glacier amtrak station
East Glacier Park, Montana (Photo: SeanXu, iStock)

How to Take a Train to All the Best National Parks

Visit 13 of America’s best-loved national parks on this cross-country national-park train loop

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The Great American Road Trip may promise national parks galore, but driving’s not the only way to visit America’s best idea. Numerous Amtrak stations lie within two hours—or closer—of the country’s top national park getaways. Some stops offer hiker shuttles, other visits require rental cars, and parks like Glacier and Gateway Arch let you stroll from the platform to the park entrance.

To inspire your train-to-park getaways, we pored over Amtrak routes, stations, schedules, and logistics. The result? This—the ultimate Amtrak-to-national-park loop, because there’s no better way to see the country than on a long train ride. The cross-country itinerary (and back again), which starts at about $1,200 total for train tickets (coach fare, as of October 2021), includes 13 national parks, ten days of train travel, and specific instructions for getting from platform to park at each stop. If you have time to do it all at once, it’s the trip of a lifetime. Or pick off one park at a time; they’re all worthy.

Stop 1: Olympic National Park | Port Angeles Gateway Transit Center

From station to park: under one hour

Visit the snowy, sawtooth ridges and old-growth rainforests of Olympic National Park via Amtrak’s Thruway bus, which takes ticketed travelers three and a half hours from the Seattle Amtrak station up to Port Angeles, Washington, the gateway to some of the Pacific Northwest’s wildest landscapes.

Grab the Clallam Transit System’s bus route 14 ($1.50) from the Gateway Transit Center to one of Olympic National Park’s most popular destinations, Lake Crescent. The 40-minute bus ride leads to East Beach, just steps from the Lake Crescent Lodge and the trailhead up the steep switchbacks of the Mount Storm King Trail.

For a more flexible visit, grab a rental car from Enterprise or Avis (around $100 per day) in Port Angeles. Both are a few blocks from the station; from there, it’s around 20 miles up to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, the starting point for traversing numerous scenic Klahhane Ridge trails.

Stop 2: Crater Lake National Park | Klamath Falls Station

From station to park: under one hour

Cobalt-blue Crater Lake is the next stop on your national-park train loop. You have two transport options from the closest station, Klamath Falls, roughly 45 miles from the Crater Lake National Park Village Visitor Center. The seasonal Crater Lake Trolley ($40 roundtrip; includes park entrance fee) holds 25 people and runs two-hour tours through the park from July to September (it’s been closed for the past two seasons due to COVID-19 and does not have a reopening date listed).

For off-season visits, go the rental-car route. Enterprise is one mile south of the Klamath Falls Station, and the Rim Village Visitor Center is another hour to the north. From the visitor center, you can join popular hikes like the 3.5-mile Garfield Peak Trail, or grab a bite or room at Crater Lake Lodge.

Train from Port Angeles: 16 hours; one transfer

Stop 3: Yosemite National Park | Merced Station

From station to park: two hours

Reach Yosemite National Park’s plunging waterfalls, soaring sequoias, and awe-striking Half Dome via Amtrak’s Merced Station in central California. From the station, take the YARTS Highway 140 Bus up to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and the Yosemite Valley Lodge, where you can reach trailheads to Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake, and the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point. If you purchase tickets to Yosemite through Amtrak (an additional $20), the YARTS bus fare is included.

Like at Crater Lake and Olympic National Parks, you can also rent a car via Budget or Enterprise in Merced. Both facilities are a 30-minute walk from the station; it’s another two hours driving from here to reach the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center.

Train from Klamath Falls: 12 hours, 35 minutes; two transfers

Stop 4: Channel Islands National Park | Ventura Station

From station to park: 10 minutes, plus one- to three-hour ferry

Further down the national-park-packed West Coast is a string of five unspoiled and biodiverse islands known as the “Galapagos of North America.” To access Channel Islands National Park, take Amtrak to Ventura Station, just beyond Santa Barbara, then grab an Uber or taxi for the five-mile trip over to Ventura Harbor dock, where NPS-licensed concessionaire Island Packers Cruises’ vessels depart (trips start at $60). The Channel Islands ferry ride is anywhere from one to three hours, depending on your island of choice. Expect craggy coastal scenery and potential whale sightings along the way.

For the quickest day-trip option, head to Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands. Its 16 hiking trails, including the two-mile Cavern Point Loop from Scorpion Beach, where Island Packer Cruises lets passengers off, showcase a dazzling palette of Pacific coast scenery.

Train from Merced: six hours; one transfer

Stop 5: Saguaro National Park | Tucson Station

From station to park: under 30 minutes

Make your way inland, from Ventura to San Diego, then San Diego toward Amtrak’s Tucson station, for a quintessentially southwest U.S. stop: Saguaro National Park. Giant saguaros dot this rugged desert expanse, with some cacti standing up to 45 feet tall. The park is split into two, with one section east of the city, and one west. This, plus lack of public transit, means rental cars are the easiest way to get around. Enterprise is just over one mile north of the Tucson station; ZipCar is also available throughout the city.

Eastern Saguaro National Park’s Rincon Mountain Visitor Center and the western side’s Red Hills Visitor Center are each 15 miles from the station. Both portions of the park offer their own sky-high-cacti beauty, but for a truly immersive and humbling experience, admire the scenery and soaring saguaros on the 17-mile Douglas Spring Trail in Saguaro National Park East.

Train from Ventura *: Ventura to San Diego (5 hours, 21 minutes; direct), San Diego to Tucson: 16 hours, 35 minutes; one transfer

*(Note: Amtrak does not offer a straight route from Ventura to Tucson; you must book each leg separately)

Stop 6: Big Bend National Park | Alpine Station

From station to park: one hour

Next stop along the southern U.S. border: the stark desert, deep canyons, and glittering night skies at Big Bend National Park. Alpine Station in western Texas is the closest Big Bend train stop. Rent a car through local agency Alpine Auto Rental; when scheduled in advance, they’ll deliver vehicles to the Amtrak station.

It’s a surreal and remote one-hour drive from Alpine down into the heart of Big Bend National Park, where hikes like the dramatic five-mile Lost Mine Trail lead to views across the Chisos Mountains and beyond.

Train from Tucson: 10 hours, 20 minutes; direct

Stop 7: Hot Springs National Park | Little Rock Union Station

From station to park: one hour

Continue eastbound for a serene dip or forested stroll at Hot Springs National Park, accessible via Arkansas’ Little Rock Union Station. The park’s 26 miles of hiking trails and namesake hot springs are a one-hour drive from the Amtrak stop at Union Station.

Rental cars are ideal for getting from points A to B and beyond, whether that’s a stroll along the three-mile Hot Springs Mountain Trail or a soak at the century-old Buckstaff Bathhouse. Enterprise is a one-mile walk from the Little Rock Union Station.

Train from Alpine: 26 hours, 46 minutes; direct

Stop 8: Gateway Arch National Park | St. Louis Gateway Station

From station to park: 10 minutes

Enjoy a warm Midwest welcome as you enter St. Louis, Missouri, where Gateway Arch National Park awaits just minutes from Gateway Station. This is one of the country’s smallest national parks—a superlative that promises seamless car-free navigation. From the centrally located Gateway Station, stroll 30 minutes to hit the park by foot. Or, for a quicker trip, ride the St. Louis Metro ($1) ten minutes from the nearby Civic Center, to the Lacledes Landing Metrolink Station, next to the park.

Once you’ve reached Gateway Arch National Park, catch the tram to the top of the 63-story arch, visit the onsite museum, or board a Gateway Arch Riverboat, which offers a leisurely Mississippi River paddleboat tour.

Train from Little Rock: 7 hours, 45 minutes; direct

Stop 9: Shenandoah National Park | Charlottesville Amtrak Train Station

From station to park: 30 minutes

Head further east to enjoy the undulating forests and rocky peaks of Shenandoah National Park, accessible from the Charlottesville, Virginia, Amtrak station. Shenandoah’s signature attraction, the 105-mile Skyline Drive that follows the park’s portion of the Appalachian Trail, is most easily enjoyed by car. Enterprise is two miles from the Charlottesville train station; use rideshare or Charlottesville Area Transit Bus Route 10 ($1.50 for 24 hours) to get there.

Beyond Skyline Drive, trails abound near the park’s southern terminus (closest to Charlottesville), including the ten-mile Riprap Trail circuit hike, which features sweeping mountain vistas with brief portions along the famed AT.

Train from St. Louis: 34 hours; two transfers

Stop 10: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve | Charleston Station

From station to park: one hour

En route from Charlottesville to Charleston, West Virginia, Amtrak weaves right through New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The park alone has three Amtrak stops: Hinton, Thurmond, and Prince. Each stop is a few blocks from the New River. Prince in particular is close to top park attractions like the dramatic Thomas Burford Pugh Memorial Bridge, one mile away from the train platform.

But public transportation and ride-share options are scarce near these in-park train stops. A rental car is the most seamless way to fully enjoy the expansive 70,000-acre New River Gorge National Park—whether you’re whitewater rafting or hiking through deep canyons. To go the rental-car route, take the train just north of the park to Charleston’s Amtrak station, where Enterprise is a one-mile walk from the tracks.

Train from Charlottesville: 6 hours, 30 minutes; direct

Stop 11: Acadia National Park | Brunswick Station

From station to park: 2.5 hours

Isolation is one of Acadia National Park’s main allures, but Amtrak gets within arm’s reach of this remote coastal-Maine beauty. Take the train up the east coast to Brunswick, Maine, then grab a rental car at Enterprise, a 1.5-mile walk, or a quick Uber ride, from the station.

At this point, it’s still a two-and-a-half hour drive to reach Acadia, but with 125 miles of hiking trails, including the four-mile Ocean Path along craggy cliffs and Maine’s pristine coastline, this park is well worth the drive. For trips from late June to early October, you can stow the car at your accommodation; the fare-free Island Explorer Shuttle Bus links neighboring hotels, inns, and campgrounds with Acadia’s main attractions.)

Train from Charleston: 29 hours; two transfers

Stop 12: Cuyahoga Valley National Park | Cleveland Station

From station to park: 30 minutes

Head back west-bound to explore the winding gorges and forest-fringed waterfalls in northeast Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just outside of Cleveland. Rent a car to easily access Cuyahoga Valley’s top attractions; Hertz is a one-mile walk from the station, and the park is 30 minutes driving to the south.

See Cuyahoga Valley by foot, with hiking trails like the two-mile Ledges Trail, which twists beneath towering sandstone cliffs. Or, grab yet another train, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, to see the entirety of the park, from bald-eagle nesting sites to the crooked Cuyahoga River.

Train from Brunswick: 20 hours; one or two transfers (depending on the route)

Stop 13: Glacier National Park | East Glacier, West Glacier, or Whitefish Stations

From station to park: under one hour

To close the cross-country train loop, continue westward toward the sky-high peaks and teal lakes of Glacier National Park. The park has three Amtrak-station options. East Glacier Station, used from April to October, is the closest option. It’s walking distance from East Glacier Park Village, Glacier National Park Lodge, and the Mount Henry and Autumn Creek East trailheads.

West Glacier Station, open year-round at the southern end of Going to the Sun Road, is two miles south of the Apgar Visitor Center, with Lake McDonald just beyond that. Xanterra’s summer West Side hiker shuttle provides transportation between West Glacier Station and Lake McDonald Lodge and the Village Inn in Apgar; seats must be booked in advance (fares from $6 to $14, depending on route).

Whitefish, Montana, located just east of Glacier, is your best option for a rental car, ideal for full flexibility when exploring the park, or if you’re visiting in the off season. The closest Enterprise is a ten-mile drive south; take an Uber or taxi to get here. You can also book your own transportation through companies like Arrow Shuttle, which offers transit from Whitefish to Glacier National Park and other area attractions ($120 from Whitefish to West Glacier).

Train from Cleveland: A 40-hour, one-transfer ride completes this Amtrak-to-national-park adventure (although to fully close the loop, it’s another 20 hour, one-transfer train ride from Glacier National Park to Port Angeles’ Gateway Transit Center.) If you’re ready for a splurge after weeks of NPS adventuring, upgrade to a private sleeper car ($900 for up to two adults), with two beds, shower and restroom facilities, and complimentary onboard meals.

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