All aboard for views of landscapes that are rarely seen from main roadways and experiences that hint at the nostalgia of yesteryear. America's railway system is vast and filled with hidden gems, including small, historic railroads that weave through forests, along waterways, up mountains and across rural expanses. When you are traveling to the Eastern United States, check out some of the best heritage trains east of the Mississippi.
Essex Steam Train
Diving into the heart of the Connecticut River Valley, the Essex Steam Train follows a scenic route that was first established in 1868. This train begins its 12-mile roundtrip journey at the railway station in Essex, CT, which was built over 100 years ago in 1892. As the train makes its way through the valley, passengers enjoy looks at quintessential New England towns, wetlands and Selden Neck State Park. In all, the train ride takes approximately 2 ½ hours. For further excitement, connect a ride aboard the Essex Steam Train with a cruise down the Connecticut River aboard the Becky Thatcher riverboat.
Conway Scenic Railroad
Located in North Conway, NH, the Conway Scenic Railroad offers two routes through the stunning White Mountain region. Passengers of the Valley train have the option of an 11-mile, 50-minute ride to Conway or a 21-mile, nearly 2-hour ride to Bartlett. The Valley train offers views of rivers and the distant mountains, as well as picture-perfect views of brilliant foliage in the autumn. Those guests that select the Notch train are treated to a 5 ½-hour journey through scenic Crawford Notch. Along the way, panoramic views of mountains, cliffs, ravines and waterways are taken in from vintage railway cars. The Notch train crosses the Frankenstein Trestle and the Willey Brook Bridge during the 50-60 mile route.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
Climb to the summit of the highest mountain peak in the Northeast, Mount Washington, aboard the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Located in Bretton Woods, NH, this railway was the world's first cog railway to climb a mountain, built in 1869. This railway was truly a marvel of engineering for the 19th century and continues to impress riders today. The climb to the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington takes approximately 1 hour to complete, and once at the top, guests marvel at 360-degree views over five states, Canada and even the Atlantic Ocean.
Adirondack Scenic Railroad
The scenic beauty of Upstate New York's Adirondack region is on full display aboard the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. This heritage railway was first opened in 1892 and follows a route between Utica, NY, and Thendara, also known as Old Forge. Over the course of 5 1/2 hours, the train winds through the six million acres of Adirondack Park and offers views of colorful forests, winding rivers and even waterfalls! Passengers take in the passing scenes from fully restored vintage rail cars and have the opportunity to breathe in the fresh mountain air from the open car.
Cass Scenic Railroad
A hint at West Virginia's logging past lies just down the tracks aboard the Cass Scenic Railroad. Based out of Cass, WV, this historic railway had its beginnings in 1901, when it was used to haul trees through the Allegheny Mountains. Today, passengers follow the same route and are treated to untouched mountain views as the train climbs to the summit of Bald Knob - the third highest point in West Virginia. In fact, the steep grade of the tracks makes the Cass Scenic Railroad the steepest railroad in all of the United States. Guests enjoy views of lumbering towns and picturesque backcountry on the 11-mile, 4 ½-hour train ride. This heritage train is located within Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, and visitors have access to an authentic company store and a railway museum, as well.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Find yourself immersed in the pristine beauty of the Smoky Mountains aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. This train is located in Bryson City, NC, and offers two incredibly scenic journeys through the colorful Smokies. The first option is the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, which takes passengers on a 44-mile round trip route from Bryson City to the Nantahala Gorge. Enjoy views of the Nantahala and Tennessee Rivers, as well as Fontana Lake. The 4 ½-hour journey includes a sightseeing layover in Nantahala Outdoor Center and lots of stories and lore about Appalachia. The second route aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is the Tuckasegee River Excursion, a 32-mile journey to Dillsboro and back. Passengers enjoy a ride through the famous Cowee Tunnel and a stop in the charming town of Dillsboro during the 4-hour tour.
Vacations By Rail offers a variety of rail tours featuring these heritage trains and many more. For a real treat, choose a package through the Northeast in the autumn, and experience the nostalgia of a historical railway surrounded by vibrant displays of fall foliage. Contact a rail specialist to learn more.