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Ride the Rails

If you’re planning to get away from it all this fall, there may be no better way to do it than on a scenic railroad.

Autumn has always been the most popular travel season for many groups. But in a year marked by travel disruption around the world and civil unrest at home, going out exploring this fall might be more important than ever. Seeing the beauty of changing leaves reminds us that life is always changing, too, and gives us hope for the future.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy fall foliage, but few offer the charm and relaxation of a train trip. Around the country, heritage railroads offer groups the chance to sit back and discover pristine scenery while reliving the pleasures of a simpler time.

As you prepare for your group’s fall travel, keep these scenic railroads in mind.

Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington, New Hampshire

When he stepped off the train in 1869 and surveyed the surrounding scenery, legendary circus performer P.T. Barnum called the summit of Mount Washington “the second greatest show on earth.” Now, for more than 150 years, the Mount Washington Cog Railway has been taking travelers up the hillside to see the beautiful scenery of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world and the only one in North America, “the Cog” uses a pair of coal-fired steam engines to climb grades much steeper than traditional trains could traverse.

The White Mountains are a popular destination year-round, but fall color makes the train trips especially popular in late September and throughout October. Three-hour round-trip excursions include an hourlong layover at the Mount Washington summit. Groups get plenty of time for views of autumns landscapes, as well as occasional wildlife sightings.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Bryson City, North Carolina

For generations, the Smoky Mountains have been among the favorite fall destinations in the South. And though many travelers are familiar with the popular tourist towns in eastern Tennessee, there’s more beauty and adventure over the North Carolina border, where the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad operates.

Groups can choose from two different train excursions, both about four hours long. The Nantahala Gorge Excursion travels from Bryson City, across historic Trellis Bridge, to Fontana Lake and the Nantahala Gorge, where visitors can enjoy outdoor activities and peaceful autumn views by the water. The Tuckasegee River Excursion features a peaceful ride through the countryside to the small town of Dillsboro, where visitors will find more than 50 shops, restaurants and other businesses. Group dining options are available on both routes, and there are several classes of service to choose from.

Adirondack Scenic Railroad

Since the 1890s, the railroad has connected towns such as Utica, Thendara and Lake Placid in northeastern New York. In the early 1990s, a group of preservationists came together to create the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Using track still owned by the state, the railroad highlights the scenic beauty of the Adirondack Mountains, as well as the railroad history of the area.

The railroad operates from four historic stations in the region, and groups can arrange excursions from any one of the stations to the next. The trains use historic equipment, including a vintage 1955 Union Pacific Dome Car and a 1948 dining car. Sightseeing and dining excursions are available, as are private charters. During the fall, special events include the Family Halloween Train and the Pumpkin Train.

Mount Hood Railroad

Hood River, Oregon

Destinations in the eastern part of the United States tend to get the lion’s share of the press when it comes to fall foliage. But there are plenty of scenic spots to find autumn color in the West, too. A case in point is Oregon, where Mount Hood stands as a symbol of environmental beauty. Groups can experience a distinctive West Coast fall on a train excursion aboard the Mount Hood Railroad.

All trains depart from the Hood River Depot, a 1911 Craftsman-style station listed on the National Historic Register. From there, they follow a 17-mile route that winds through the Columbia River Gorge to the Hood River Valley and the scenic town of Odell. Along the way, visitors pass through colorful woods, as well as local orchards and vineyards. Beer, wine and concessions are available for purchase on board

Big South Fork Scenic Railroad

Stearns, Kentucky

At the beginning of the 20th century, logging and coal mining were big business in southern Kentucky — so big the Kentucky and Tennessee Railway was built to transport goods from the small town of Stearns to other parts of the country. This 25-mile short-line railroad discontinued service in the 1950s when area coal mines began closing. Today, though, it is operating again as the Big South Fork Scenic Railroad.

Named for the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, this railroad delivers historic experiences and beautiful views of unspoiled Kentucky wilderness. The train travels through Daniel Boone National Forest, usually brilliant with fall colors in late October and early November. The three-hour journey takes passengers to the Barthell Coal Camp, which was established in 1903, and optional tours of the camp and mine are available.

Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

Cumberland, Maryland

Maryland might be more famous for its coast than for its topography, but the western part of the state features forested mountain landscapes that come alive in brilliant color during the fall. Groups traveling through the area en route to Pennsylvania, West Virginia or the Atlantic Coast can enjoy views of the mountains during a ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.

The railroad’s most popular excursion, the Frostburg Flyer, is a three-and-a-half-hour ride from Cumberland to the town of Frostburg. Along the way, the train climbs more than 1,300 feet in elevation, through a breach in the Allegheny Mountains, over an iron truss bridge and through a 914-foot-long mountain tunnel. The train offers four classes of service, two with dining and beverage service. The railroad also operates several themed excursions, including a murder mystery train and a moonshine train.

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Durango, Colorado

In Colorado, fall brings a distinctive beauty, as the changing colors of aspen trees paint the mountains in a bright golden color. One of the best ways to take in the scenery is aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which was founded in 1881 to haul silver ore between the two towns and which now serves as a tourist train. Historic steam engines pull the trains on these tracks, specially designed at a narrower width for traversing rugged mountain terrain.

During the three-and-a-half-hour journey, the train cuts through narrow rock passages and hugs the edges of cliffs perched 400 feet above the floor of the Animas River canyon. As it climbs from Durango to Silverton, the landscape begins to change, and visitors may spot elk, bear and bighorn sheep among the aspen and pine trees.

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Peninsula, Ohio

In northeast Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park enjoys a notable distinction: It’s the only national park in the country with a nonprofit heritage railroad running through it. The tracks were first laid more than 100 years ago to move people and freight between Cleveland and Canton, Ohio. In 1989, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad was restructured as an excursion train to showcase the natural environment of the surrounding national park. And one of the best times to take the ride is autumn, when the valley and forest are blanketed in color.

Through a partnership between the park and the railroad, park staff provide educational programming for riders. The railroad offers an array of experiences for groups, including scenic excursions, breakfast and dinner trains, and themed departures such as Ales on Rails and Cocktails on Rails. Groups can also arrange for boxed lunch packages and private car rentals.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.