railroads

Great heritage lines in the USA

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The six best steam train rides in the USA


   
 

For more general information about trains in the USA, see: Taking the train

 There are over 100 heritage railroads in the USA offering steam train rides, so picking the best among them might seem like a difficult choice. In the event, it isn't, as most herritage railroads that run steam locomotives do so only on limited services, or just at weekends, or on special occasions.
    There are actually less than a dozen heritage railroad lines in the USA that offer steam services every day (in season) or on all services, so choosing the best among these is not so hard.
    And the winner is.... has to be.... can only be... one of two railroads in the American West that were once part of the same narrow-gauge (3 ft.) system, but are now 156 miles apart by road.  Of the two, we go for...

1. The Cumbres and Toltec Railroad

   Location: Colorado / New Mexico. Length: 64 miles.
This has to be one of the world's great surviving steam experiences. Compared to other US steam railroads, we place it first in terms of length, scenery and authenticity.
    Sixty-four miles (103 km) in length, the narrow gauge (3-foot) line, built in 1880, has never really stopped operating. It was originally part of the San Juan extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which survived until late 1968. Very quickly it was bought, on account of its historic and tourist interest, by the states of New Mexico and Colarado, and is now a publicly owned National Historic Landmark.
    The railroad operates two trains a day from April to October, one in each direction, between the small towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. The journey from end to end takes six and a half hours, with the trains crossing midway at the station in Osier. Visitors who take the whole route can return by bus in the late afternoon. The alternative is to take the trip as far as Osier, then return to the departure point.
    The section from Antonito to Osier is the most interesting; the line sets off across barren sagebrush desert, before beginning its climb into the hills. Before long it is in forest country,  emerging from the trees high up on the steep side of the Toltec gorge on the Rio Los Piños river, before reaching a grassy mountain plateau with the station of Osier, in the middle of nowhere.
    Passengers continuing on to the end of the line at Chama, or those coming from Chama, will cross the Cumbres Pass, elevation 10,022 ft (3,055 m),  in the San Juan Mountains... the highest point for a normal adhesion railroad (i.e. not rack-and-pinion) in the USA. In winter the pass can get blocked by snow, and the C&T still operates historic rotary snowplows to clear the tracks.    Website

2. The Durango and Silverton

Durango & Silverton
   Location: Colorado. Length: 45 miles.
Located in the Colorado mountains, and now run by a private company, the Durango and Silverton was once the historic end of the line section of the San Juan extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. With a length of 45 miles... long by most heritage railroad standards, it is nevertheless shorter than the Cumbres and Toltec.. The history of the two railroads is fairly similar - apart from the fact that the Durango and Silverton is more commerically oriented, and busier, with up to three departures each day.
    All services begin at Durango in the morning, returning in the afternoon – and the sight at the Durango locomotive depot early in the moring, with three or four  locomotives getting up steam, is a sight from another age.... or used to be. However following a serious forest fire in 2018 attributed to sparks from a locomotive, the company is converting its coal burning locomotives to oil burners.... still steam locomotives, but without the sparks, and faster to start up.
    The route out of Durango follows the Animas river, starting out along the floor of the valley, before beginning the long ascent to Silverton, passing over trestle bridges and along the side of a rocky river gorge before reaching the historic old mining town of Silverton, where the train line runs into the middle of the town, a location that seems to have stepped out of a Wild West movie.  Website
   

3. The Cass scenic railroad

Independence hall
Location: West Virginia. Length 11 miles.
The Cass scenic railroad is a former logging railroad in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia.. The standard gauge line, built at the start of the 20th century, runs from Cass (2,452-feet) to Bald Knob (4,842-feet),  the highest peak on Back Allegheny Mountain. It has been running as a historic scenic railroad since 1963.
    The line is noted for its collection of eight  "Shay" steam locomotives, the largest collection in the world of these very powerful and unusual geared steam locomotives, designed to pull heavy lumber trains up and down steep inclines. Five of the line's eight Shays are in operating condition. Website


4. Black Hills Central Railroad 

Location:South Dakota. Length 10 miles.
This standard gauge heritage railroad operates over a ten mile stretch of  the former Keystone Branch of the Burlington Northern Railroad, opened in 1900. The route runs through South Dakota's beautiful Black Hills, from Hill City to Keystone, a short distance from Mount Rushmore.
    The line's "1880 Train" takes an hour to cover the ten mile route, and an hour back.
    The railroad has a proacative environmental policy,  its three operating steam locomotives now burn recycled oil, and the station at Hill City provides free recharging for electric vehicles (subject to availability). Website

5 The Essex Steam Train,

Location: Connecticut. Length 5 or 12 miles
This New England standard gauge steam railway runs along the Connecticut River on a five mile route from Essex to Deep River Landing. Here passengers can connect to a historic river steamboat. Some trains use an extended 12-mile route.
    The line is part of the former Connecticut Valley Railroad, from Hartford to Saybrook Point, which opened in 1871.
    With its three operating steam locomotives, and another being rebuilt, the Essex Steam Train Steam Trains runs on up to five days a week, depending on the season.    Website


6.  The Strasburg Rail Road  

Location: Pennsylvania. Length 4 miles
This is a truly historic railroad. First built around 1837, the Strasburg Rail Road was was one of the first railroads in the Americas, and is the oldest line that has remained in permant operation since the beginning. It runs between the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in East Strasburg, and a junction with the Keystone Corridor main line at Leaman Place Junction
    The Museum is one of the best railroad museums in the USA, with over 100 diesel, steam and electric locomotives.
    The line currently has four working steam locomotives, and trains operate daily from April through to October. Website

And some other interesting lines, but shorter and/or without regular steam services

7.  Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Location: West Virginia. Length 38 miles
This standard gauge railroad is the longest regular steam train route in the  eastern half of the USA. Services operate out of Bryson City, in the middle of the route, eastwards up the Tuckasgee River as far as Dillsboro, or westwards  further into the hills, past Fontana Lake, as far as Nantahala. The twisting track follows wooded valleys along very picturesque routes
    The line is run by American Heritage Railways, who also run the Durango and Silverton. As of 2024, motive power includes only one operating steam locomotive, so most services are diesel powered.  However a second steam locomotive is being renovated and should be brought into service in 2026.

8. Sacramento Southern Railroad. California. Steam trains from the Railroad museum in Sacramento.

9. The Mount Washington cog railway. New Hampshire. This was the world's first mountain cog railway. Due to the cost - both financial and environmental - of maintaining and using the historic steam locos, most services are now run using diesel engines running on bio-diesel fuel.

10. The Grand Canyon Railroad, at Williams, Arizona (on I-40). Once the only way for visitors to get to the Grand Canyon, this 60 mile route operates sporadic steam services, notably on the first saturday of the month May to September. Passengers traveling across the USA by rail on the Southwest Chief train have to get off at Flagstaff and take a connecting bus to Williams, as the Amtrak Williams stop was discontinued in 2017.



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Cass Scenic Railroad by  Jason Underwood CC 2.0



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