It’s midsummer, and you have a serious problem — you haven’t taken a vacation yet! Heck, you haven’t even planned one. Partly this is because no one can agree on travel plans. Despite your best efforts, your friends and family don’t share your love of railways, and they are bored by your suggestions of Strasburg, Cass, and Ely. Before any more pages slip off the calendar, consider the following vacation ideas that should work for everyone.
Let’s start in my former stomping grounds, the Pacific Northwest, where your best option is Montana’s Glacier National Park. This park has 700 miles of trails through the beautiful glades and mountains of the northern Rockies. Numerous historic hotels are available, such as the Izaak Walton Inn built by the railroad in 1939 to encourage tourism. For the railfan, the former Great Northern main line, now BNSF Railway, runs right through the southern edge of the park, offering dozens of trains per day, plus Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Additional cost: extra-strength bear spray.
The northeast also has an option for mountain adventures if you head to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. This 6,288-foot peak is the tallest in the region, and it has been a favored climb since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson. There’s plenty of hiking to do, plus the beautiful Mount Washington Hotel in the nearby resort town of Bretton Woods. For the railfan, though, there is an amazing survivor, the (sometimes) steam-powered Mount Washington Cog Railway, ascending 3,500 feet in only three miles. Additional cost: blistered feet from repositioning for yet another shot of the same train.
What about a vacation for the transit fan? Try New Orleans, home to the oldest continually operated streetcar in the world, the St. Charles Avenue Line, founded in 1835. In recent decades, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has expanded the streetcar service to a five-line system, but it still uses a mixture of historical and reproduction cars. It’s all highly photogenic, and the city has plenty for your friends or family to do while you geek out. Additional cost: another two inches to your waistline, thanks to beignets and muffuletta sandwiches.
While we’re on the subject of cities, why not go to New York? If you like to ride trains rather than photograph them, this is nearly a railway amusement park. There are hundreds of miles of subways alone, plus hundreds more of scenic commuter rail lines reaching into the suburbs in almost every direction. There’s also cool infrastructure to see, from the famous Hell Gate Bridge to the halls of Grand Central Terminal. Best yet, you can disguise all this train riding as “just getting around,” so you’re railfanning without even trying. Additional cost: figuring out weekend service interruptions during the MTA’s ongoing reconstruction programs.
What if you want a beach adventure? Head to San Diego, where the former Santa Fe “Surf Line” runs right along the beach for large stretches of its 42- mile run between San Clemente and Del Mar, Calif. Here, you can soak up the rays or take a swim in the ocean while right behind you, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner runs five round-trips per day. As a bonus, at Oceanside is the Sprinter commuter rail using European-style Siemens DMUs. Additional costs: possible sunburn, and repair costs to remove sand from your camera.
As you can see, it is still possible to get in a summer vacation that pleases both you and those train-oblivious people you love. All it really takes is a little creative thinking.
—Consulting Editor ALEXANDER BENJAMIN CRAGHEAD is a transportation historian, photographer, artist, and author.