America by Train – Solo Travel Adventures
Summer is fast approaching. With no way to be sure which countries will be open for summer vacations, Americans are largely planning domestic travel for 2021. National and state parks are at the top of everyone’s list with families partial to getting there via road trips. However, for solo travelers, safety concerns and practical challenges, like changing a tire, can make long drives alone less attractive.
In my college days, I was ready to “See America” overland. Not having a car and with only a student’s budget, I headed out for five weeks alone on an open-ended bus trip with only an overnight bag. With no plan, I slept on the bus at night and went sightseeing by day wherever the bus ended up at sunrise. I covered 3,000+ miles from Washington, DC to Los Angeles without battling rush hour traffic, searching for legal parking and hearing my GPS shout “recalculating” every time I was lost.
While I am really glad that I had an early start on seeing all fifty states, I would not choose a bus trip now except for short day excursions. The biggest challenges were:
- Trying to sleep as the bus swayed from side to side
- Tiring of fast food meals at bus stops
- Being concerned about safety as a female solo traveler
- Not having the option to stretch my legs
- Adjusting to limited bathroom facilities
In addition, in 2021, with the pandemic still an issue, buses do not offer an opportunity for social distancing. As a result, train travel this summer offers the best timely solution to restart US travel. (For information on official recommendations as to COVID-19 healthcare practices, see the CDC.gov.)
Why give up the independence of a road trip for a solo train journey?
Europeans have long favored train travel, especially when confronted with their historically high gas prices. However, distances there are shorter, and extensive railroad networks exist in, and between, almost every country of the European Union.
Here are the top advantages of train travel over road trips now:
- Letting someone else take care of everything. 2020-2021 has been a year of lockdowns and “DYI’s”. We have all run our course from “Be your own barber” to “Do your own home repairs”. Train travel journeys mean someone else has to take care of transportation, meals and daily logistics.
- For those driving alone, personal security is still an issue. Losing your way at night or having a car breakdown in a remote area can be dangerous.
- The US national passenger rail service, Amtrak, has both daily service between cities and major coast-to-coast routes.
- Amtrak is offering “roomettes” on select long-haul service providing both privacy and built-in social distancing during the pandemic. Having once luxuriated overnight in a sleeper car from Chicago to Washington, DC, I highly recommend it. The sleeper cars also have access to a private shower and bathroom. Added amenities include: turndown service, priority boarding, assistance with bags, complimentary meals onboard and in major stations, lounge access.
- Pricing can be competitive when compared with the costs of driving: high gas prices, parking rates, tolls, overnight lodging, meals and wear and tear on your car or paying car rental costs.
Option One: “Gal or Guy Getaways” – Living the High Life:
If you have cabin fever and are ready for a short, nearby mini-vacation, consider:
- Taking a New York City Theatre Weekend.
- Walking Boston’s Freedom Trail.
- Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, doing some shopping (or window shopping) along the Magnificent Mile.
- Enjoying lower summer rates at an Arizona spa.
- Riding horses at a dude ranch.
- Strolling along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
- Joining a vineyards tour and wine tasting in Napa Valley.
Option Two: Explore America’s Northernmost Route:
- Start in New York City or Washington, DC.
- Head out to Chicago.
- Have a country stopover at a dairy farm in Wisconsin. On my cross-country trip, I arrived in Racine, just in time to see a new calf born that day.
- Journey onward through the Badlands with a stop at Rapid City, South Dakota, for a tour of nearby MT Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Motorcycle enthusiasts should check out the annual summer Sturgis rally.
- Continue on to Montana and Glacier National Park.
- Arrive in Seattle and board an Alaska cruise to take advantage of summer 2021 specials with no single supplement. Top Solo Travel Destination-Alaska | Solo Trekker 4 U
Option Three: Discover the US via the Middle Route Coast-to-Coast:
This was the route I took in my own US overland tour. I quickly learned that Chicago was only one-third of the way cross-country. It was easy to see how vast the western states were in contrast to the Eastern seaboard.
These are stops along the way I recommend:
- As noted above, Chicago can’t be missed.
- Saint Louis with 3 million residents has much to see starting with the Arch. If you are claustrophobic, you may opt instead for the Mississippi River Boat Tour.
- Denver was one of the highlights of my journey westward albeit having arrived at dawn. I took a self-guided tour of the state capitol as the cleaning crew started a new day. In ski season, Denver is also a connection point for trains to Winter Park.
- Rivaling my visit to Denver was my stop in Salt Lake. Surrounded by vast mountains, it has a unique history in the American West and is well worth an overnight stop. To swim in the Salt Lake, there are easy day tours from downtown.
- Ending in San Francisco, I was thrilled at my first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge followed by a a stroll down the “the crookedest street in the world” and jumping off and on trolley cars.
Option 4: Discover America on the Southern Route:
A few of the highlights en route to Los Angeles include:
- New Orleans which is much more than the site for Mardi Gras. Filled with America’s early history from the Louisiana Purchase to the War of 1812, both the French Quarter and the Garden District have architecture not seen elsewhere in the US. While the city is known for jazz and world-class cuisine, it also offers outdoor adventures from ghost tours to bayou expeditions gliding along among the alligators.
- San Antonio is rich with history from the Alamo and still intact early Spanish missions. The 15 mile San Antonio River Walk is a big tourist draw as the country’s largest urban ecosystem. (See the city’s official tourist site for “Local Adventures”/”Girls Getaway”?!)
- Santa Fe is known for its colonial architecture, i.e., the Basilica Church of St. Francis Assisi, and lively local art, led by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. In addition, Santa Fe has five national parks making it possible to combine a cultural and historic tour with a more active hiking vacation.
Option Five: National Parks:
For hiking, wildlife sightings and in some cases, white water rafting, the national and state parks are hard to beat. In addition, prices are low, and camping is often available/ Most are accessible through a combination of rail and private tours.
Here is our list of those not to miss:
Utah: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion
Arizona/Nevada: Grand Canyon
Montana: Glacier National Park
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