#SlowTravel by Train: How to Green your Transport to Nature
If you love travel, nature and the outdoors, #slowtravel by train might just be the best way to green your transport to nature.
On Instagram or Pinterest, you will have noticed that #vanlife and nature access with private cars is very trendy, but guess what is also becoming romantically trendy? Sleeper trains and regular train travel! In the words of a sustainable travel champion:
It’s all about reframing travel as a journey. Make the journey part of the travel experience.
JoAnna Haugen, Rooted
In this post, I’ll be sharing tips on car-free living, followed by a selection of train trips to nature that we’ve particularly liked, an overview of popular train trips to nature around the globe and which US National Parks you can discover by train.
When you can combine the great outdoors with a low carbon footprint, what’s not to love?
Since we’ve moved to the UK in 2012, my family has literally discovered train travel and with my girls, we’ve experimented on quite a few train routes. Going from a two-car household in the suburbs of San Francisco to a car-free household in London has proved liberating. No parking stress, no maintenance, no insurance fees. And Zipcar is at hand when a car is absolutely necessary.
Relying on public transport, I choose my travel destinations based on train stations. Both my girls and I love trains and we are very lucky that London is an amazing railway hub (no less than 14 train terminals in central London 😀), making weekend exploring very Earth-friendly. Hopping on a train, sitting down by the window, reading a book or sipping a tea until your destination is, quite literally, the best. So relaxing.
FrogMom tip: after my train journey, I tend to consider that up to an hour of walking to a trailhead is acceptable if I can find low-traffic country lanes or paths. Beyond an hour, I try to pick a different destination or starting point.
Bicycles on Trains
Note that most trains accept bicycles onboard (for free) so you can also combine bicycle and train to reach your trailhead. More #SlowTravel for you!
#1 Our Favorite Train Trips
It’s really hard to pick favorites but here goes. For lucky travelers, here are a few ideas.
In Thailand, you can travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, jewel of the former Lanna Kingdom, by boarding a night train. My teenage daughter reported on the experience. From Bangkok, you can also board a train down the Gulf of Siam and discover Hua Hin (the train station is a Victorian architectural gem) or Phun Phin near Surat Thani to continue to Phuket. Famously, you can also travel by train to the River Kwai and its famous bridge in Kanchanaburi.
In Japan, we took a train from Kyoto to Tateyama in the mountains, then a cog train to Midagahara, an alpine marshland. Inside Kyoto, the commuter trains are a great way to explore neighborhoods and the surrounding farmed countryside.
In the UK, we love exploring Scotland from London with another fabulous night train — the awesome Caledonian Sleeper! That night train was renovated in 2019 and it totally redefines slow travel in the best possible way. If you have seen Harry Potter, you know about the Jacobite Steam Train that powers through the Highlands from Fort Williams and reaches the turquoise blue waters of Mallaig on the coast.
Right below Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall is a popular Roman-era wall that goes across the width of Britain and to which I traveled by train for a solo backpacking trip.
From London, several day trips by train take you to amazing nature spots such as caves you can visit, apple orchards where you can… pick apples, a Royal park, an English garden with an extravagant grotto, or Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow.
In California, the Napa Valley Wine Train takes visitors on an indulgent and relaxing tour across vineyards and the Niles Canyon Train of Lights puts on the most festive train show around the holidays. In Alaska, my mother and I took the Denali Star from Denali National Park in Fairbanks to Anchorage.
As you can see, we love trains.
Now, if you were to plan your travels, how would you find out which countries are the best for train travel?
#2 Train Travel Around the World
At a glance, here is a quick overview of the best places to discover by train in the northern hemisphere.
In Europe, the rail network is dense and makes using trains a breeze. The countries with the highest density of rail networks and therefore best for train travel are Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary, followed by the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, France, Slovakia and Luxembourg.
The map below shows the density of rail networks. Look for the darker green countries as your best train travel options. The lighter the green, the more you will have to rely on other modes of transportation. Note that Switzerland is greyed out, as it’s outside the EU, but it has an amazing (and amazingly expensive) train network.
Train travel in Asia seems to be divided across an invisible demographic line. India and China both have extensive rail networks that are mostly urban, which means that getting to nature far from cities may require alternative means of transportation.
South-East Asia has well developed rail networks, with some missing links, notably around politically sensitive borders. With only a third of railways electrified, train travel is bound to be an adventure and it certainly redefines slow travel.
Japan stands out as being totally boss at commuter trains in charming surroundings, with nature as a backyard to many densely-populated cities. South Korea is also a great train travel country, with on-time trains beating heavy road traffic for travel time.
Passenger train travel in the US, where private cars are the default mode of transportation, is a challenge and hopefully, an opportunity for the future. This interactive map shows the main rail connections, with the possibility to select states and cities.
As you can see, a few notable gaps in the middle and rail-intense coastal cities particularly on the East Coast. For kicks, you could add freight trains to the map and see the network multiply by 100 because that’s literally the ratio of freight to passenger rail transport in the US.
#3 US National Parks by Train
Say you want to discover the Grand Canyon from Seattle or the Scottish Highlands from London. Is there a train option for that too?
Yes! Here are a few ideas for your next longer escapes.
Grand Canyon National Park
Whether your journey begins in Chicago or Los Angeles, the Southwest Chief is a great way to travel to one of the most iconic national parks in the country.
Glacier National Park
Amtrak departs from almost all states and takes visitors to East Glacier Park station via the Empire Builder, a line that starts and ends in Seattle and Chicago. From East Glacier Park station, summer shuttle buses link various campgrounds, trailheads, lodges and viewpoints along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Crater Lake National Park
The Coast Starlight, a line that starts and ends in Los Angeles and Seattle, takes you to Klamath Falls, OR, an hour’s drive from Crater Lake National Park where the deep blue waters of the lake beckon boat trippers and photographers.
Mount Rainier National Park
The same Coast Starlight takes train-lovers to Seattle, roughly 2-hours drive to the southwest Nisqually entrance. For a low-carbon option, a few different bus lines connect to bring Seattle visitors to the city of Enumclaw in King County. From there, a taxi or rideshare can put you in the park.
Last but not least, here are a few ideas for greening your nature day trips from large metropolitan areas.
#4 Quick City Escapes by Train
If you live in large cities, chances are that commuter trains will take you to the great outdoors with reduced logistics. With Google Maps, you can plan a trip door-to-door to your destination with precision, checking the public transport icon and taking into account weekend transport conditions. Sometimes, it may mean a bus journey at the end of your train trip but it could also mean that you can reach your destination park, forest or coastal trail on foot directly from your end stop.
Here are a few smart urban areas with commuter train service to the countryside and nature:
- North America: New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, the District of Columbia, Montreal, San Francisco
- Europe: London, London, Zurich, Berlin, Moscow, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Prague, Madrid
- Asia – Pacific: Beijing, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney
- Middle East: Dubai
So, what train trip would you really like to discover for your next adventures?