Get Your Fall Foliage Fix on These Beautiful Train Rides Across the U.S.

It's high time to hit the rails.

Road tripping is one way to cruise through the country’s most scenic spots for leaf-peeping. But if you want to cover more ground without getting behind the wheel, there’s a better option: hit the rails.

These journeys were practically made for fall, since the trains wind their way through valleys, mountains, and dramatic coastal stretches that are so jaw-droppingly beautiful, you’ll have your camera permanently positioned at the panoramic windows—which give you unobstructed views of the scenery from all angles. There are also open-air viewing cars and, often, bars or white-glove dinner service.

But the real draw is that trains allow you to chug through forests and up mountains on journeys your car never could, so you’ll get the most immersive autumnal experience out there. Here are some of the railways and routes offering up unbeatable chances to soak up leaf-peeping season in style.

a train coming along bridge
Go vintage on a steam engine locomotive. | Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Bryson City, North Carolina
Tickets start at $56
North Carolina puts on a vivid, highly underrated display along the Tuckasegee River shoreline, peppered with buttery gold, burnt sienna, and deep crimson. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion is a 4.5-hour voyage into the heart of it all. Snaking along the Nantahala River and across vertiginous trusses, the train stops off at the Nantahala Outdoors Center so you can get a closer, stationary look. Book the excursion aboard their modern diesel train, or go the purist route and request the vintage steam engine locomotive. There's also a moonshine train, if you want to throw in another kind of Southern comfort.

a train chugging along by a hill covered in fall trees
Roll through the Rockies on this historic landmark. | Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Colorado to New Mexico
Tickets start at $135
Movie buffs may recognize this vintage coal-fired steam engine from its big break in 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. If you want to get in on this year’s trip, better act fast: The last train rolls out on October 23. But if you’re thinking ahead for next year—and look, who isn’t?—it’s never too early to book for 2023.

a bird's eye view of a train chugging through autumn hills
Bourbon is the perfect accompaniment to fall foliage. | R. J. Corman Railroad Group

Bardstown, Kentucky
Tickets start around $81
If there’s anything Southerners love more than sitting and staring, it’s eating while they do it. And you’ll definitely 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. Speaking of bourbon, it’d be a shame to have that prime rib without some of the brown stuff: Upgrade to a Bourbon Excursion and you’ll get your sights and bites with a pairing courtesy of a master distiller.

a train coming along a track with mountains in the distance
One of the best ways to cruise this coastal stretch of New Hampshire. | Unsplash/Balazs Busznyak

North Conway, New Hampshire
Tickets start at $21
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.

Verde Canyon Railroad
Verde Canyon Railroad | Verde Canyon Railroad

Clarkdale, Arizona
Tickets start around $99
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 to it, and its Sedona Fall Colors Tour—available in October and November—teems with shades of amber, garnet, and gold. And on the limited-edition Ales on Rails route, which rolls from mid-September through the end of October, you can quench your thirst with the railroad's exclusive private label brew or other local craft varieties during the four-hour tour.

Mt Hood Railroad
This short-but-sweet ride is a sampler of one of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest. | Mt. Hood Railroad

Hood River Valley, Oregon
Tickets start at $39
A relatively short but nonetheless stunning excursion, Mount Hood Railroad’s hour-long ride snakes through the Hood River Valley floor. But what a valley floor it is. Hood River is an impossibly cozy town in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, one of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest. The train ride allows you to peep the foliage as it creeps from the river banks steadily into the snow-peaked Mount Hood. After the ride, you’re in the heart of Oregon’s fruit-growing country, and those mountain roads wind up into an endless array of orchards, cideries, and wineries.

Amtrak Downeaster on train bridge
Panoramic views of New England’s seasonal splendors. | Amtrak Downeaster

Maine to Massachusetts
Tickets start around $58 roundtrip
For more of New England’s seasonal splendors, hitch a ride on this route that cruises from Brunswick, Maine, down to Boston. It operates year-round but really comes to life in the fall, when you’re rewarded with those kaleidoscopic panoramic views. There’s five roundtrip journeys each day, taking passengers through 12 communities in three states along the 143-mile corridor. And the train is pet-friendly (for smaller pups under 20 pounds) and has free Wi-Fi, so you can document your journey in real time up and down the coast.

Mount Washington Cog Railway
Climb through three climate zones to reach the top of New England. | Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Tickets start at $49
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 on the “railway to the moon” for nearly 150 years. A three-hour trip here includes an hour at the summit, where you can avail yourself of the observatory, plus panoramic views of five states, two countries, and an ocean (as well as a snack bar). Summit season closes before October’s out, but if you missed the boarding call, you can tide yourself over with a quick, inspirational preview.

a train chugging through a thick autumnal forest
This is one time where you want the journey to be a longer one. | Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad

Cass, West Virginia
Tickets start at $57
The scenery here is nothing short of spectacular—especially in the fall—and this quick jaunt is the best way to soak it up. Once used to transport lumber to mining camps, these original locomotives now haul passengers up a four-mile, 11%-grade slope with sweeping views of the mountains below. At the top of the ride is Whittaker Station, a restored logging camp. You can choose a two-hour journey along the Greenbrier River and into the Monongahela National Forest via the coal-fired Durbin Rocket or long-haul it for four and a half into the heights of Appalachia with the Bald Knob trip, which takes you to the second-highest vista point in West Virginia. Either way, you’re bound to run out of alternatives to the word “amber” and “fiery” en route.

pikes peak
The easiest way to summit Colorado’s peaks. | Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Pikes Peak, Colorado
Tickets start at $58
Perched atop the most beloved fourteener in Colorado, Pikes Peak Summit House recently underwent the highest-altitude construction project in North America. Now, along with unparalleled views of the Colorado Front Range (and the most legendary donuts in the lower 48, which you can now customize with add-ons like cocoa, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg), those who trek to the top will find improved accessibility, new interpretive exhibits, a trail mix bar, and more. The least back-breaking way to enjoy Pikes Peak is by riding up on the Cog Train, which has been in operation since 1891 and recently got a facelift of its own with new train carriages imported from Switzerland and miles upon miles of new track to guide you through the hills.

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Kastalia Medrano is a New York-based journalist and avid traveler. Follow her on Twitter.
Ian Centrone is a freelance writer from New York who traded a perfectly comfortable life for nomadic adventures abroad. You can usually find him talking to strangers, eating weird foods, and documenting it all on Instagram.