The Most Scenic Train Routes for Leaf-Peeping

There’s something deeply satisfying about riding on a train, rolling along somewhat slowly but surely, having what feels like all the time in the world as you zone out and get lost in the landscape. Trains are a delightful way to travel any time of year, but autumn marks the arrival of especially spectacular scenery, with much of the country blanketed in a shag carpet of leaves encompassing the entire spectrum of a blazing campfire. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

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New York City to Poughkeepsie

A Metro North train passes along the Hudson River in New Rochelle, NY...
Gary Hershorn / Getty Images

Looking for a scenic day trip to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City? Hop on the Metro-North Railroad in iconic Grand Central Station (or in Harlem or the Bronx) and head north to Poughkeepsie. This two-hour train ride hugs the Hudson River's eastern edge, offering impressive views of the 540-foot Palisades cliffs and endless miles of bright autumn foliage.

Once in Poughkeepsie, head to the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, the former 19th-century railroad bridge turned world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge. This region is especially great for cycling, so be sure to secure a Metro-North bicycle pass to bring your wheels. Pro tip: take the train up in the morning, then plan your return ride for early evening to catch incredible views of the sun setting over the Hudson River.

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Conway Scenic Railroad Mountaineer

Trains
Moment Editorial/Getty Images / Getty Images

All aboard Conway Scenic Railroad’s Mountaineer train for 60 superbly scenic miles of fall foliage! Formerly known as the "Notch Train," this 1950s-era streamlined passenger train recreates a post-World War II Transcontinental train experience that takes riders through Mount Washington Valley, over the Crawford Notch, and through White Mountain National Forest. For serious train-loving leaf peepers, head 35 miles north to ride The Mount Washington Cog Railway, the oldest mountain climbing train globally. This hour-long rail ride takes you to the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, and through some of the most spectacular scenery New Hampshire has to offer.

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Milwaukee to Minneapolis

Union Depot interior, Saint Paul, MN
Dave G. Houser / Getty Images

The perfect blend of Midwest charm, vibrant city life, and quaint rural landscapes can be found along Amtrak’s Empire Builder route connecting Milwaukee to Minneapolis (or all the way to Washington State, if you like). Technically, the train station is in St. Paul, Minnesota, but it’s just a quick hop over the Mississippi River to the other half of the Twin Cities.

In Milwaukee, visit the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by world-renowned artist Santiago Calatrava (who also designed New York City’s famed World Trade Center Oculus), and take in views of the seemingly never-ending Lake Michigan. During the six-hour ride to Minnesota, you’ll pass through protected wildlife areas and state parks, many of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes, and alongside some of the state’s famous dairy farms. Before boarding in Milwaukee, be sure to pick up a bag of cheese curds for the ride!

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Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad train on the 64 mile run between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Co
Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

The Rocky Mountain state may be known for its aspen, which turn a handsome hue of yellow in the fall, but you’ll see far more than just trees aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. During the nearly six-hour, 64-mile roundtrip ride, the train meanders over high plains, through mountain tunnels, and along the Toltec Gorge, peering 600-feet down to the roaring Rio de Los Pinos river in New Mexico. Keep your eyes open for bear, elk, deer, and other wildlife along the route.

No visit to Colorado would be complete without hitting a hiking trail, climbing a mountain, or kayaking in a crystal-clear lake, so be sure to build some time into your trip for outdoor activities. Great Sand Dunes National Park is only an hour's drive from the Antonito train station, where you can hike one of North America's tallest dunes.

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Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway train on track heading towards camera

Courtesy of Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Journey through the Appalachian foothills of northern Georgia on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. During this four-hour, 26-mile roundtrip ride, chug along the countryside and through the forest to visit the sister towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee. The ride is broken into two one-hour legs, punctuated with a two-hour layover to explore the old-timey towns along the Tennessee-Georgia border. The relaxing ride winds along the Toccoa River and through the Chattahoochee National Forest, and passengers have their choice of vintage or open-air rail cars. Pro tip: some of the best views are from the open-air cars!

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Catskill Mountain Railroad

Catskill Mountain Railroad train rounding curve in the track

Courtesy of Catskill Mountain Railroad

In the heart of New York’s Hudson Valley is the Catskill Mountain Railroad, a scenic heritage railroad cutting through one of the most picturesque regions in the northeast. Beginning on Oct. 17, the Fall Foliage Adventure Train turns into the Pumpkin Express, allowing passengers to select and go home with their own pumpkin. To comply with COVID-19 restrictions, only the open-air flat cars are in use, so be sure to bring a jacket if it’s chilly out. Note that temperatures will be taken during check-in, and masks are required during the ride.

For train enthusiasts who would prefer to have the tracks all to themselves (and 50 of their closest friends), private train charters are available. Whoever you decide to go with, spend some time exploring Kingston, the state’s first capital, which is now packed with adorable shops, great restaurants, and loads of hiking and biking trails.

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Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train

Courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

What better way to explore a National Park than by train? The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is a two-hour rail journey through Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park—one of only a handful of National Parks in the Midwest—with plenty of opportunities for leaf-peeping and wildlife spotting. Keep your eyes open for deer, beavers, otter, and even eagles.

For a birds-eye-view of the scenery, book a seat in an upper dome observation car, which is encased by a panoramic glass enclosure and offers the best view on the train. To turn a two-hour trip into a full-day adventure, purchase the Peninsula Explorer Ticket that allows passengers to de-board the train and explore the Village of Peninsula.

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