All Aboard for Fall Foliage

Soak up autumn colors in a whole new way aboard a passenger railroad train.

Train excursions provide a unique travel experience. It’s a return to the trailblazing and romantic mode of transportation that played a critical role in the United States’ growth and prosperity. While automobiles and planes eventually supplanted trains as the preferred way for people to explore the country, some notable railroads remain. Let someone else do the driving so you can fully appreciate the Southeast’s autumn display.

Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad

Boasting the largest exposed granite rock face in North America, the 3,200-acre Stone Mountain Park is Georgia’s most visited attraction. You can get one-of-a-kind views of the 1,686-foot dome and the lush, colorful landscape aboard the park’s 1940s locomotive. Settle into one of the open-air cars as you embark on a five-mile excursion around the mountain, which contains fascinating features like the three-acre relief sculpture — the largest in the world — depicting three Confederate heroes of the Civil War. Afterwards, explore some 15 miles of hiking trails, go fishing in the 363-acre lake, play a round of golf, or try the Summit Skyride, a high-speed cable car that transports guests to the top of Stone Mountain. The park also hosts numerous fall festivals, such as the Pumpkin Festival, a family-friendly event with games, shows, a parade and pie eating contest. 

Tennessee Valley Railroad

Dedicated to preserving the local history of railroads, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum showcases stationary cars and offers a variety of train rides through the beautiful Tennessee countryside — providing an experience that’s both entertaining and educational. Departing from Etowah, Tenn., the Hiwassee River Rail Adventure is a scenic, 50-mile journey through the 650,000-acre Cherokee National Forest, which is a vibrant and stunning mix of orange, yellow and red during the fall. The 3 1/2-hour trip runs along the Hiwassee River, where Cherokee tribes first settled in the 18th century, and through the secluded Hiwassee River Gorge. The Missionary Ridge Local is another popular fall train ride. This hour-long trip departs from the Grand Junction Station in Chattanooga and runs along one of the area’s original railroad lines, crossing four bridges and passing through Missionary Ridge Tunnel, which pre-dates the Civil War. During the trip, you’ll have the chance to see the locomotive rotate on a turntable and tour a railroad restoration shop. 

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway’s historic 1905 depot is in the heart of Blue Ridge, Ga., a picturesque mountain village surrounded by the Chattahoochee National Forest. Blue Ridge was founded in 1887 and became an important stop along the Marietta and North Georgia railroads, which farmers and merchants used to transport crops and other goods. Today, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway runs on the tracks and offers visitors a 26-mile, four-hour round trip along the beautiful Toccoa River. The excursion includes a two-hour layover at McCaysville, Ga., and Copperhill, Tenn., neighboring towns located on the Georgia-Tennessee state line, where visitors can grab lunch and explore shops and boutiques. With both climate-controlled and open-air vintage rail cars, Blue Ride Scenic Railway has a fall foliage excursion from Sept. 29 to Nov. 12. After the train ride, check out Blue Ridge’s growing number of breweries, both casual and fine-dining restaurants, quaint shops, art galleries and antiques stores. 

James River Rambler

Take in the awe-inspiring fall colors of Central Virginia aboard a vintage 1920s passenger car that belongs to the Old Dominion Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS). The chapter owns a number of historic passenger coaches and vintage steam and diesel engines that are available for excursion train rides. During October, the Autumn Leaf Rambler travels through beautiful rolling hills and deep forests, where the rural landscape is in full and fiery fall display. The diesel train has both climate-controlled cars and open-air cars. Departing from Dillwyn Station, the 3 1/2-hour trip features a captivating view of the James River from the bridge at New Canton, a tiny speck of a town with little development other than the post office, which has been in operation since the early 19th century.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Based in Bryson City, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers two excursions that travel through the heart of western North Carolina — prime leaf-peeping territory. Options include a 4 1/2-hour trip along the roaring Nantahala River, with scenic highlights like sparkling Fontana Lake and Nantahala Gorge. The 44-mile trip has a one-hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where you can take in grand views of the river and surrounding countryside. The Nantahala Gorge excursion also offers the adults-only “Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience”, which takes place on a first-class train fleet car and includes slow-roasted pulled pork barbeque, and a variety of handcrafted moonshine from NASCAR legend Junior Johnson’s Piedmont Distillers. 

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