There’s something magical about train travel.
Perhaps that magic comes from the abundance of fictional trains that whisk characters into whimsical worlds. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of travel from an era before automobiles. Whatever the reason, traveling by rail is a perennially popular opportunity for groups. This is especially true in autumn, when crisp air, seasonal festivities and, of course, fall foliage can light up any trip.
A traveler doesn’t need to be a seasoned leaf peeper to fawn over the warm reds, golds and oranges that set the countryside ablaze. To enjoy some of the most colorful and scenic trips of the year, check out breathtaking autumn railway excursions on these railroads.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Bryson City, North Carolina
The “smoke” on the Smoky Mountains is actually fog created by moisture lifting from dense, deciduous forests. These same forests display beautiful autumn foliage beginning in mid-September at higher elevations, peaking during October. Red maples, sugar maples, scarlet oaks and sweetgum trees bring vibrant reds to the mountainside, while beech, hickory and birch trees add shades of orange and gold.
Groups can experience this gorgeous collage of colors aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City, North Carolina. One of the railroad’s most scenic trips, the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, is offered on both steam and diesel trains.
“It’s a beautiful sight that is best experienced in person, aboard one of our many historic train cars,” said Kord Walls, marketing manager at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
At about four hours roundtrip, this excursion is the perfect way to spend an afternoon and see the Smokies. Trains depart from the Bryson City Depot and travel through the mountains along the Nantahala and Tennessee rivers. The historic Fontana Trestle carries the train over Fontana Lake and into the Nantahala Gorge. Passengers then spend an hour layover in the gorge by the river, where they can sightsee, take pictures and enjoy the autumn weather. Varied seating options are available, including the premium open-air gondola, with some of the most stunning views. First-class ticket options come with upscale onboard dining; groups can also opt for a box lunch.
Southwestern United States, Canada
The majesty of the snowcapped peaks of North America’s largest mountain range is undeniable. The Rocky Mountains, which stretch about 3,000 miles from western Canada to the southwestern U.S., are home to an unparalleled natural beauty and national parks. Rocky Mountaineer, a tourist train with several routes in the Rockies, is one of the best ways to experience the magnificent mountains among friends.
Groups can choose from routes in Canada and the U.S. during September and October to see the foliage change. The trains’ glass-dome coaches ensure none of the journey’s beautiful backdrop is missed.
The First Passage to the West is a two-day journey from Vancouver to Lake Louise or Banff with an overnight stop in Kamloops. Because of the higher elevation in the Rockies, leaves usually hit their peak in September and early October. Groups will be treated to the sight of wildlife, like deer and elk, as well as larch trees, which transition from lush forest green to gold. In the U.S., the Rockies to the Red Rocks route travels from Denver to Moab, Utah, with an overnight stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Aspen, maple and cottonwood trees are a show along the way
“You travel alongside the Colorado River for a while on that trip, so there is a good opportunity to see fall foliage as well,” said Nicole Ford, vice president of communications, sustainability and stakeholder relations for Rocky Mountaineer. “It’s mostly reds and oranges on that route.”
On each of these routes, trains travel by day and offer onboard dining using seasonal and local ingredients. The train’s staff narrates the routes and tells stories for nonstop entertainment, and guests are encouraged to socialize and move around the train cars to enjoy the view.
West Coast Railway’s Jacobite is perhaps one of today’s most famous trains, known for being the real-life Hogwarts Express from the beloved Harry Potter film series. This steam train’s 84-mile, six-hour roundtrip is highly acclaimed for all travelers, not just fans of the wizarding world. It offers views of the Scottish Highlands, which can be equally whimsical and are exceptionally beautiful in the fall. Autumn in Scotland infuses the green countryside with ambers, golds and reds between September and November. Among its most colorful trees are oak, beech, birch and horse chestnut.
The Jacobite is a great way to enjoy the scenery of the Highlands. It departs from Fort William, near Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, and heads to Mallaig, a fishing port. Along the way, the train crosses over Loch Shiel and the Jacobite monument on a famous and picturesque viaduct. Passengers will also see the Loch Nevis, the deepest seawater loch in Europe, and Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater loch in Britain. The train stops in the village of Glenfinnan, where groups can visit the West Highland Railway Museum in the station. In Mallaig, passengers have 90 minutes to eat fish and chips and shop. During the train ride, a buffet carriage serves tea, coffee and snacks.
Winding north through the Adirondack Mountains over hills and through rock cuts, the Adirondack Railroad is the longest tourist railroad east of the Mississippi. The New York railroad offers fall foliage trips from mid-September through mid-October. Since the Adirondack Mountains region boasts one of the longest fall foliage seasons in the country, these trips are a prime opportunity for leaf-peepers. Some of the most vibrant trees in the landscape are varieties of maple and aspen trees, which turn bright red, orange and yellow in late September and early October. One of the best ways to see them is on this train journey.
“It allows you to see the fall colors close up in a totally different view,” said Amanda Hill, director of customer communications at the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society. “You get a spectacular view you’re not going to get from the road or hiking.”
The route runs from Utica to Old Forge, and the railroad offers a 5.5-hour quick-turn trip and a 9.5-hour layover trip, depending on the day. During the ride, groups can check out the café car for refreshments as they pass the breathtaking New York scenery. If they purchase first-class or diamond-class tickets, their trip comes with hors d’oeuvres, treats and beverage service. On the layover trip, there’s time for travelers to stretch their legs and wander around Old Forge, a quaint Adirondacks hamlet with small shops, boutiques and eateries to explore.