Scenic Rides, Vintage Trains and Unique Rail Museums
Train travel was once the way many saw the region, leisurely sitting and looking outside as the train rumbled down the tracks to destinations crisscrossing the Pacific Northwest states. Today, only a handful of these once numerous railroads have passenger capabilities, but railroads deliver an unforgettable experience.
There is no denying that the Pacific Northwest is a wonderland, but as we zip to and fro in cars, attentive and responsible motorists may often miss some of the more subtle nuances of the terrain. With hands at 10 and two, and a focus on the road and the cars all around, drivers may miss the towering stands of evergreens, the rolling hills, the glaciated peaks or the rugged geology of the ancient flood lands. Thankfully, there is a way to see the breathtaking landscape — the scenic train rides of Washington.
Leavenworth in Winter and Beyond
One of the classic, scenic train rides in Western Washington is the route to the Bavarian-inspired mountain town of Leavenworth. Passing into the rugged Cascade Mountains, skirting Highway 2 and the Skykomish River, riders will be in awe at the natural beauty of the region. Towering peaks and dense forests are visible from the train, but for many, the highlight before reaching Leavenworth is passing through the Cascade Tunnel, an 8-mile-long tunnel that is one of the longest in North America.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder is an option for a scenic trip to Leavenworth any time of the year. Be aware that there are no day-trip options, however. A layover of a day or more in Leavenworth may be required to make this a round-trip train ride. The Empire Builder also allows riders to go to Leavenworth from Spokane.
(In December, a local tour operator also charters an Amtrak train that leaves Seattle for Leavenworth each Saturday, giving riders a chance to bask in the town’s renowned holiday celebration. After a scenic train ride, passengers can partake in the festivities during the annual Christmas Lighting Festival before heading back to Seattle.)
Glacier National Park
The Empire Builder runs a much longer journey from Seattle to Chicago, and it passes through jaw-dropping landscapes as it crosses the northern part of the country. One doesn’t have to go all the way to Chicago, though. The train stops at Glacier National Park, giving passengers a chance to get off and see the sights of this wondrous park before returning back home a few days later.
For a change of pace and scale, head up to Highway 2 and visit the Great Northern and Cascade Railway in Skykomish. Located at a fully restored 1898 Great Northern Railway Depot, this is a unique stop for all ages. What makes it so special is the free train rides on a 1/8-scale train around a 0.5-mile track to enjoy.
The train runs from May through October, and the museum is open five days a week (closed on Tuesday and Wednesday). With an emphasis on the history of the Great Northern Railway, stopping here lets visitors experience and learn about the region’s rail history.
Snoqualmie Valley and Falls
Off of Interstate 90 at North Bend, a short, scenic railway adventure awaits. Starting at the North Bend Depot, the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad traverses through the Upper Snoqualmie Valley all the way to views of the iconic Snoqualmie Falls. From historic railroad coaches, passengers can take in the sights of the lower Cascades along a 5.5-mile stretch of railway that has been used since the 1880s.
Trains depart for this roughly 2-hour roundtrip ride on weekends from April through November, with a number of special themed rides around holidays. A Yuletide Express and Santa Train also make 25-minute and 2-hour holiday excursions, respectively, on select dates in late November and December. Consider staying in the area and exploring the Northwest Railway museums along the route, located at multiple spots in the Snoqualmie Valley.
Shelton’s the Peninsular
Scenic rides aren’t just limited to trips around the Cascades. Out on the Olympic Peninsula near Shelton, the Peninsular Railway and Lumbermen’s Museum is one of the newest scenic train ride and museum locations in Washington. Riders and visitors to the museum are able to learn about the rich logging history of Mason County by touring the rail lines at the old Simpson Timber dry lot. The current ride around the industrial park is approximately 2.25 miles and takes 20 minutes. Longer rides are being planned, with hopes to get passengers deeper into the woods of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum
Along the I-5 corridor, the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum should not be missed. The rides grant passengers glimpses of Mount Rainier, passing over wooden bridges and rolling through forests next to the Chehalis River. This is a gorgeous ride along a scenic route pulled by a 100-year-old steam engine. There are also numerous themed rides, including a Murder Mystery Train, a Wild West Train, a Mother’s Day Train and a Santa Holiday Train.
Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad
One of the classic scenic train rides in Washington is at the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe. The passenger train service, pulled by historic steam engines, runs along the heritage railroad to the Mount Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum. The museum and rides are closed for the foreseeable future because of COVID-19 and other complications, but should be visited when it reopens for the fun rides and seasonal events it hosts.
In August 2022, the railroad announced it had formed a new board of directors and was developing a phased reopening plan, with the ultimate goal of restoring several steam locomotives, restarting the railroad operations and building a new museum. More updates will be published here.
Chelatchie Prairie Railroad
Down in Yacolt, under the watchful eye of Mount Saint Helens, the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad has a number of themed rides through mid-December, including fall leaf peeping, Halloween-themed and patriot rides, and special Christmas excursions. The train follows the old lumber and passenger line, which was started in 1888, and is a favorite of train enthusiasts.
Vance Creek Railriders (Self-Propelled)
If you have ever wanted to travel down railroad tracks at your speed, the Vance Creek Railriders near Shelton, Washington, is ready. Following a line of track laid by the Simpson Logging Co., this ride is unlike anything else around. Instead of sitting back on a train car, passengers are part of the action as they help to pedal a multi-seat, open-air, human-powered vehicle.
The 2-hour, 13-mile round-trip journey passes through forests and winds along and passes over Goldsborough Creek. The adventures into the Olympic Peninsula start at the end of May and run three times a day, Thursday through Monday, until October.
Not-to-Miss Train Museums
Although scenic rides are only located in a few spots around the region, the impact of train travel and commerce is readily apparent at the numerous train museums of North Idaho and Eastern Washington. The Northern Pacific Depot Museum in Wallace, Idaho, is an incredible glimpse into the region when driving along Interstate 90. Located in an old chateau-style depot building, the museum details the rich railroad, mining and history of Wallace and the surrounding Silver Valley.
In Eastern Washington, the Railroad Depot Museum in Ritzville is a good stop while out exploring the Palouse. While Ritzville is off the beaten path today, at one time the town was frequented by up to 10 passenger trains a day. Today, the museum houses historical displays inside, while a colorful caboose sits outside.
West of Spokane along Highway 2, near the small town of Reardan, is a can’t-miss for train enthusiasts. At the Inland NW Rail Museum, visitors will find a huge collection of engines, diner cars, boxcars and railroad vehicles of all ages, shapes and sizes. Inside, the museum houses model railroads and numerous displays about the railroad history of the Inland Empire. The museum is open seasonally, so check before you go.
Two more train museums, the Northern Pacific Railway Museum in Toppenish and the Yakima Valley Trolleys’ Electric Railway Museum, an electric railway museum in Yakima, are excellent stops.
–Written by Douglas Scott, last updated in October 2022.
–Top image is a view of Glacier National Park as seen from the Empire Builder