The Ultimate Guide to Amtrak Cross-Country Travel

Amtrak cross-country train turning a corner

It was one of the original methods for bridging the vast expanses of a young United States – the railroad. The age of the freeway and discount air travel may have ended rail’s status as top dog in the travel world. But train travel is still very much alive for those willing to seek out a little adventure. Long-distance and cross-country rail travel can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience you’ll never forget. But if you’re like many people intrigued by the idea, the logistics may be holding you back. We’re taking a look at everything you need to know for a successful and fun trip on Amtrak cross-country.

Can You Travel Cross-Country By Amtrak Train?

Yes, and no. Let me explain.

Unfortunately, there is no single Amtrak train that runs coast to coast. You’ll need to transfer at least one time to complete a cross-country trip, either in Chicago or New Orleans. This means that, depending on the schedules of your trains, you will likely have a layover. Keep this in mind when planning your trip, but don’t worry too much. Both cities have a ton of great things to do, even for those visiting for a short time.

From Chicago or New Orleans, you’ll be able to complete your trip to the opposite coast. These often terminate at larger hub stations that also offer the opportunity to hop trains heading up and down the coast as a bonus to your Amtrak cross-country trip.

What Amtrak Routes Are Best For Traveling Cross-Country?

For our purposes, we’ll start on the east coast and head west. But in just about all cases, these routes will work in reverse. However, your schedule will be different, which could affect connections and layovers.

Amtrak cross-country route map
Photo via Amtrak

From New York City Or Washington, DC

You’ll begin in either New York (for the Cardinal, Crescent, or Lake Shore Limited) or Washington (for the Capitol Limited.)

The Cardinal

The Cardinal travels from New York City to Chicago via DC, Charlottesville, VA, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. You’ll watch the sprawl of the northeast corridor fall away into the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia before heading along the Ohio River out into the Midwest. It takes 26 hours and 30 minutes to complete the full trip.

The Crescent

The Crescent also originates in New York City. It takes a longer route down the coast, through DC, Charlotte, NC, and Atlanta, before terminating in New Orleans. Highlights of this route include Charlotte and Atlanta’s bustling culture and food scenes and some great smaller cities and towns throughout the southeast like Birmingham, AL, and Greensboro, NC. But beyond connecting you to trains headed further west, New Orleans is undoubtedly the top destination on the trip. The Crescent takes 30 hours in total, allowing you to leave New York mid-afternoon on Friday and be in New Orleans in time for a delicious cajun dinner Saturday night.

The Capitol Limited

The Capitol Limited starts the furthest south, in DC. But it takes a northerly route through Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Chicago. This line is a trip through railroad history, following the course of the iconic B&O Line along the Potomac River and into the Allegheny Mountains. At just 18 hours, it’s the speediest of your initial routes.

The Lake Shore Limited

The Lake Shore Limited takes an unusual path from New York City, heading north up the Hudson River to Albany, meeting up with train cars from Boston. This allows those looking to start their cross-country trip in Boston to do so, rather than going to New York. The train then heads west to Syracuse and Buffalo before traveling along Lake Erie to Cleveland. You’ll also pass along the south shore of Lake Michigan on your way into Chicago, making this a perfect trip for lovers of the Great Lakes. From New York, the trip runs 19 hours in total,

Additional Notes

The Cardinal and Crescent both run through DC after originating in New York. Therefore, riders boarding in the nation’s capital will have their choice of those in addition to the Capitol Limited, depending on their schedule and route preference. If you’re looking for an all-rail trip, many people on the east coast can make their way to New York or DC via the Northeast Regional, Acela, Silver Service, or other regional services.

From Chicago

You’ll have three direct options from Chicago to reach the west coast – the Empire Builder, the Southwest Chief, and the California Zephyr.

The Empire Builder

The Empire Builder takes the northern route through the midwest, stopping in Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Fargo, ND. After crossing the plains, the train route includes four stops in or near Glacier National Park. The Empire Builder has the unique advantage of having two different endpoints. From Spokane, WA, trains will head either to Portland, OR, or Seattle. End to end, this train takes 46 hours.

The Southwest Chief

The speedy Southwest Chief cuts a diagonal route across the plains and into its namesake region. After leaving Chicago, you’ll pass through vast expanses of farmland and fields before arriving in Kansas City your first night. By the next morning, you’ve crossed the middle of the country and arrived in northern New Mexico. Following a stop in Albuquerque, you’ll spend the evening running parallel to what was once the storied Route 66. The Southwest Chief makes stops in classic Route 66 towns like Gallup, NM, Winslow and Flagstaff, AZ, and Barstow and San Bernardino, CA. There’s no shortage of beautiful desert scenery, including views Amtrak says can’t be seen any other way. Take note of the stop in Flagstaff, a perfect jumping-off point for a trip to Grand Canyon National Park. The train takes 41 hours to complete its journey to Los Angeles.

The California Zephyr

The California Zephyr is the train many consider the best Amtrak long-distance route. You’ll leave behind the suburbs of Chicago as you travel into vast expanses of Illinois and Iowa countryside before crossing the Mississippi River. Some of the most breathtaking scenery on this route (and possibly any Amtrak trip) is located on the Zephyr’s second day, as you weave your way up into the Rockies, through Rocky Mountain National Park and stops for famous ski towns like Aspen and Winter Park, and wind through Glenwood Canyon’s unique landscape. You’ll even get to see some of the beautiful landscapes north of Utah’s Arches National Park as the sun sets. After stops in Salt Lake City, Reno, NV, and Truckee/Lake Tahoe, the train ends in Emeryville, just northeast of San Francisco. This route takes 51 hours from start to finish.

From New Orleans

From New Orleans, you’ll need to grab tickets for the Sunset Limited, the only cross-country train available here.

The Sunset Limited

The Sunset Limited is Amtrak’s southernmost route. From the bayous of Louisiana, you’ll pass into Texas, where you’ll enjoy unbelievable views of the southwest desert and the Mexican border. This route also stops in Alpine, the tiny West Texas town that serves as one of the gateways to Big Bend National Park. After skirting through southern New Mexico and Arizona, you’ll climb into the mountains before descending to the final stop in Los Angeles. Start to finish, the Sunset Limited is 48 hours one way.

Alternative Routes

There are two more, less direct options that also offer a path cross-country.

The City Of New Orleans

Are you desperate to see the Big Easy and the south as part of your trip but couldn’t accommodate the Crescent in your schedule? You can take The City Of New Orleans down the Mississippi River from Chicago! With stops in Memphis, TN and Jackson, MS, you’ll get a true taste and view of the region on one of Amtrak’s most famous lines. After all, not many others have songs about them! From New Orleans, you’ll hop on the Sunset Limited to head to California. This 19-hour trip will definitely extend your cross-country adventure. But it’s a great addition if you have the time and interest.

The Texas Eagle

The Texas Eagle carves a path south from Chicago through St. Louis to its namesake state, where it stops in Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio. From there, you’ll hop on the Sunset Limited to complete your trip west. Overall, it takes 65 hours and 20 minutes from Chicago to LA.

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