The World's Most Scenic Winter Train Rides

Few films capture the beauty of winter train travel as the 1974 silver screen mystery, “Murder on the Orient Express.” In it, Hercule Poirot investigates a stabbing that occurred on a train from Istanbul to Paris. But this is no ordinary commute, as the seats are covered in red velvet and the scenery outside the windows is filled with snow-dusted mountains and pine trees. Even when a balding suspect exclaims “The butler did it!” the train car looks luxurious and romantic. The delicate silverware and flowery sconces play almost as important roles as Lauren Bacall and Sean Connery. Thankfully, no bloodshed is necessary to enjoy the splendor of a winter locomotive ride today. Options are available around the world, from historic re-creations that will take you back to the early 20th century to modern coaches covered in glass to accentuate the view. Check out the most scenic winter train rides below.

Rocky Mountaineer, Canada

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Roderick Eime

Want to witness the beauty of the Rocky Mountains without getting your hiking boots dirty? The Rocky Mountaineer luxury train company offers several sightseeing tours around western Canada. The Coastal Passage route, for example, carries riders from Seattle to Vancouver with a view of the Strait of Georgia and Rockies. Journey Through the Clouds transports passengers from Vancouver to Jasper, through valleys and across mountains, along the Fraser River, and past the Albreda Glacier and Pyramid Falls. The glass-domed coaches have windows that wrap from the side of the car to the top, allowing for a view that combines the horizon and sky. SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf levels of service are available, which offer slightly different cars and menu options. Some of the dining options include Canadian cheddar soufflé for breakfast and albacore tuna with caper ragout for lunch -- plenty to keep you warm as you roll through the snowy scene.

Glacier Express, Switzerland

Photo courtesy of Cruise Express via Flickr/Roderick Eime

Extending from the ski resort town of St. Moritz to Zermatt, this trek offers riders an up-close view of the Swiss Alps. Don’t be fooled by the name, though -- it isn’t actually an express (the ride, which is often referred to as "the slowest express in he world," takes about seven-and-a-half hours). The "express" means you can buy one seat for the whole trip. If you don’t need to zip between ski resorts, you can sign up for one of four segments of the route and still get a good look at the sedimentary limestone that forms many of the Alps’ edges and cliffs. The Oberalp Pass is considered a highlight and it’s high and snowy enough that the nearby road is closed during the winter. First and second class seating are available, both of which offer windows that extend to include a part of the ceiling. The glaciers are actually high up on the mountains and tough to see, but there’s plenty of other breathtaking scenery to consider. Many riders warn that the food and souvenirs are pricey, and you can get by just fine if you bring your own lunch. 

Alaska Railroad, United States

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Luke Jones

While Alaska may seem like the type of destination where it's winter year-round, its railroad is much busier in the summertime. In the winter, the Alaska Railroad limits the service. The Aurora Winter route connects Anchorage and Fairbanks, with a trip through the backcountry that allows for views of pristine terrain with no roads. One of the trip highlights is a gorgeous view of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. If you're lucky, you might even be rewarded with the occasional wild moose sighting. The Susitna River, which ices over in the winter, can also be easily viewed from the train’s panoramic windows. Opt for Adventure Class, which offers comfortable seating and large windows. Open-air vestibules between cars also provide a breath of fresh air and the perfect photo op. As for tour guides, high school students are trained to explain the numerous sights.

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, Russia

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Simon Pielow

Described as a “hotel on wheels,” the cabins on a Golden Eagle train probably have more amenities than any other you’ve experienced by rail. Gold Class cabins have a private bathroom with separate power shower cubicle as well as bathrobes included; Silver Class cabins feature a lower small doube bed or bunk-style bed, private bathroom, and linen service. The Golden Eagle has several routes, but the winter traveler might be most interested in the Arctic Explorer, which goes from St. Petersburg to the Norwegian Arctic Circle to see the Northern Lights. Stops along the way include Moscow and Kirkenes in Norway plus several day trips like a snowmobile safari and snowshoe hike. Inside the train’s lounge car are red velvet booths, crystal glassware, and a pianist playing a baby grand. The menu specializes in Russian dishes such as black sturgeon and red Pacific salmon. Watch the snow fall on trees and roads through the windows. In addition to the Arctic Explorer is a Trans-Siberian Express route (from Moscow to Vladivostok) and the Land of the Midnight Sun, which rolls deep into the Arctic Circle and back, making stops to view deep fjords and dense forests.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, United States

Originally opened in 1882 to haul gold and silver, this train was soon promoted as a tourist route given its scenic trek through Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Part of the trip also gives riders a view of the 1.8 million-acre San Juan National Forest. The train has even starred in several movies, including "Around the World in 80 Days" and "Viva Zapata!" The current Durango engine car was introduced in the 1920s and is coal-fired and steam-powered. Ticket classes range from Presidential, which comes with built-in Pullman berth seating, to coaches from 1887, which have stuffed bench seating. There's also a standard class option, which features seating similar to economy class in an airplane. The 26-mile route is often packaged with other offerings such as nearby hiking or rafting. During the winter, the railroad also provides packages such as the Polar Express with costumed characters as well as the New Year's Day Brunch Train. These two experiences don't come cheap, but how often you get a chance to ride through the mountains in a steam-powered train?

Flam Railway, Norway

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Alasdair

The Flam Railway, which winds through the Flam Valley for a 13-mile trip, is an engineering marvel. The route has 10 stations, 20 tunnels, and one bridge. Still, most of the journey has a gradient of five-and-a-half percent, making it one of the steepest train lines in the world. As the train zig-zags through the fjord, expect to see waterfalls and steep mountains. The ravines and gullies that are filled with snow only add to the thrill of this ride. First opened in 1940, the railway keeps the trains modern since plenty of engine and braking power is needed to make the trip safe -- particularly when there's snow or ice. 

Royal Scotsman, United Kingdom

Few train rides come packaged with a castle ruin, whiskey distillery, afternoon tea, and candlelit dinner. But you can always count on the Royal Scotsman to offer all. The train rolls throughout Great Britain, with some routes passing the Scottish Highlands and others focusing on the grand mansions and castles of the countryside. Each of the sleeper cabins have a private bathroom and wood paneling. Dinners alternate between formal and informal (formal attire for men means a tuxedo or kilt, while women can wear a cocktail dress). Dinner dishes include warm pigeon salad accompanied by black currant dressing and Aberdeen Angus beef with soft rosemary polenta. But you'll want to look up from that gourmet food occasionally, so you can see the white peaks of the highlands. 

Related Stories: