Image: California Zephyr
Joshua Lott  /  Reuters file
The California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., features a Trails & Rails program between Denver and Grand Junction, Colo.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/7/2009 9:19:27 AM ET 2009-07-07T13:19:27

If you’ve ever ridden a train and wondered what was rolling by your window, Amtrak and the National Park Service (NPS) may be able to help. This summer, on-board volunteers are riding the rails, pointing out local landmarks and putting the countryside in context from Upstate New York to Southern California.

It’s all part of the Trails & Rails program, a joint program between the Park Service and Amtrak that operates on 12 trains across the country. Now in its ninth year, it’s designed to showcase the cultural and natural heritage of each local area.

“Riding the train without the guides is like watching the Travel Channel with the sound off,” says NPS Programs Coordinator Jim Miculka. “If you turn on the volume, you can learn what that mountain or river or historic site is.”

For a full accounting of the trains, parks and itineraries involved, visit the Trails & Rails page at NPS.gov. In the meantime, the following five itineraries will put you on the right track:

Adirondack
Bookended by New York and Montreal, the Adirondack spends much of its route traversing the less-crowded countryside of the Hudson River Valley and eastern Adirondacks. Along the way, riders can experience, not one, but two Trails & Rails programs.

For an easy morning outing, consider tagging along from Croton-Harmon to Hudson, an 80-minute run narrated by volunteers from the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. Hugging the east bank of the Hudson, the train passes several historic sites, including Bannerman’s Castle, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (across the river) and Frederick Vanderbilt’s 54-room summer home.

If time allows, continue north to Albany where volunteers from Saratoga National Historical Park get on board for the five-hour run to the Canadian border. With Lake Champlain on one side and the Adirondacks on the other, the commentary can help you avoid swivel-neck syndrome.

Crescent
Strictly speaking, there are no NPS units along the Crescent’s 12-hour route between Atlanta and New Orleans. Even so, the two cities’ contributions to the nation’s cultural heritage make the trip a worthwhile endeavor.

To get the most out of it, start a day early in Atlanta and visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, where a 70-artist exhibition dedicated to Dr. King runs through July 19. Once on board, settle in as volunteers from the site guide you through the forests, swamplands and antebellum towns of Alabama and Mississippi. After a good night’s sleep in New Orleans, visit the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park or Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

Sunset Limited
West of San Antonio, the Sunset Limited heads for the arid expanse of West Texas. First, though, it stops in Del Rio, on the Mexican border, where volunteers from the Amistad National Recreation Area get on board for the five-hour ride to Alpine, near Big Bend National Park.

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Outside Del Rio, the train crosses Amistad Reservoir, a man-made lake set at the confluence of the Rio Grande, Pecos and Devils rivers. After that, things get very dry very fast, with miles of desert separating small towns such as Langtry (of “Judge” Roy Bean fame) and Sanderson (aka, the Cactus Capital of Texas). If you get off in Alpine, you can rent a car for the 80-mile drive to Big Bend National Park; if not, it’s another four hours to El Paso.

Southwest Chief
One of the nice things about having on-board guides is that they can alert you to upcoming photo ops. That’s especially handy on the Southwest Chief, where volunteers from Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site point out the highlights along the train’s scenic, 7.5-hour run from La Junta, Colo., to Albuquerque, N.M.

The route, which follows a major branch of the Santa Fe Trail, hits its highest point (7,588 feet) at Raton Pass on the Colorado-New Mexico border. From there, vistas of mesas and mountains are interspersed with stories of Indians, outlaws and pioneers. The train skirts Pecos National Historical Park (archeological ruins), traverses Apache Canyon (site of a major Civil War battle) and rolls into Albuquerque in time for happy hour or an early dinner.

Empire Builder
Given its route — 2,200 miles from Chicago to Seattle — it’s hardly surprising that the Empire Builder supports multiple Trails & Rails programs. Four, in fact, each of which offers its own scenic take on the history of western expansion. Beautiful photos of national parks

Depending on your itinerary, you’ll find yourself following the Mississippi River (think paddlewheelers and grain barges), crossing the northern plains (think Lewis and Clark) or traversing “the crown of the continent” (along the southern edge of Glacier National Park). This year, the program between Minot, N.D., and Shelby, Mont., will also feature artisans provided by the North Dakota Arts Council and special performances by Keith Bear, a Mandan/Hidatsa storyteller and flute player.

Think of it as the soundtrack for the scenery outside your window.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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