Seeing the National Parks by Rail and by Bus

Written by  Phyllis Cocroft

Last year, the National Parks Service celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Knowing this, I set off during the summer to see Yellowstone - the park whose landscape in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho inspired it all. On my way there I visited Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. On my way back was Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.

I decided, en route, to see some of the nation I had barely seen before, so I took an America by Rail trip, designed largely for
senior citizens.
A companion and I left Boston for Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited early one afternoon. We were supplied by America by Rail ( with blow-up pillows and blankets since we had opted not to travel by sleeping car. We’d been assured that coach seats reclined comfortably. That wasn’t exactly true, but they were decidedly cheaper than a roomette would have been.

It was about 9 in the morning, after a ride that, sadly, was on bumpy tracks, that we reached Chicago’s elegant old Union Station. There we were to meet our guide and fellow National Park-bound travelers.
The California Zephyr, on which we were to continue our rail journey, was scheduled to leave soon after 1 p.m. I did not know it, but we would have had time before it left to see a bit of Chicago. We could have taken a Chicago River water taxi roundtrip to the Magnificent Mile, the Windy City’s street of elegant shops. Water taxis run several times an hour to and from Union Station. A visit to the Skydeck Observatory at the Willis Tower would have been another way of passing the time. It’s just a five-minute walk from the station’s Canal Street exit. Instead, we explored the Great Hall that was a show-stopper when Union Station opened in 1925. Then we had lunch and boarded the Zephyr with our fellow travelers. They were interesting companions from all over the country. Several had traveled with America by Rail before.

Our next overnight journey was a little less bumpy than our trip had been the night before. We were supplied by our guide with America by Rail credit cards with which to buy meals in the dining car or snacks in the cafeteria. We had dinner and prepared for sleep on more comfortable reclining seats than we had had the night before. We awoke several times, however, when our train was put off onto side tracks while a freight train took the main tracks.
After breakfast, we made our way to the observation car with its panoramic windows. Its seats are limited and everyone, of course, wants one. Our route took us past soybean and corn fields and oil wells, across the swirling gray-green waters of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers; through Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, and into Denver.
Our trip from there took us through stands of blue spruce and lodge pole pines on rocky slopes and through the six-mile long Moffat Tunnel. Its construction, completed in 1928, cut the time it took a train to cross the Continental Divide from five hours to 10 minutes.

After Granby, Colorado, we began to follow the frothy, muddy waters of the Colorado River. We passed through Winter Park (nicknamed the Icebox of America for its frigid temperatures, sometimes as low as -50F). Next came the brightly colored rocks and the aspen trees of Glenwood Canyon, and finally we were in Glenwood Springs - a favorite vacation spot of Teddy Roosevelt’s. There, our westbound train journey ended. From then on our National Park trip was by bus.

From Rail to road
Our first overnight was in Craig, Colorado, but we left early in the morning for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in Grand Teton National Park. The black mountains of the park were piercing gray clouds when we arrived. We passed Elk Crossing signs and learned that one of the largest elk herds in the country makes its home in the park. In the “hole” beneath the soaring peaks that rise to more than 13,000 feet, trappers had camps in the early 19th century. Later in that century, homesteaders - many of them Mormons - and ranchers came to the area. In the 1920s, the federal government suggested that the area be a national park, and they vociferously fought the idea. Despite their protests, in 1950, President Harry S.Truman declared the Grand Tetons a 310,000-acre national park.

In the afternoon, our bus reached Yellowstone and a park guide came aboard to take us to see what is the world’s largest collection of geysers, hot springs and mud pots. Old Faithful, of course, is the most renowned. Approximately every 70 minutes, its hot water shoots skyward - sometimes as high as 184 feet. The hills and meadows of the northeastern corner of the park, the Lamar Valley, is home to so many animals - elk, deer, moose, bison, pronghorn, grizzly bears and coyotes - that it is often compared with the Serengeti Plain in East Africa.
We stopped for lunch at the Lake Hotel, opened in 1899 and located just a stone’s throw from Old Faithful. The historic hotel almost burned down in a 1988 fire that destroyed a third of the park. Had it not been for a handful of loyal employes who stayed behind when everyone else had evacuated, the hotel would have been gone. But when an ember struck the hotel roof, the employes climbed to the roof and put it out.

We spent two days in Yellowstone, viewing waterfalls and paint pots and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - 4,000 feet across, 24 miles long, and 14 miles wide, and sometimes as much as 1,200 feet deep. We visited Dragon’s Mouth Cave where waters growl from the depths of the earth. We drove past bison grazing at the edge of the deep blue waters of Yellowstone Lake. Twenty miles long and 14 miles wide, it is the largest lake at such a high altitude (7,000-feet) in North America.

Our next overnight stop was in Cody, Wyoming, site of the Buffalo Bill Historic Center. It houses not only a museum recounting the life of the famous 19th-century Western showman, but a Plains Indian Museum of art and artifacts; a gallery of Western art, and a firearms museum.
The next day our bus took us to Rapid City, South Dakota. The city was founded in 1876 by gold prospectors who had discovered no gold themselves, but thought they would build a city where the prairie ended and the mountains began. They would make it a supply depot for miners headed into the hills. Though that plan was largely an economic failure, in time, railroad lines were built through Rapid City and it prospered. It was nearby that the remains of a brontosaurus was found, and a Dinosaur Park with life-size statues of dinosaurs rises above the city. In its heart, street corners are decorated with statues of 43 United States Presidents.

Next, we were in the pine-clad Black Hills, so named because the pine cover is so heavy that the hills seem black since pines do not reflect the light. Our first stop there was at a gold factory; the next at Crazy Horse Mountain. There, Korczak Ziolkowski, a self-taught Boston-born sculptor of Polish descent, began carving a head of the Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse. Ziolkowski, who had been assisting sculptor Gurzon Borglum in carving the heads of the Presidents at neighboring Mount Rushmore was asked to carve the head of Crazy Horse in 1948 by a chief of the Lakota tribe. He felt, the chief said, “that the white man should know that the red man has great heroes, too! (Crazy Horse had helped Sitting Bull defeat U.S. Gen. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.) Ziolkowski’s plan was to cut a 565-foot tall head of Crazy Horse pointing to the Black Hills. Although he has died, his children and grandchildren are still carving.

The final day of our America by Rail National Parks trip took us on an 1880s steam train to Mount Rushmore. On this granite mountain, Borglum, at the invitation of a South Dakota senator, began his carving of the heads of four U.S. Presidents in 1927. The senator, the sculptor and the South Dakota historian who had first had the idea for the project, chose George Washington as the father of the country to be carved; Thomas Jefferson who enlarged the country with the Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln as the preserver of the Union, and Theodore Roosevelt as the builder of the Panama Canal. As the work began, President Calvin Coolidge designated Mount Rushmore a National Monument. Borghum’s carving of the heads continued until his death in 1941. His son completed the work that same year.

We spent the last afternoon of our National Parks journey in Deadwood, S.D. where gold was discovered in 1876, bringing thousands of miners there. It is remembered today for its legendary stagecoach driver, spy, scout and gambler, Wild Bill Hickock, and for his paramour, Calamity Jane. It was raining when we reached Deadwood. That interfered with strolling the streets of the little town of 1,380 people and admiring its stately Victorian houses. But it was the right weather for ducking into the little museum that records Deadwood’s history and into the town’s historic noisy saloons with sawdust on the floors and slot machines inviting gamblers. We spent the night of our road trip in Sturgis, a tiny town that, in August each year sprouts to life as it becomes the motorcycle capital of the world.

The following morning we climbed aboard our bus again for an all-day journey that returned us to Denver and to the trains headed back home.
We had surely seen a great deal of America - two National Parks and a National Monument. We had made friends with writers and schoolteachers and farmers and beekeepers. We had not always traveled comfortably. We had hardly seen America “by rail,” but there had been no endless waits in airports for delayed flights nor had we had to drive ourselves on curving mountain roads.

America by Rail offers a wide variety of escorted trips in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and one in Switzerland. For those seeking more rail and less bus travel, the company has a Totally Train trip to the West aboard the Southwest Chief, the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder. There is also an America from Coast to Coast all-rail trip; a Seattle-San Francisco Express, and the Grandest of Grand Canyon Tours for those like me - eager to visit the now 100+ year old National Parks. Information is available by calling 888-777-6605 or from

Developed by Interwave Concepts, Inc.