7 Scenic Train Routes to See the Fall Colors

The visual wonders of fall can be fleeting. There’s always the option of a road trip, but someone has to keep an eye on the road, not the foliage.

This is where a train can step in for those who enjoy slow travel, meditative landscapes and cozy neighborhoods.

The United States lags behind much of the world when it comes to high-speed or luxury rail. But while the country lacks impressive infrastructure and amenities, it has an abundance of awe-inspiring sights. But a note to consider: Many long-term itineraries are in high demand at this time of year, and some don’t operate until early fall.

“They sell out long, long in advance,” said Ted Blank, a Minnesota-based travel consultant with Travel Leaders. “If people are thinking about it for the fall, think about it for the fall of next year.”

Train enthusiasts – also known as railfans – have shared some of their favorite trips to the United States and Canada.

1. California Zephyr

Blank named Amtrak’s California Zephyr route one of the railroad’s best for scenic views — especially areas between Denver and Utah, and Reno, Nevada, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The journey begins in Chicago and ends in Emeryville, California, crossing the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada.

“Once you get out of Denver, you start to climb and the scenery is beautiful,” said Sherry Laskin, a travel writer who runs the Cruise Maven site and focuses on cruises and rail travel. “In autumn, the aspens change color.”

Clocking in at 51 hours and 20 minutes, the California Zephyr is not for those in a hurry.

Laskin suggests extending the trip even further. She said the ideal scenario would be to get off the train in Denver, explore for a few days from a downtown base, and stop on the train again in places like Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for foliage. and history; Green River, Utah, for a detour to Moab; and Sacramento to visit the California State Railroad Museum.

2. Lake Shore Limited

Although Laskin knows the California Zephyr gets a lot of love, she calls this 19-hour Amtrak trip from Chicago to Boston or New York “one of those underrated routes that offers beautiful scenery.”

From New York, the train skirts the Hudson River before heading west toward Buffalo; Erie, Pennsylvania; Cleveland; and finally Chicago. Amtrak says the route skirts “some of the most beautiful shorelines in the United States,” including the Erie Canal, the Mohawk River, and the south shore of Lake Michigan.

“It’s trees all the way,” Laskin said. “I did it in the fall, and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ You just can’t stop watching it.

3. Copperhill Special

Mike Cyr is all about trains. He is president and CEO of a company called Virtual Railfan, which operates a network of more than 100 cameras in 28 states that show train activity, covering 54 locations.

Based in East Tennessee, Cyr said his “all-time favorite for scenery, especially fall colors” is close to home: the Copperhill Special train ride, the one of the Hiwassee River Rail Adventures operated by the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.

Departing from Delano, Tennessee, the train travels through the Lower Hiwassee River Gorge and the Hiwassee Loop before reaching Copperhill, Tennessee on the border with Georgia. There’s a 90-minute layover for food or shopping in town before returning, and Cyr said there’s even a bandleader playing the banjo, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be with you. travel.

“Some of the most beautiful scenery east of the Mississippi, the mountains of east Tennessee, the Hiwassee River, it’s amazing,” Cyr said. “The scenery is beautiful and it’s just starting to warm up here.”

The eight-hour round trip is available on select dates from July to November – and places are still available for this year. Cyr said he plans to take it back this year.

“When I tell you I have a train problem, it’s pretty serious,” he said.

4. Empire Builder

This Amtrak line connects Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, either Seattle or Portland. It’s a 46 hour journey.

Blank said the stretch between La Crosse, Wisconsin, and St. Paul, Minnesota is “breathtaking in the fall.”

The route includes Montana’s Big Sky Country and Glacier National Park. Passengers heading to Seattle will also see the Cascade Mountains, “beautiful in the fall,” Blank said.

5. Cross Country Skiing in Canada

The Society of International Railway Travelers, a luxury rail travel agency, books train travel all over the world – but in North America, the only options are in Canada.

President and co-owner Eleanor Flagler Hardy said she likes to recommend a trip to Canada that combines two options: the Canadian, operated by VIA Rail, and the Rocky Mountaineer, operated by a private luxury tourist train company.

However, they can only be combined between mid-April and mid-October when the Rocky Mountaineer operates. Passengers take the train during the day and stop at the hotel to sleep. The Canadian, which includes bedrooms, operates year-round.

Hardy said his recommendation would be to start in Vancouver and board the Rocky Mountaineer, spend the night in Kamloops, British Columbia, and continue to Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. She said travelers can see the Rockies by road for as many days as they want, then head to Jasper where they board the Canadian and continue east to Toronto.

Because her company only books premium rail travel — it’s part of the Virtuoso network of agencies, which specialize in luxury travel — Hardy said she recommends GoldLeaf service on the Rocky Mountaineer and Prestige class. on the Canadian.

In an email, Hardy said there were “fabulous peeping leaves” in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada from late September to early October.

“Of course, they’re famous for the brightly colored maples,” she said. “And the larches are bright yellow in the Rockies.”

6. From the Rockies to the Red Rocks

Rocky Mountaineer launched a US route last year, which operates from mid-April through late October.

Although the route shares some scenery with the California Zephyr, the two-day trip from Denver to Moab includes an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Blank said the train had glass-roofed dome cars and called it a “first-class experience”.

“You have a really comfortable seat, you have gourmet meals served to you, alcoholic beverages are included, there will be interpreter guides as you go,” he said.

7. Southwest Leader

Laskin said mid-October is a good time for this route, which stretches between Chicago and Los Angeles. The train follows the Santa Fe Trail on its 40+ hour trip, and passengers can watch the leaves change as it ascends to higher elevation. In New Mexico, Laskin said Pikes Peak in Colorado is visible in the distance on a clear day.

For a detour, bus connections are available from Flagstaff Station to the Grand Canyon Railway, which promises “cowboys, musicians and a faux early 1900s-style train robbery.”

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