Leaf peepers of all ages know the joys of witnessing the changing leaves, seeing the landscape dyed in hues of red and purple and yellow. They also know that the best part of the country to witness this change is the Northeast. If you want to get some color (and I don’t mean sun) the best way to do it is on one of the Northeast’s fall foliage train rides.
As a Long Islander and the child of a conductor, it’s hard for me to imagine someone who’s never been on a train before. But for many people, riding on a vintage train or scenic railway is a way of time-traveling. For them, the experience is as impermanent and ephemeral as the leaves on the trees.
Over the past 50 years or so, passenger railroad transport in North America has been on the decline. Many of these older, underused railroads have transformed themselves into scenic railways. These scenic railways trade on nostalgia, Americana and most of all foliage. Most scenic railroads offer specific foliage-themed trips in the autumn months. There are some railroads that only run from August to November.
When you’re on a train, you aren’t distracted by the road and you aren’t moving too fast to see the trees. Fall foliage train rides go where roads don’t, plunging through autumn forests and scaling steep mountains. Visitors coming to see the foliage clog up New England roadways, and it’s hard to enjoy peeping while you’re beeping through traffic.
Note: Due to the ever-changing nature of the COVID-19 crisis, please see official websites before visiting to check for restrictions or closures.
The Green Mountain Railroad’s Chester Train rides feature weekend and weekday fall foliage train rides, as well as a dinner train that runs on Friday and Saturday evenings. You can enjoy the sunset, the leaves and a four-course meal as you travel through the heart of Vermont.
The Cape Cod Central Railroad runs along the coastal shoreline of Massachusetts. It goes past beaches and bays, between dunes and hills, through forests and cranberry bogs. The best way to enjoy the colors of fall is perhaps on their Coastal Excursion ride. It even features on-board narration about the history of the area. On some of their other trips, you can enjoy lunch or dinner in a formal setting, with the scenery of the Cape as the background.
Maine’s Narrow Gage Pumpkin Train is the perfect foliage ride for the younger leaf peepers out there. The benches inside the train face out toward the windows, giving the passengers a great view of the foliage along the coast. The train is populated by museum docents who love to answer questions and educate about the history of the train and the surrounding area. Pumpkin Train admission comes with hot cider and cookies, as well as a small pumpkin for the kids to decorate.
The fall foliage train rides at the Adirondack Scenic Railroad wind through the forests of upstate New York in open-air cars. They provide a variety of different types of train rides, including a wine-and-beer-tasting foliage train that takes place at sunset.
In addition to travel and commuting, Amtrak offers a variety of scenic train rides tailored to the fall season. The best way to peep some leaves, however, is through the roof of their Great Dome Car, which provides panoramic views of the changing landscape. Both their Downeaster line and their Adirondack line offer access to the dome car and the magnificent hues of fall.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway is a vintage steam engine and the very first mountain-climbing cog train in the world. For its fall foliage train rides, it makes the stunning climb up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England and the second-steepest set of train tracks in the world. Not only do you have the opportunity to see the changing leaves on the way up, but from the peak you can see all of the brilliant colors of the trees and hills for miles around. It is truly a breathtaking journey.
Conway’s fall foliage train rides have everything from pumpkin patches to murder. Their Autumn and Pumpkin Patch rides celebrate the season and the changing colors. You can even try out Conway’s own dome car, which is on a first-come, first-seated basis. Conway Scenic Railroad also runs the Murder Mystery Dinner Train around this time of year, giving passengers the opportunity to immerse themselves in a story as well as the foliage.
The Hobo Railroad offers a wide range of different fall foliage train rides throughout the season. Some trains provide catered turkey dinners for guests to dine on, while others feature trips to historic inns or farm yards. The first class cars are fitted with lounge chairs and couches, but they fill up fast. To get the best out of these train rides, it’s better to purchase your ticket in advance.
Café Lafayette is a restaurant on tracks, nestled in the woods of New Hampshire. As one of only 12 dining trains operating in North America, it is a truly unique experience. Dine on a five-course meal prepared in an onboard kitchen while you enjoy the kaleidoscope of fall colors on display. A great place to enjoy your dinner is their original restored dome car.
On any fall day, you can head over to the New Jersey Museum of Transportation and catch amazing views of the surrounding Allaire State Park. On some October nights, however, the fall foliage train ride gets decidedly spookier. The museum’s Haunted Express night time ride has run annually for decades. It features different spooks and scares every year, and utilizes not only the railroad, but the grounds of Allaire State Park as well. Just a warning: It might not be for your younger leaf peepers.
The Essex Steam Train in Connecticut has many different types of narrated fall foliage train rides, including their Train and Riverboat tour. It begins in their 1920s-era locomotive and finishes with a leisurely autumn cruise on its riverboat named the Becky Thatcher. The lush and vibrant woods surrounding the Essex Steam Train provide optimal leaves to see and memories to make.
Based in the idyllic Pennsylvania town of Jim Thorpe, the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway offers fall foliage train rides late into the season. Their trains weave through the Pocono Mountains, offering open-air views and live narration of the sights and sounds of autumn. The best way to experience the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway is to go on an early October weekend when the Pennsylvania leaves are usually at peak. This is also when the railway is running its Hometown High Bridge line. The trip sends passengers over the 1,000 foot long, 168 foot tall Hometown High Bridge. After the thrilling 2-hour ride, the train drops you back off in Jim Thorpe.
For everything fall, head over to the Your AAA Fall Fest!
To book your own fall foliage trip, visit AAA.com/Travel.
What are some of your favorite fall foliage train rides? Share them with us below.