If you love leaf peeping, there’s nothing more magical than steaming through colorful landscapes on a fall foliage train ride. Leave the driving to someone else and join one of these memorable fall train rides, which offer brilliant pockets of color throughout the United States. Settle into a historic dining car with a glass of wine, or stake out a spot for your camera in an open-air car. Let the stress-free gawking begin.
Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire
Every September in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, fall-color predictions are the talk of all the local coffee shops. And TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) buzzes with enthusiastic Mount Washington Cog Railway posts about the view from the top of the Northeast’s highest peak. This popular 150-year-old railway carries passengers via replica coaches (biodiesel engine or vintage steam engine) up a three-mile-long trestle to the 6,288-foot summit. Here you’ll see the surrounding national forest’s brilliant hues from some of the steepest railroad tracks in North America (there’s a 37 percent incline in one stretch). From the summit, you can take in panoramas of the mountains and valleys from New Hampshire to Vermont. On clear days, you can see as far as Maine and Canada.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Colorado
Originally constructed in 1881 to haul silver and gold from mining camps in the San Juan Mountains, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is popular for its awe-inspiring views. As you ride from the remote wilderness of Durango to the mining town of Silverton on this historic coal-fired steam train, you can enjoy autumn’s golden and crimson hues set among the majestic peaks of the San Juan Mountains and along the Animas River. There’s a special ride for fall photographers in late September, as well as a Great Pumpkin Patch Express for families on the first three weekends of October.
Reading Blue Mountain & Northern, Pennsylvania
Ride a 1920s-era steam locomotive or diesel train to from the Reading area to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, the heart of the Pocono Mountains. The Reading Blue Mountain & Northern railroad offers 120-mile round-trip rides on weekends throughout October and the first weekend of November, giving passengers a chance to enjoy lunch in town and explore Jim Thorpe’s historic buildings and museums. Hop aboard another train, the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, to savor the foliage in nearby Lehigh Gorge State Park.
Tennessee Central Railway Museum, Tennessee
This volunteer organization runs a wide range of short excursions year-round, but it features three autumn-themed journeys covering up to 168 miles round-trip from Nashville. This year’s offerings include a trip to celebrate Oktoberfest in Watertown, an excursion to DelMonaco Winery, and a journey to a fall festival in Baxter. The museum uses its own stable of 1950s vintage passenger cars and diesel locomotives; book a dome seat for the best views.
Napa Valley Wine Train, California
Fall in the Napa Valley is one of those unexpected sensory delights. During harvest season the air carries the aroma of fermenting grapes, and changing leaves on grapevines cover the undulating landscape. The Napa Valley Wine Train is a great way to experience it without having to drive. The 36-mile trip takes you from the historic town of Napa through the countryside to the village of St. Helena and back. Enjoy vineyard views, wine tastings, and an onboard multi-course lunch or dinner in a restored early-1900s Pullman car. You also have the option to add on winery tours.
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, Georgia
Climb aboard on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in downtown Blue Ridge’s historic 1905 depot, and ride the rails from the charming mountain village into the lush Chattahoochee National Forest, enjoying vibrant displays of sweeping color along the way. You’ll stop for a layover in the Georgia/Tennessee border towns of McCaysville and Copperhill, where antique and craft shops and down-home hospitality take you back in time. Back onboard, ask a crewmember to show you around the cars and explain the history behind each one.
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, Ohio
Winding through the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad takes you along scenic stretches of fall color. Starting just 15 miles outside of Cleveland, the route allows passengers to hop on or off at any of nine stations to explore small towns, canal museums, and a 19th-century working farm. The route runs along several miles of the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail. For a small fee, you can put your bike on the train, ride a few stops, then bike back to your car. Alternatively, you can book a two-hour, nonstop trip aboard the Fall Flyer for a relaxing ride dedicated to leaf peeping; this trip operates on October weekends.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, North Carolina
Less than a 90-minute drive from Tennessee’s Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad‘s Nantahala Gorge trip follows a historic rail line through mountain tunnels on a beautiful fall foliage excursion. See rich auburns and buttery yellows reflected in the water as you cross over Fontana Lake, then trace the winding river through the mountains. The railway’s Peanuts Pumpkin Patch Express route is a family favorite, with an onboard narration of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and the chance for kids to pick a pumpkin, take a wagon ride, or meet Snoopy.
Grand Canyon Railway, Arizona
Forget the stereotype that Arizona is all desert and rattlesnakes. You can see brilliant pockets of yellow aspens tucked within forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and spruce in and around Kaibab National Forest when you board the Grand Canyon Railway. It’s known for its daily trips to the South Rim, but a less expensive option is the line’s special Pumpkin Patch ride in October, which takes families to a secret pumpkin patch that’s only accessible by train. Back at the depot, walk through a haunted train car, purchase a few treats, and enjoy fall-themed crafts and games.
Essex Steam Train & Riverboat, Connecticut
The sound of the steam locomotive’s whistle and the smell of its burnt-coal smoke have turned many a New England leaf peeper into a hopeless romantic or wistful nostalgic. On the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat excursion, a 1920s locomotive meanders through the Connecticut River Valley over rivers and through forests on a narrated ride before connecting with an open-deck riverboat. You’ll float past the Gillette Castle, the Goodspeed Opera House, and the Haddam Swing Bridge, all festooned in the season’s brilliant colors. The train operates daily during foliage season: September 27 through October 27.
Other Fall Train Rides
Many of Amtrak’s long-haul routes pass through regions of the country with beautiful fall foliage. Consider the Adirondack, which runs between New York City and Montreal; the Pennsylvanian, which travels from New York City to Pittsburgh; the Vermonter, which whisks passengers from Washington, D.C. to northern Vermont; and the California Zephyr, which passes through the Rockies on its route between Chicago and San Francisco.
Shorter tourist lines throughout the country operate other fall foliage train rides as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other seasonally themed excursions. American-Rails.com has a state-by-state searchable directory of scenic rail excursions, including a section on fall foliage.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 15 Most Scenic Amtrak Routes in North America
- America’s Best Train Journeys, Ranked
- The World’s 6 Most Incredible Luxury Train Trips
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ed Perkins contributed to this story.