All aboard for adventure on the rails

October 24, 1993|By Nancy Mills | Nancy Mills,Contributing Writer

There I was, pillow fluffed, head resting, feet propped, staring out my window due north of Santa Barbara, Calif., thinking about how many magnificent rail stretches there are throughout this great land.

By traversing the country by rail, you can see the back roads, natural wonders, small towns and big cities in a completely different fashion than by driving the highways. On a train you can surrender to the experience, while not holding tightly to a steering wheel.

Plus, if you choose to travel in your own private stateroom, you can fill it with candles, balloons, a picnic basket, a significant other, a bottle of champagne.

The following 10 rail trips -- all 200 miles or less -- have been selected for their beauty, amenities and the fact that you can just go for the ride. You don't really need a destination.

* Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo, Calif. (119 miles) -- Train connoisseurs say there's nothing like this stretch. In awe, I've named it the California Riviera.

For two gorgeous hours northbound from Santa Barbara, the slow-moving Coast Starlight weaves along the shore of the Pacific Ocean next to mossy cliffs, jagged mountains, pebbled beaches and wisps of yellow poppies. There's nary a person in sight along the route, only a few whales leaping from the sea.

Then the scenery changes dramatically, and for the last 40 minutes of the ride, the train enters the heartland of California's farm country. The dining car, complete with linen and china, is a good place to meet people and view the scenery. Cost one-way: $25 coach; $153 private deluxe bedroom (includes meals).

* Portland to the Dalles, Ore. (84 miles) -- If you are lucky enough to be making tracks on this stellar 90-minute passage, you'll leave the citified atmosphere of Portland on the double-decker Pioneer and journey through the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge. With the water gushing far below and the rugged peaks rising above you, the train chugs through magnificent scenery in the Cascade Mountain Range.

Landmarks on the trip are the "Bridge of the Gods" at the foot of the gorge, the historic Cascade Locks and the snowcapped Mount Hood. The Columbia River Gorge is a sail-boarder's paradise, and most of the year colorful windsurfers can be seen on the river. Cost one-way: $16 coach; $274 private deluxe bedroom (meal included).

* Denver to Glenwood Springs (Aspen), Colo. (185 miles) -- The California Zephyr starts its five-hour stretch 40 miles west of Denver and begins a journey nicknamed the "Rocky Mountain High." Deep canyons, pine trees, rugged mountains, boulders, spellbinding tunnels, wind-swept curves, the churning Colorado River and spectacular wildlife -- from deer to bald eagles -- make up the moving panorama.

The scenery is best seen from the upper-level of the Sightseer Lounge. In Glenwood Springs there's a charming red-brick Victorian station, and in the distance you can see the steamy outdoor hot springs. Shuttle buses are available to Aspen. Cost one-way: $51 coach; $321 private deluxe bedroom (meal included).

* Albuquerque to Gallup, N.M. (161 miles) -- If it's a sunset you're looking for, here's your rail stretch.

The station in Albuquerque is bustling with Indian artisans selling their jewelry. Once aboard the Southwest Chief, an interpretive guide from the Inter-Tribe Indian Ceremonial Association regales passengers with stories of American-Indian life and the passing landscape.

The desert, dramatic mesas and protruding rocks are great, but it is not until just before Gallup, when the sun sets, that the horizon becomes a vision of reds and oranges. A good place to be on the train for the sunset -- and for a meal to remember -- is the upper-level dining car. Cost one-way: $23 coach; $281 private deluxe bedroom (meal included).

* Whitefish to Glacier Park, Mont. (79 miles) -- This is one of the most beautiful train stretches. The Empire Builder leaves Whitefish, a picturesque valley gateway, then ascends Marias Pass, crosses the Continental Divide and rides along waterfalls, river gorges and dramatic natural terrain.

The train then swoops into Glacier National Park. All around are snowy mountains and an abundance of wildlife, from bears to mountain goats.

The Glacier Park stop, which lets passengers off at the romantic Glacier Park Lodge, is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Cost one-way: $17 coach; $299 private deluxe bedroom (meal included).

* St. Paul, Minn., to La Crosse, Wis. (137 miles) -- Some connoisseurs refer to this passage as the "Rhine of the Midwest," since the Empire Builder runs alongside the upper Mississippi River for most of this three-hour journey.

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