Catch Some Fall Foliage on These Beautiful Train Rides Across the U.S.
Every autumn, my family used to pile into our minivan and hit the open road from the suburbs of Long Island to my grandparents’ farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (yep, Amish Country). I was convinced there was no better way to appreciate the fall foliage, and it was one of my favorite childhood traditions.
Then I grew up and realized that actually planning a road trip totally sucks. Traffic, detours, tolls, speed traps, refueling at questionable highway exit gas stations -- when you really get down to it, that just sounds like work. That’s when I figured, why not leave all the planning to the original masters of cross-country transportation?
Turns out taking a train is way easier: naps, incredible scenery, abundant snacks, a bar car. More than spring and summer, autumn is a cheap time of year to take a trip for the pure scenery of it. From Napa Valley to New England, you can find plenty of rail trails that make for a prime leaf peeping getaway. Bust out your flannel, because these are some of the best (and most affordable) routes across America to explore this autumn.
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Bryson City, North Carolina
Tickets start at $51
Every year North Carolina puts on an epic, highly underrated display along the Tuckasegee River shoreline, peppered with buttery gold, burnt sienna, and deep crimson. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s 32-mile route is impressive on its own, but be sure to pop into one of the open-air gondola cars for the ride’s best overlooks. This trip also includes a countryside stop in the super cute village of Dillsboro, home to more than 50 shops, inns, and restaurants. Book the excursion aboard their modern diesel train, or go the purist route and request their vintage steam engine locomotive.
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Colorado to New Mexico
Tickets start around $100
Movie buffs may recognize this vintage coal-fired steam engine from its big break in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it actually dates back to the 1880s. This rolling National Historic Landmark traverses 64 miles, bringing passengers through the Rocky Mountains, along the tapered Toltec Gorge, and across the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass. The route zigzags past miles of quintessential Western scenery, historical sites, towering mountain peaks, and woodland wildlife. To sweeten the deal: yo, a buffet lunch. This one’s only open May through October, so hop to it.
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Tickets start around $70
If there’s anything Southerners love more than sitting and staring, it’s eating while they do it. And you’ll eat in style during this 20-mile trip between Bardstown and Limestone Springs in Kentucky’s famed Bourbon County. Once aboard, prepare for a gourmet meal served alongside the ever-changing backdrop of Kentucky’s fall foliage and postcard-perfect scenery. The train runs year-round, but prospective passengers should still plan ahead -- reservations tend to fill up quickly.
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North Conway, New Hampshire
Tickets start at $17.50
Any New Englander knows that New Hampshire in October is the epitome of the autumn jaw-dropper, and this coastal stretch serves up some of the most vibrant views this side of the Mississippi. Hop aboard this vintage passenger train and wind through Crawford Notch, an area beloved by adventurists thanks to its staggering bluffs, cascading streams, and panoramic mountain views. Add some fiery maples to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for an unforgettable train ride. Learn about the historic route and local folklore as you trek along tracks laid nearly 150 years ago.
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Napa Valley, California
Tickets start around $250 for a half day.
Travelers in search of a shmancier affair should head west where wine reigns supreme. These tours -- available as full or half days -- take place on a renovated 1915 Pullman railcar operated by Noble House Hotels & Resorts and marries award-winning vino against world-famous Napa Valley views. There are actually several routes to choose from, and each includes a sparkling wine tasting, four-course menu, and stops at iconic wineries along the way. It’s a feast on wheels, worth the splurge.
While the California wildfires have been tough on the wineries in the area, tours are still operational as long as the air quality remains at a safe, breathable level. The Napa Valley Wine Train team continues to update the site with new business hours and changes in the schedule.
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Hood River Valley, Oregon
Tickets start at $35
Mount Hood Railroad in the fall is the stuff of your guiltiest pumpkin-spiced dreams. Scope out the greatest hits of this rugged region aboard a four-hour ride through soaring evergreens and sepia-toned mountaintops. In typical Oregon fashion, passengers here can’t be expected to stay cooped up inside all day -- you’ll stop at Parkdale for a picnic lunch a chance to gaze out over the fiery autumn leaves. Or check out some of the more adventurous themed train packages, like Murder Mystery Train or Western Train Robbery. Is there a Wine Train? But of course, and it comes with charcuterie and dark chocolate truffles.
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Tickets start around $65
Chances are Arizona isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think "fall foliage," but don't rule it out. This 1940s-era train has a romantic charm about it, and its Sedona Fall Colors Tour -- available in October and November -- teems with shades of amber, garnet, and gold. The limited edition Ales on Rails route rolls every Thursday to Sunday from late September through the end of October -- you can quench your thirst with the railroad's exclusive private label brew or other local craft varieties including Scotch ales, IPAs, chocolate porters, and more. Cheers to that.
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Maine to Massachusetts
Tickets start around $60 roundtrip
For more of New England’s seasonal splendors, hitch a ride on this route that snakes its way from Brunswick, Maine to Boston. It operates year-round, but really comes to life in the fall, schlepping passengers through kaleidoscopic panoramic views. It even offers free Wi-Fi so you can ’gram from the tram and document your journey all up and down the coast. The train is also pet friendly, so bring a dog and get snuggled the whole way.
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Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Tickets start at $78 roundtrip
The best way to climb the highest peak in the Northeast is while sitting. The Washington Cog Railway has been dutifully carrying passengers up and down the mountain for nearly 150 years. Trains depart every half hour, and you’ll find a gift shop, museum, and restaurant at the Base Station where your journey begins. A three-hour trip here includes an hour at the summit where you can avail yourself of the observatory -- and panoramic views of five states, two countries, and an ocean. And a snack bar.
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Green Mountain Railroad
Tickets start at $25
Vermont was going to crop up on this list at some point. We knew it; you knew it; these guys probably knew it, too. Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad offers a number of packages -- cocktails, murder mystery, and so forth -- but the best deal here is either of the Fall Foliage tours that operate late September through late October. We recommend the Chester-to-Rockingham route, based on our assumption that you, like everyone else, are enchanted by those signature Vermont covered bridges.
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Bonus: Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Pikes Peak, Colorado
After more than a century of service, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is temporarily closed for some well-earned maintenance. It’ll reopen in 2021 -- at which point you’ll want to avail yourself of it for the unparalleled views of the Colorado Front Range, sure, but also for the donuts. Pikes Peak is probably the most beloved fourteener in Colorado, maybe the world (or at least, that’s how it feels when you’re in Colorado) and the most gorgeous, least back-breaking way to see it is by train. Which, again, leads to donuts.