Number Four: Amtrak’s Cardinal.

map cardinal
The Cardinal is Number 4 on my list of Most Scenic Amtrak trains. It really is a wonderful ride and, I’m delighted to say, I’ll be on the eastbound train in about 10 days. It leaves Chicago around dinnertime and takes a 28-hour meandering southern route, passing through Indianapolis, Cincinnati, White Sulphur Springs (home to the famous Greenbrier resort), Charlottesville, Washington, and reaching New York’s Penn Station around 10:00 p.m.
On the eastbound train, you depart Chicago at dinner time, but the real scenery happens about the time you’re sitting down to breakfast the next morning. For a couple of hours, the Cardinal takes you through the New River Gorge, crossing and re-crossing the river several times. (That’s a railroad bridge way down there in the photo above.) There are lengthy stretches where you can see rafters paddling furiously in white water; in other stretches, the river spreads out and becomes a haven for fly fishermen. (In Amtrak’s early days, the Cardinal’s schedule had it making the run through this amazing gorge at night. Go figure!)
Just following the New River through that gorge is worth the trip, but the Cardinal continues eastward, through the Allegheny Mountains, crossing the Shenandoah Valley and over the Blue Ridge Mountains. About mid-afternoon, the Cardinal stops at Charlottesville, Virginia. The University of Virginia was founded here in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson and, in fact, Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is located here, too. (I’m stopping in Charlottesville for a couple of days and a tour of Monticello is on my schedule.)
From Charlottesville, it’s about a three hour run into Washington, and a little more than that on up to New York City. The Cardinal is a lovely ride any time of the year but, as is the case with the Adirondack, it’s really something extra special when the fall colors are out.
There are, however, two issues about the Cardinal that really require mentioning here. First, it’s a small train, usually two or three coaches, a cafe/diner, and just one sleeping car. So it’s essential to book early … at least 90 days in advance. Compounding the problem, the train only runs three days a week, so it’s often inconvenient to book. NARP, by the way, has advocated upgrading the Cardinal to a daily train for a long time.
Finally, have you ever wondered how Amtrak came to name this train The Cardinal? It’s because when the train departs from Washington, DC, en route to Chicago, it passes through six states: Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. And the cardinal is the official state bird for every one of them! Is that cool, or what?