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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
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
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
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
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
and the C&T still operates historic rotary snowplows to clear
the tracks. Website
2. The Durango
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
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
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
The Cass scenic railroad
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
locomotives, designed to pull
heavy lumber trains up and down steep inclines. Five of the line's
eight Shays are in operating condition. Website
Black Hills Central Railroad
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
The Essex Steam Train,
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
The Strasburg Rail Road
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
The line currently has four working
steam locomotives, and trains operate daily from April through to
And some other interesting lines, but
shorter and/or without regular steam services
7. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Location: West Virginia. Length 38 miles
standard gauge railroad is the longest regular steam train route in the
eastern half of the USA. Services operate out of Bryson City,
middle of the route, eastwards up the Tuckasgee River as far as
Dillsboro, or westwards further into the hills, past Fontana
far as Nantahala. The twisting track follows wooded valleys along very
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
renovated and should be brought into service in 2026.
8. Sacramento Southern Railroad.
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.
For more background to the USA.....
Book / ebook
Background to modern America
people, places and
that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern
America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other
languages, and anyone wanting to learn some of the background
today's USA. Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and
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