All aboard! America’s best excursion trains offer stunning scenery on nostalgic rides into yesteryear

All aboard! America’s best excursion trains offer stunning scenery on nostalgic rides into yesteryear

Randy Mink

BACK IN THE LATE 1800S AND WELL INTO the 20th century, train whistles echoed across the land, swaying cars clickety-clacked along the tracks and mighty “iron horses” belched billowing puffs of steam that hovered over the countryside. The rail depot was a beehive of activity, and every boy dreamed of becoming a train engineer. Even in this age of airplanes and automobiles, travelers can sample the golden days Of railroading by taking a short excursion on one of America’s many tourist trains. Almost every state has at least one. Pulled by old-fashioned steam or early diesel engines, these relics of our past have been lovingly restored by rail buffs and historical groups dedicated to preserving the nation’s colorful railroad heritage.

Trips ranging from 45 minutes to all day give passengers a chance to relax and feel the rhythm of the rails as they slip back in time. For older folks, a hankering for the good old days is a chief draw. Adults should not hesitate to bring along the kids and grandkids because most children are fascinated by trains. For everyone, it’s a real adventure to pass through unspoiled mountains, forests and farmland, minus traffic and commercial development. Fall foliage season is an especially popular time for these leisurely journeys.

Scenic trains are equipped with vintage coach cars, some authentically appointed with antique furnishings. Your train might have an open-air observation car or a club car that serves snacks. Another treat is having a full-course dinner in the diner. Narration, musical entertainment and costumed folks in period garb might be part of the experience. Many excursions depart from historic rail depots that offer museum exhibits and plenty of souvenirs.

It’s hard not to feel happy, carefree and a bit nostalgic whenever you board a train, your magic carpet to good times.

To relive the romance of the mils, choose from choo-choos like the following:

Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona. Take the train and avoid the traffic congestion at one of America’s most popular national parks. On the 2 1/4-hour trip from the 1908 Williams Depot to the canyon’s South Rim, strolling musicians and Wild West characters keep passengers entertained as they traverse 65 miles of northern Arizona’s pine forests, grassy plains and small canyons. Commonly seen wildlife includes elk, mule deer and pronghorn.

After about 3 1/2 hours at the Grand Canyon, rail riders reboard for the afternoon departure–and should expect bandits (actors, of course) to hold up the train and take hostages. Riders can choose from five classes of service ($58 to $147 roundtrip), and guided Grand Canyon tours may be purchased with rail tickets.

The railway features turn-of-the-century steam engines from Memorial Day through September and 1950s diesel locomotives the rest of the year.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Durango, Colorado. The San Juan Mountains and San Juan National Forest of southwest Colorado provide awesome vistas for passengers traveling the 45-mile stretch between Durango and Silverton. Dating back to 1882, the line was designed to haul gold, silver and other minerals. Guests on the day-long journey have two hours to eat and look around the old mining town of Silverton before heading back to Durango, a colorful place chockful of restaurants, shops and art galleries. Coal-fired steam locomotives from the 1920s stop to replenish their water supply on each leg of the trip.

Georgetown Loop Railroad, Georgetown, Colorado, in this old silver mining town 50 miles west of Denver, hop aboard for the 70-minute journey through the Rocky Mountains or choose a longer trip that includes a mine tour. The hissing steam train crosses the reconstructed Devil’s Gate Viaduct, an 1880s engineering feat that towers 95 feet above Clear Creek; the track here crosses over itself, forming a spiral, or “loop.” Georgetown abounds with shops and restaurants housed in Victorian buildings.

Napa Valley Wine Train, Napa, California. Gourmet dining is the draw on three-hour champagne brunch, lunch and dinner excursions in California’s most famous grape-growing region, The 36-mile trips pass 26 wineries between Napa and St. Helena.

In an area equally renowned for its cuisine, the train’s executive chef, Kelly Macdonald, prepares seasonal menus highlighted by the freshest and highest quality ingredients. These “moveable feasts” feature entrees like roasted Angus tenderloin over sauteed oyster mushrooms and poached salmon complemented with chipotle lobster sauce and garnished with caviar. The elegant 1917 Pullman dining car is accented with etched glass, polished brass, fine fabrics and rich mahogany paneling. Hors d’oeuvres are served in the lounge and wine tasting cars, also opulently appointed.

Mid-Continent Railway Museum, North Freedom, Wisconsin. From a restored 1894 Chicago & North Western depot, take a 50-minute, diesel-powered ride through the Baraboo River Valley, past rock formations, open farmland and the ghost town of LaRue, once an iron mining boomtown. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the line’s construction to LaRue and 40th anniversary of the museum’s location in North Freedom, near the Wisconsin Dells resort area. Special autumn color excursions are set for Oct. 3-5 and 10-12.

Illinois Railway Museum, Union, Illinois. The nation’s largest railway museum, with more than 400 pieces of rail and public transportation equipment, offers 10-mile roundtrip diesel and steam rides to Kishwaukee Grove. Electric streetcar (trolley) rides also are available. Observing its 50th anniversary, this “museum in motion” is just an hour or so northwest of Chicago.

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, Independence, Ohio. Featuring climate-controlled, stainless steel coaches built in 1939-40, the train runs on 26 miles of old CSX track through the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. Besides a 90minute scenic trip to the historic village of Peninsula, full-day excursions go from Independence to downtown Akron for visits to Inventure Place (Inventor’s Hall of Fame and Museum) and Quaker Square shopping complex (once the Quaker Oats factory); Akron’s Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, the former estate of the co-founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company; and Hale Farm & Village, a living history museum.

Agawa Canyon Tour Train, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. In the Lake Superior/Lake Huron region, just across the water from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this day-long wilderness excursion takes you 114 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie over towering trestles, alongside pristine lakes and rivers, and through awesome granite formations. After a 500-foot descent to the canyon floor, you have two hours to hike the trails and see four sets of waterfalls in Agawa Canyon Park. One option is climbing the 300-some stairs to the lookout platform.

Great Smoky Mountains Railway, Dillsboro, North Carolina. Traveling at a maximum speed of 15 m.p.h. between Dillsboro and Bryson City, the train follows the Tuckasegee River, past bucolic farmland, deep forest, waterfalls and sheer rock faces near the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Passengers are momentarily enveloped in total darkness in the 836-foot tunnel hand-dug by convicts mole than 100 years ago.

Big South Fork Scenic Railway, Stearns, Kentncky. A highlight of this open-air excursion is a visit to Blue Heron, a coal mining camp restored by the National Park Service. Skilled craftspeople and park rangers explain Appalachian coal culture. See boulders, a hand-cut granite rock tunnel and beautiful mountain views as the canopied cars travel through Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, near the Tennessee border. The railway depot is in downtown Stearns, built and owned by the Steams Coal and Lumber Company from 190276 and now a National Historic District.

Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, Cass, West Virginia. In the old lumber company town of Cass, hop aboard an open-air car (a refurbished logging flat car) for the 90-minute roundtrip to Whittaker Station or the 4 1/2-hour ride to the summit of Bald Knob, the second highest point in West Virginia at 4,842 feet. In historic Cass, stay overnight in six- to 10-person cottages that once housed company workers.

Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, Cumberland, Maryland. This 3 1/2-hour, 32-mile ride between Cumberland and Frostburg passes through a breach in the Allegheny Mountains, crosses an iron truss bridge and threads a 914-foot-long tunnel. Passengers have a 90-minute layover in Frostburg to dine at the 1891 depot, shop in the old hotel or visit the Thrasher Carriage Museum. They also see the engine moved onto the turntable and prepared for the return trip.

Strasburg Rail Road, Strasburg, Pennsylvania. From your seat in an authentic wooden coach or open-air observation car, soak in the unspoiled charm of Lancaster County, where Amish farmers still plow their fields with horses and mules. The nine-mile, 45-minute excursion on America’s oldest short-line steam train (dating front 1832) goes to the town of Paradise and back. Across the road is the world-class Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, with mole than 100 locomotives and coaches from yesteryear. Also in Strasburg are the National Toy Train Museum and the Choo Choo Barn, both with model train layouts.

Mount Washington Cog Railway, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The world’s oldest mountain-climbing cog railway takes you up the second steepest track in the world to the 6,288-foot summit of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. View four states, Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean on a clear day. Other days, you find yourself suspended above the clouds.

At the base station, see museum exhibits and the locomotive Old Peppersass, the original “Little Engine That Could,” which first reached the summit in 1869. Today’s similar engines consume one ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water for each three-hour roundtrip, which includes 20 minutes at the summit, where temperatures can be 40 degrees colder than at the base. The train stops once to replenish its coal and water.


IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN A MULTI-DAY TRAIN JOURNEY THAT COVERS A broad swath of territory, several companies offer first-class rail adventures that combine outstanding scenery and fine dining with overnight accommodations.

American Orient Express, with restored sleeping cars built between 1950 and 1956, pampers guests on two elegantly appointed trains that offer regional trips throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada. Seven-to 10-day itineraries include “Antebellum South” between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans; “Pacific Coast Explorer” between Seattle and Los Angeles; and “National Parks of the West” between Santa Fe and Salt Lake City.

Passengers enjoy cocktails in plush piano club cars and gourmet cuisine in vintage dining cars set with fine china, crystal, silver and table linens. Polished brass, inlaid marble and warm rich woods recall the grandeur of the 1940s and ’50s streamliner era.

Contact: American Orient Express, 5100 Main St., Downers Grove, IL 60615; (800) 320-4206;

The Montana Daylight, now in its ninth season, travels the Northern Rockies on 12 itineraries built around the 478-mile signature trip between Livingston, Montana, and Sandpoint, Idaho. The train maximizes sightseeing by running during the daytime with overnight at a hotel in Missoula, Montana. A maximum of 14 passengers may opt for onboard luxury sleeper service in private bed/sitting rooms.

From large picture windows in 1950sera rail cars, passengers glimpse majestic peaks, cattle herds and the wild waters of the Clark Fork and Missouri rivers. Many of the tours include rental car or motorcoach extensions to where the tracks don’t go–deep into the heart of national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

Contact: Montana Rockies Rail Tours, 1055 Baldy Park Ave., Sandpoint, ID 83864; (800) 519-7245;

The Rocky Mountaineer, another daylight-only train, spotlights snowy peaks, glacial lakes, waterfalls and wildlife in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia. On two-day, 585-mile trips between the coastal city of Vancouver and Jasper or Banff and Calgary, the overnight stop is Kamloops, British Columbia.

Contact: Rocky Mountaineer, 100-1150 Station St., Vancouver, BC V6A 2X7, Canada; (800) 665-7245; www.rocky



* Agawa Canyon Tour Train P.O. Box 130, Sault Ste. Marie, ON, Canada P6A 6Y2; (800) 242-9287;

* Big South Fork Scenic Railway, PO Box 368, Stearns, KY 42647; (800) 462-5664;

* Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, P.O. Box 107, Cass, WV 24927; (800) 225-5982;

* Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, PO Box 158, Peninsula, OH 44264; (800) 468-4070;

* Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad 479 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301; (888) 872-4607;

* Georgetown Loop Railroad, P.O. Box 217, Georgetown, CO 80444; (800) 691-4386; www.georgetown

* Grand Canyon Railway, 235 N. Grand Canyon Blvd., Williams, AZ 86046; (800) 843-8724; www.the

* Great Smoky Mountains Railway, Box 397 Dillsboro, NC 28725; (800) 872-4681; www.gsmr.corn

* Illinois Railway Museum, P.O. Box 427 Union, IL 60108; (800) BIG-RAIL;

* Mid-Continent Railway Museum, P.O. Box 358, North Freedom, WI 53951;(800) 930-1385; www.mid

* Mount Washington Cog Railway, Route 302, Bretton Woods, NH 03589; (800) 922-8825; www.the

* Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa, CA 94559; (800) 427-4124;

* Strasburg Rail Road P.O. Box 96, Strasburg, PA 17579; (717) 687-7522;

* Western Maryland Scenic Railway, 13 Canal St, Cumberland, MD 21502; (800) 872-4650; www.

TWO RECENT GUIDEBOOKS ARE PACKED WITH INFORMATION ON scenic railroads and organized by state. Riding the Rails: Tourist Guide to America’s Scenic Train Rides by William C. Herow (232 pages) describes 151 excursions in 44 states. It’s available for $12.95 postpaid from Roundabout Publications, P.O. Box 12935, Lenexa, KS 66285; (800) 455-2207;

Also see Empire State Railway Museum’s Tourist Trains 2003 ($16.95, 482 pages), available in bookstores or by mail (add $5.50 shipping and handing) from Kalmbach Publisbing Co., P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612; (800) 533-6644: The book features more than 500 railroad-related attractions, including museums.

COPYRIGHT 2003 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group