Although road trips are a way of life in the United States, there's nothing quite like exploring the country by train. Rather than loading up on caffeine and keeping your eyes glued on the road, a train ride offers travelers a chance to kick back in comfort, while watching the landscape morph in the window or enjoying a warm meal in the cafe car. Best of all, interstate trains pull into the hearts of great American cities, which make for pit stops that are a bit more interesting than rest areas along the freeway.
In continuation of our series on unique journeys, today we're focusing on the timeless train route known as the Southwest Chief. It embarks from Chicago and winds through the southwest before reaching its final destination, Los Angeles. So hop on board as we highlight all the unmissable stops along the way.
Kick off your journey from the heart of Chicago
If working your way from east to west, you'll be embarking from Chicago's Union Station, which happens to be nestled in a fantastic area of the windy city. Just cross the river and walk a block to get to the 110-story Willis Tower for jaw-dropping views of the vast Chicagoland area and Lake Michigan to the east. A few blocks west of the station is Greektown, where you can grab some fresh souvlaki, moussaka, and baklava for the train ride. Kick off your adventure in style with a night or two at the St. Jane Chicago, housed in a historic skyscraper and directly on the world-famous Magnificent Mile.
Kansas City, Missouri
Discover the best of both barbecue and contemporary art
After the first seven-hour leg of the journey, you'll be eager to stretch out your own with a stroll through Kansas City. Lucky for you, the station is a short walk from the lively Crossroads Arts District. Spend the day exploring artisanal boutiques, gorging on some finger-licking-good Missouri before catching a show at the nearby Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Then treat yourself to a night at the Crossroads Hotel, which has a stunning industrial-chic aesthetic, plus a great fitness center to loosen up before hopping back onto the train.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Experience southwestern history first-hand in the Old Town
Over 700 hundred miles of golden prairies and glimmering mountain views await between Kansas City and your next stop in Albuquerque. Once there, get a glimpse into the past with a visit in the Old Town while wandering the narrow streets lined with picturesque adobe structures. Also, be sure to set aside time to catch a ride on Sandia Peak Tramway—the longest aerial tramway in the country—which will float you from the edge of the city all the way up to the crest of the gorgeous Sandia Mountains for a day of hiking. The Casas de Suenos Old Town Historic Inn
is a charming bed & breakfast, offering the best of both southwestern cuisine and hospitality.
An incredible blend of bewildering archaeology and desert scenery await
Next, the ride to Flagstaff is only about a third as long as the previous leg of the trip. The station's location is unique, not only nestled in the heart of downtown Flagstaff, but also along the historic Route 66. Downtown is packed with cozy coffee shops and cool breweries, but the best of this area awaits just beyond the city limits. Make a day trip of experiencing Native American culture and history first-hand, whether by exploring various pueblo sites of the Wupatki National Monument or the prehistoric dwellings built into the cliffs of the Walnut Canyon National Monument. To make the most of your time in Arizona, spend a night at the Residence Inn by Mariott, which has spacious, modern rooms and sits right around the corner from the station.
Los Angeles, California
Treat yourself to Pacific waves after crossing half the continent
After crossing the heartland all the way through the desert, you'll come to the Southwest Chief's final destination, Los Angeles. The station itself is an exemplary blend of the Art Deco and Mission Revival architectural styles that define the California aesthetic. Plus it's right across the street from the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument and Olvera Street, with a lively street market and exhibits that offer a glimpse into the early days of the city. Everything from the Hollywood Walk of Fame to shopping on Rodeo Drive awaits you, but after such a long journey, some beach time is likely in order. Check in to the Hotel Erwin to stay stone's-throw from the sand as well as in the heart of the funky Venice Beach neighborhood.