The best train journeys in the UK take in the beautiful scenery of the rolling hills, mountains or coastlines. They tend to cover a good bit of ground, and they also tend to drop you off somewhere nice as well. In the sort of place where you can explore for the weekend and have an adventure. We’re talking about the likes of the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland, Snowdonia National Park or Mallaig, a thriving port town on the northwest coast of Scotland.
Thackeray wrote of hill-tops which seemed to be “shattered into a thousand cragged fantastical shapes” and “savage rock-sides painted of a hundred colours.”
Of course, by planning an adventure by train rather than car or plane, you’re also going to substantially lower the carbon footprint of your trip. Transport Scotland estimates that taking a flight from Edinburgh to London emits 177kg CO2 per passenger, while existing HST trains emit 34kg per passenger, and Azuma trains emit only 28kg — 84% less than a flight. And besides, it’s not as if Mallaig, Snowdon or Fort William have an airport handy in the centre of town, either.
We love travelling by train. The journeys tend to give you a real feel for the land you’re travelling through, and it makes the journey a real part of the adventure. With that in mind, here are 11 of our favourite train trips around the UK; selected for their scenery, variety and of course, their potential for adventure.
1. Derry to Coleraine, Northern Ireland
The Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland is defined by rugged cliffs, otherworldly geology and remarkable ocean views. This train through it, from Derry to Coleraine, has been described by Michael Palin as “one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world” - and it’s no secret why.
You’ll look out on cliffs, beaches and the Irish Sea, and pass by the River Foyle on the train. You’ll also go through one of Ireland’s longest tunnels. Once you disembark in Coleraine, hop on a bus back to the coast to see the scenery you just passed beneath while in that tunnel.
We recommend a hike on the Downhill Demesne Walking Trail, which passes the cliff-top Mussenden Temple, inspired by the Tivoli Temple of Vesta. Head over to the hexagonal stones of the Giant’s Causeway afterwards and you can experience an environment which author William M. Thackeray described as looking “like the beginning of the world.” Writing in 1842, Thackeray wrote of hill-tops which seemed to be “shattered into a thousand cragged fantastical shapes” and “savage rock-sides painted of a hundred colours.” The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, looking out to Campbeltown in Scotland, is just beyond.
2. The West Highland Line, Glasgow to Mallaig, Scotland
The West Highland Line is an essential on any list of the best train journeys in the United Kingdom, and for very good reason. The line links Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, with the Highland port towns of Oban and Mallaig. The route to Mallaig follows many of the stops on the West Highland Way walking route, pulling up at Bridge of Orchy and passing through the wilderness of Rannoch Moor before reaching Fort William - the gateway town to Ben Nevis.
From May until October each year, a steam locomotive runs from Fort William to Mallaig, called 'The Jacobite.' It is well known by fans of Harry Potter as the Hogwarts Express, and the film franchise has also immortalised the beautiful Glenfinnan Viaduct which the train passes over. Fans of a different genre of film meanwhile will appreciate the remote Corrour station. It's the UK’s highest train station and has an infamous feature in Danny Boyle’s 1996 classic Trainspotting.
3. Snowdon Mountain Railway, Wales
The Snowdon Mountain Railway has been in operation since April 1896. Some would prefer the summit to only be reachable by actually climbing Snowdon, but one thing is for sure, the railway makes the mountain a lot more accessible.
Jump on from the starting point of Llanberis Station and you'll cross over two viaducts and the Afon Hwch river, and see the Ceunant Mawr waterfall. You'll pass through forest before reaching bare countryside, with Snowdon coming into sight, then arrive at Hebron Station. The Halfway Station looks down on the Llanberis Path and Moel Cynghorion, then it's on to (the self-explanatory) Rocky Valley, with beautiful views of the Llyn Peninsula, and Clogwyn Station, three-quarters of the way up Snowdon. This is the highest station the train can reach when there's snow or ice, but usually, the train can continue on to the summit, the UK's highest visitor centre at Hafod Eryri, and a panorama over all of Wales.
The train is only running to Clogwyn Station for the 2022 season, and the summit building will be shut, due to maintenance work on the mountain track. Service will resume to the top in 2023.
4. The Caledonian Sleeper, England/Scotland
The nearly 13-hour trip from London to Fort William is one of the longest direct trips in the United Kingdom, and is a favourite with adventure seekers that live in the English capital. Leave London and have a nice little snooze, and when you wake up you’ll be in the outdoor capital of the UK, Fort William. From here, you have access to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.
That said, it would be a shame if you did sleep the whole way, because the journey is a beauty. From Newcastle to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, the coastal views become particularly pleasant. You’ll have passed through Edinburgh and Glasgow by 6am, and then by 8am you'll be in Tyndrum, a hub town on the West Highland Way. We hope you’re awake by now at least, because from here, you'll enjoy the same remarkable views as the famous West Highland Line - from Rannoch and Corrour to Tulloch and Spean Bridge before reaching Fort William.
5. Strathspey Steam Railway, Scotland
This is the shortest stretch of railway on our list at only 10 miles, but it remainss one of the best train journeys in the UK. The Strathspey Railway (SR) runs from Aviemore to Broomhill (the ‘Broomhill’ in the Scottish Highlands that is, rather than the the place of the same name in Glasgow) via the Boat of Garten. The SR is the only remaining section of the original Highland Railway Line, and takes you on a steam train through moorland, forests and along the River Spey, with the mountains of the Cairngorm National around. The journey takes just short of two hours, and afterwards, you’ll be perfectly placed for some of the best hikes in Scotland.
Climbs to Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in Scotland, and Cairngorm itself are easily accessible from Aviemore. For easier jaunts, loop round Loch Morlich, visit the ospreys at the Loch Garten Nature Reserve, or stroll around lower Glenfeshie and the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail - where the eponymous artist’s rotting work is carved into the trees themselves.
6. The Cambrian Coast Line, England/Wales
The Cambrian Railway runs from Shrewsbury in Shropshire, England, over the border and into Wales. It's 120 miles long in total, and en route, it passes through mountains, market towns, World Heritage sites and takes in the beauty of the West Coast of Wales. It then joins with the Cambrian Coastal route to run up the Gwynedd coast to Pwllheli on the Llŷn Peninsula.
Translating as ‘salt-water pool’, Pwllheli is a great place to explore the North West coast of Wales and the numerous Blue Flag beaches dotted around the place. This route actually runs through Snowdonia National Park, so it’s a great train journey for hikers, but mountain bikers will also recognise a lot of the stop names. Dfyi Junction is just a 15-minute drive from the famous Dyfi Bike Park, where the Atherton family have dug some of the finest trails in Europe.
7. The Far North Line, Scotland
The West Highland Line is usually the headliner when it comes to scenic train trips in Scotland, but there’s a whole lot of country above Fort William and Mallaig, as you’ll discover on the Far North Line.
Running from Inverness to Thurso and Wick, you'll follow the North Sea past distillers and salmon rivers to reach the northernmost train stop on mainland Britain. You'll get beautiful views over the Flow Country, a prize peat habitat of the RSPB, and pass castles and forests too.
When you arrive in Thurso, John o’Groats is a half-hour drive away, or if you head to Scrabster, you can catch a ferry on to Orkney. Whisky drinkers should check out Wolfburn distillery, who offer one of the tastiest ranges in Scotland.
8. Settle to Carlisle, England
The Settle to Carlisle route is famous for a reason. Not only does it take you over the beautiful Ribblehead Viaduct, you'll also find yourself travelling up through the Yorkshire Dales National Park, then cutting just west of the North Pennine AONB to reach Carlisle in northern England.
For adventure, the obvious place to hop off the train is the Yorkshire Dales. There, you can take on the three peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, or alternatively, check out the Giggleswick Scar route. The four-hour walk from Clapham village centre to Giggleswick Station follows mediaeval packhorse ways and winding paths along limestone crags. There are great views of Ribblesdale and the Bowland Fells.
9. The Riviera Line, England
Perhaps the most beautiful stretch of railway in England, the Riviera Line travels from Exeter city centre to Paignton, via the Exe Estuary and the coast. It calls at the likes of Dawlish and Teignmouth, and then heads on to Torre, Torquay and Paignton in the English Riviera.
The beaches of the region await here, whether you want to use them for swimming, surfing or sitting about in the sun, but there’s also a whole lot of hiking and cycling in South Devon. The Dawlish to Teignmouth walk on the South West Coast Path is a great option, and heading on from there to Torquay will take you over the River Teign to Shaldon and over the cliffs of Maidencombe and Babbcombe. There are plenty of little beaches along the way to stop off at, as well.
10. The Kyle of Lochalsh Line, Scotland
From Inverness, you have plenty of scenic train options. One is the Far North Line that we described in point eight. Another is the Kyle of Lochalsh Line, which heads west from the city.
Passing through Strathcarron, Stromeferry and Plockton, you'll eventually reach the Kyle of Lochalsh, with the Isle of Skye awaiting just across the bridge beyond.
It's not long before you get into the great scenery on this line. To the west, before the stop at Achnashellach Forest, you can spot the mighty Torridon Peaks. They are widely considered to be some of the most beautiful mountains in all of Scotland. Watch out for herds of deer from the train line. You may spot them between Loch Luichart and Garve. You'll also see Ben Wyvis (1,046m), a mountain between Muir of Ord and Dingwall that stands out for its isolation.
There's no end to the hiking options in Wester Ross, but if you do head on over to Skye, you’ll find some of the best munros to climb in Scotland (and by extension, some of the best walks in all of Scotland), including Sgùrr nan Gillean, Blaven and the Inaccessible Pinnacle.
11. Hope Valley Line, England
This is a city-connecting line from Sheffield to Manchester with a whole lot to see in between. Leaving Sheffield, you’ll pass through Hope, Edale and Cowburn Tunnel - and beautiful hillsides and valleys. Perhaps the pick of the scenery comes between Bamford and Grindleford, when you’ll be looking onto rugged rock cliffs.
The Hope Valley line is the train you want to hop on if you’re looking to explore the Peak District. There are plenty of trails that start right from the train stops along the way. One of the best hikes in the Peak District is undoubtedly the Kinder Scout Plateau Circuit, which conveniently starts from Edale Train Station.
This area is most famous for the mass trespass of Kinder Scout that took place in 1932, and which lay the way for legal access to open country for hikers. It’s a beauty of a walk. You’ll quickly join the Pennine Way when you walk up the hill from the train station, then it’s on to open moorland, a weaving path and a ridgeline that will take you to Kinder Low.
Inspired? Check out our range of adventure holidays across the UK now!