All aboard for adventure on the rails


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.

Serene rolling hills and wooded farmland surround the marshy river, which is usually filled with riverboats. Every now and then, when the route bends and curves, you can see the front of the train in this spectacular setting. A highlight of the trip is Lake Pepin, where the river is more than a mile wide. Cost one-way: $28 coach; $227 private deluxe bedroom (meal included).

* Cumberland to Washington (148 miles) -- Scott Leonard of the National Association of Railroad Passengers says, "The Potomac River Valley stretch is my personal favorite. I never tire of the scenery, and the Capitol Limited has an old dome car with a 360 [-degree] view, where I can really appreciate it."

This popular three-hour run begins in Cumberland, nestled in the Allegheny mountains, then coasts along the Potomac River, veers inland into farmland and apple-growing country, and then crosses the famous railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry heading to Washington.

From the bridge, you can see three states: Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. This is one of the few Amtrak trains that boasts a dome car, so you can see over the roof of the train. Cost one-way: $31 coach; $129, private deluxe bedroom (meal included).

* New York City to Albany, N.Y. (141 miles) -- If you want to be in a bustling cosmopolitan city one minute, then escape to the tranquil beauty of the provincial countryside the next, this is the stretch for you. Made famous by the Alfred Hitchcock film "North by Northwest," this passage runs through the Hudson River Valley.

Just outside Poughkeepsie, the midpoint of the ride, the sun sets, beautifully highlighting the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River. The three-hour ride is popular in the fall during peak foliage season. Best views are from the riverside seats of the train. Cost one-way: $40 coach.

* Charleston to White Sulphur Springs (Greenbrier Resort), W.Va. (147 miles) -- "I met my husband on a train, and if I had to pick one of the most romantic trips on our train routes, this is it by far," says Pat Kelly, an Amtrak representative. This stretch runs through the heart of America's coal-mining country -- the Appalachian Mountains.

The Cardinal offers a spectacular three-hour journey when the leaves change in fall. The train snakes along the New River

Gorge, with its awesome mountain scenery.

The train stops at the doorstep of Greenbrier Resort, an elegant spa and playground. The Cardinal runs three times a week. Make your reservations well in advance. Cost one-way: $25 coach; $123 private deluxe room (meal included).

* Matapedia to Gaspe, Quebec (202 miles) Train aficionados speak highly of this six-hour stretch. The Chaleur moves slowly, hugging the Gaspe Coast and offering views of the misty blue Gulf of St. Lawrence, the bird sanctuary on Bonaventure Island and Perce Rock, where blue herons soar overhead.

A potpourri of English and French is spoken by passengers on this train, which travels through sparsely populated countryside similar to that of Cape Cod. The Chaleur runs three times a week.

For this trip, it's best to depart from Montreal, sleep on board and wake up in Matapedia. Cost one-way (includes Montreal): $90 coach; $220 private bedroom.

IF YOU GO . . .

The U.S. train rides are operated by Amtrak. The Canadian train is run by Via Rail. The Coast Starlight, Pioneer, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief and Empire Builder are double-decker superliners featuring a Sightseer Lounge.

Because of the popularity of some of these trips, consider booking in advance.

For more information:

* Amtrak, Customer Relations Department, 60 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002; for reservations: (800) USA-RAIL.

* Via Rail, 2 Place Ville-Marie, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3C 3N3; for reservations: (800) 561-3949.

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