The era of train travel may have come and gone but for many a journey by train continues to stir nostalgia and a desire to connect with the past. It may be faster to get from point A to point B by plane, but when you board a train there's something magical about experiencing the mountains, prairies, even the big cities from the comfort of a railcar. Whether you have just an hour or a few weeks, there are plenty of ways to satisfy your desire for train travel.
If you only have an hour
Even if you have just one hour, there's time to take in the scenery and countryside aboard a vintage steam train. Hop on an open-air steam train in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, for a 45-minute round-trip journey along the Strasburg Rail Road for sweeping views of the Amish countryside. After your ride, check out the model trains at the Choo Choo Barn or grab a bite inside a train car at the nearby Red Caboose Restaurant.
Many railroads also offer seasonal experiences specially made for children, such as the train ride and breakfast buffet with the B&O Easter Bunny in Baltimore. On this hourlong trip, which is offered April 3 and 4, little ones can ride the rails and snap photos with the Easter Bunny while munching on a breakfast buffet. Many railroads across the country also offer Polar Express and Day Out with Thomas-themed train rides for youngsters.
If you have half a day
Wine lovers looking for a unique way to explore the vineyards in Napa Valley may want get their ticket punched aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train. Start your journey with a glass of sparkling wine before taking in the views from a restored dining car and enjoying a three- to four-course lunch or dinner. Try the Gourmet Express Lunch Package ($124 per person) to sample a menu prepared by award-winning executive chef Kelly Macdonald.
If beer is your drink of choice, try an Ales on Rails train excursion through Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. During the two-hour ride, you'll sample five different beers and indulge in a host of hors d'oeuvres as you chug along the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. And if you're interested in a bit of dinner theater, indulge your inner Agatha Christie with one of the Murder Mystery Dinner Trains or Western Train Robbery rides on the Mount Hood Railroad in Hood River, Oregon.
If you have a day
If you have the luxury to spend an entire day on a historic train adventure, consider a ride along the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in southwest Colorado. As the train snakes along the Animas River, it climbs nearly 3,000 feet on its journey from Durango to the mountain valley of Silverton, Colorado. Book a first-class seat in the Knight Sky railcar for a climate-controlled glass dome experience and unparalleled mountain views.
The Grand Canyon Railway is another popular excursion and a great way to experience the UNESCO World Heritage site in a nontraditional sense. Departing daily from the historic train depot in Williams, Arizona, this two-hour train ride to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon gives visitors plenty of time to peer into the canyon, snap a bunch of selfies and eat lunch before heading back to Williams. Look for several getaway packages that combine a daylong train adventure with meals at the Grand Depot Café in Williams and one or two nights at the historic Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.
If you have a week
Amtrak Vacations offers a variety of one- to two-week rail trips enabling travelers to indulge their love of train travel while experiencing the majestic scenery of our national parks, including Yellowstone and Bryce Canyon. There are also a number of experiences for those who prefer urban destinations like point-to-point journeys from Boston to Chicago and from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
You can also pair a train ride with a cruise. America by Rail offers a variety of rail and sail adventures with cruises in Canada, Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean. Most domestic rail and sail packages include four days of train travel and seven or eight days of big ship cruising on lines like Holland America and Princess Cruises. If you're most interested in Alaska, vacations offered by the Alaska Railroad, which can include stops for dog sledding, hiking, rafting and day cruises, may be for you.
If you have time to go cross-country
While a nonstop cross-country train trip can take as little as three days, you'd be wise to make stops along the way to enjoy the cities and countryside. Take your time, purchase separate tickets for each leg of the journey and consult with The Man in Seat Sixty-One, a website dedicated to helping travelers explore the world by rail.
If you'd rather not plan a cross-country train vacation on your own, look to Vacations by Rail for a variety of one- to two-week rail journeys in the U.S., Canada and Europe, among other regions. These vacations can include sightseeing tours, hotel stays and even meals at a number of destinations along the way.
About the author: Erin Gifford is a Washington, D.C.-based travel writer and founder of Kidventurous, an award-winning family travel resource. You can follow her on Twitter at @Kidventurous, connect with her on Facebook or get the latest tips and tricks for traveling families at http://kidventurous.com.