Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved road trips. Whether headed to a Florida beach with Dad or riding to Canada with Mom, I often found the journey as thrilling as the ultimate destination. There was just something incredible – and illuminating – about traveling the open highway, watching the towns, landscapes, and roadside attractions that we passed along the way.
Although my traveling companion has since changed – it’s now my husband, Dan, with whom I share these memorable excursions – the experience remains as inspiring as it ever was. Over the past decade, we’ve clocked countless miles and seen many towns – from San Francisco to Key West – and it hasn’t mattered if our vehicle-of-choice was a pick-up truck, a minivan, or an RV. We still love discovering new places, like Claro’s Italian Markets , a Los Angeles-area, family-operated chain that’s been offering amazing deli items, baked goods, and other Italian delicacies since 1948, or Palo Duro Canyon State Park , a rugged formation near Amarillo that’s widely considered to be the second largest canyon in America.
So, even though I’m a passionate proponent of traveling via car, I must confess an affinity for a way of travel that’s slowly fading into America’s yesteryear: riding the rails. Luckily, despite the fact that abandoned tracks pepper the hinterlands of this nation, it’s still possible to see the country via train.
If you’d prefer to stay close to home, consider the many organizations that have preserved certain stretches of track, allowing visitors a chance to experience a nostalgic train ride. Michigan’s Coopersville & Marne Railway Company  (311 Danforth St., Coopersville, 616/997-7000, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wed. and Sat. May-Oct., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sat. Apr. and Nov.-Dec., $10.50-14.50 adults, $9.50-13.50 seniors 60 and over, $6.50-11.50 children 2-12) is one such organization, operating a train of antique passenger cars across family-owned farmlands, several creeks, and open bridges, from Coopersville to Marne and back again. For well over an hour, this 14-mile excursion transports passengers back to a simpler time, before the rise of the automobile – complete with old-time music and a glimpse at wild deer, turkeys, and eagles. Throughout the year, the railway also offers thematic trips, including the Troop Train on Memorial Day, which is free to all military veterans; The Great Train Robbery, a Western-style shoot-‘em-up on weekends in July; and the kid-favored Santa Train in December.
Of course, for a truly unique experience, you should plan a trip aboard Amtrak  (800/872-7245), which offers an assortment of cross-country routes, including the Sunset Limited, a 48-hour trip that links New Orleans, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. Other trains link parts of California, the Pacific Northwest, and the East Coast, and plenty of lines originate in Chicago, Amtrak’s hub – lines like the Southwest Chief, which takes you to Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles; the Capitol Limited, which passes through Cleveland and Pittsburgh, en route to Washington, D.C.; and my favorite, the City of New Orleans, which links Chicago to Memphis and the Big Easy.
Many of these trains offer dining cars, bedroom suites, and other amenities – though you should call ahead to be sure. It’s also recommended that you make reservations well in advance, especially if you’re planning to stay on the train overnight. If you hope to save money, check out Amtrak’s online deals , including weekly specials and weekend getaway fares.
To encourage train ridership, Amtrak and the National Park Service have created Trails & Rails , an innovative partnership that presents onboard park-related programs on certain routes. For instance, the Empire Builder, the line between Chicago and Seattle, has four onboard programs that operate out of the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and Mississippi River National Recreation Area. So, consider that when making your travel plans.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me at laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.