AmtrakAmtrak Tips

Top 10 Amtrak Routes For First Time Riders

Amtrak Coast Starlight
Dining Room on the Coast Starlight
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There are 43 Amtrak routes in the USA and some of them are much more scenic than others. If you are a first time rider on Amtrak you’ll want to blend both scenery and amenities into a trip to give yourself the best experience. Our top 10 Amtrak routes include trains that offer the best of both worlds. Pick one that is close to you and start your Amtrak journey on one of their best routes.

The Top 10 Amtrak Routes

  1. California Zephyr
  2. Empire Builder
  3. Coast Starlight
  4. Southwest Chief
  5. Acela
  6. Texas Eagle
  7. Pacific Surfliner
  8. Downeaster
  9. Sunset Limited
  10. Crescent

California Zephyr

Miles2,438
Hours51.5
Terminus StationsChicago, IL & Emeryville, CA
Sleeper CarsSuperliner
Observation CarYes

The California Zephyr is the prettiest route in the United States. It features beautiful views through the gorges in Colorado, and breathtaking scenery as you cross the mountains in California.

The best portion of the route is from Denver, CO to Emeryville, CA so don’t get off to soon before you see this magical scenery. Due to the outstanding views, the California Zephyr features an observation car that can be used by all passengers.

Amtrak Routes - California Zephyr

The California Zephyr features traditional dining, which includes table cloth service in the dining car for sleeper car passengers.

We love including the California Zephyr as part of a larger vacation as you can connect to many other cross country routes in Chicago.

Empire Builder

Miles2,206
Hours46
Terminus StationsChicago, IL & Seattle, WA or Portland, OR
Sleeper CarsSuperliner
Observation CarYes

The Empire Builder is the most underrated Amtrak route. Due to its northern course, it is less traveled than the southern routes, but the northern part of the USA is beautiful country and this route is not to be missed.

Amtrak Routes - Empire Builder
Puget Sound from the Empire Builder

Along this route you’ll see the Mississippi River, Glacier National Park, and Puget Sound among other highlights. This route has terminus stations of Chicago on one end and Seattle or Portland on the other. The train splits into two routes after entering Washington state from Chicago.

14 Day Vacation Around The USA With Amtrak
A quick, fresh air break in Minnesota:-)

One thing we love about the Empire Builder is that the observation car is usually not as full as other southern routes, giving perfect views to all passengers. We also love that the Empire Builder has traditional dining and sleeper cars, giving a full vacation experience.

Coast Starlight

Miles1,377
Hours34
Terminus StationsLos Angeles, CA and Seattle, WA
Sleeper CarsSuperliner
Observation CarYes

If ocean views in California are a priority for you, the Coast Starlight should be your choice. Not only will you get amazing views of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll also see Mt. Saint Helens and Mt. Rainier to the east near Seattle.

This is a shorter 1 night trip, making it the perfect Amtrak route for a first time rider. You’ll get the same amenities as the longer routes, including traditional dining and an observation car, but you’ll get to your destination much quicker and for less money.

Amtrak Routes - Coast Starlight
Allie on the Coast Starlight

Southwest Chief

Miles2,265
Hours43
Terminus StationsChicago, IL & Los Angeles, CA
Sleeper CarsSuperliner
Observation CarYes

The Southwest Chief loosely follows the old Route 66 car route and travels from Chicago to Los Angeles. It is the perfect train to see the American Southwest or to get off and explore Route 66.

We loved the traditional dining and observation car and seeing a part of the country that is not accessible by car. This is the most direct route from Chicago to Los Angeles by train.

Amtrak Routes - Southwest Chief
Allie Eating Dinner on the Southwest Chief

Acela

Miles457
Hours7
Terminus StationsBoston, MA & Washington D.C.
Sleeper CarsNo
Observation CarNo

Amtrak’s fastest train is the Acela, which serves the Northeast corridor. You can stop in major cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C., making it the perfect day train to use between major US cities.

North of New York on your way to Boston is where the train will hit its top speed of 150mph. We loved the spacious First Class seats we rode in, which included a meal, but the Business Class seats look really great as well.

One of our favorite views, and an Amtrak bucket list experience, is seeing the view heading south into New York City on the Acela.

Texas Eagle

Miles2,728
Hours68
Terminus StationsChicago, IL & Los Angeles, CA
Sleeper CarsSuperliner
Observation CarYes

Amtrak’s longest route comes in at a whopping 68 hours and takes you from Chicago to Los Angeles. If you want the full Amtrak experience, you’ll have it before you get off the Texas Eagle. It shoots through the Midwest into the South through Texas and then follows the border to Mexico across to California.

We really enjoyed seeing US border on this train, with clear views into Mexico while in Texas. If you aren’t afraid of spending this much time on a train, this is an incredible route.

Our Bedroom on the Texas Eagle

Pacific Surfliner

Miles350
Hours8
Terminus StationsSan Diego, CA & San Luis Obispo, CA
Sleeper CarsNo
Observation CarNo

The Pacific Surfliner takes the same route as the Coast Starlight north from Los Angeles. It also travels south of Los Angeles though, and has wonderful ocean views there as well. The Pacific Surfliner doesn’t go north though out of California.

Amtrak Routes- Downeaster
Allie in Business Class on the Pacific Surfliner

Since this is only an 8 hour ride, there are no sleeper cars and no observation car. The views are amazing, but if you’d like those amenities, go with the Coast Starlight.

Amtrak Routes - Pacific Surfliner
Pacific Surfliner in California

Downeaster

Miles145
Hours3.5
Terminus StationsBoston, MA & Brunswick, ME
Sleeper CarsNo
Observation CarNo

The shortest route on our list is the Downeaster. It runs from Boston, MA into Maine and offers beautiful views of the shoreline to the east. The Downeaster is also the only train not connected to the rest of the Amtrak system, as it starts at the Boston North Station. All other trains depart from the Boston South Station, so you’ll need to take a quick cab ride to connect.

Sunset Limited

Miles1,995
Hours46
Terminus StationsNew Orleans, LA & Los Angeles, CA
Sleeper CarsSuperliner
Observation CarYes
Amtrak Routes - Sunset Limited
Crossing the Mississippi River on the Sunset Limited

The Sunset Limited runs the same route as the Texas Eagle once it gets to Texas. Our favorite part of the trip though is crossing the Mississippi River. The bridge is outstanding and the views are great from the train.

Sunset Limited Route

Crescent

Miles1,377
Hours30
Terminus StationsNew York City, NY & New Orleans, LA
Sleeper CarsViewliner
Observation CarNo

The Crescent is a great route if you live on the East Coast or in the South. It is the only route that runs through Atlanta, and will take you for a day trip to New Orleans or an overnight trip to New York City. The views of New Orleans are very nice, as you usually arrive in the evening.

Since we are from Atlanta, this is a favorite of ours!

Booking Amtrak Tickets

To book a ticket for any of these Amtrak routes, use our Amtrak ticket booking guide to purchase tickets at the lowest price in any class. Amtrak also runs sales and discounts on most routes.

For more information on Amtrak trains check out our Amtrak Tips page and for videos check out our YouTube Channel.

Robert Marmion
Rob is married to Allie and together they have been traveling the world for the past 2 years. Rob is one of the most published photographers in the world, having published over 750,000 images in the last 15 years. He enjoys doing landscape and astrophotography while on the road.