Fall’s visual wonders can be fleeting. There’s always the option of a leaf-peeping road trip, but someone has to keep an eye on the road and not the foliage.
That’s where a train can come in for those with an appreciation for slow travel, meditative landscapes and cozy quarters.
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 equipment, it boasts an abundance of awe-inspiring sights. But one note to consider: Many long-term routes are in high demand this time of year, and some only operate in early fall.
“They sell out long, long, long in advance,” said Ted Blank, a Minnesota-based travel adviser with Travel Leaders. “If people are thinking about it for fall, think about it for fall of next year.”
Train enthusiasts — also known as railfans — shared some of their favorite trips in the United States and Canada.
1. California Zephyr
Blank named the California Zephyr Amtrak route as one of the railroad company’s top for scenic views — especially the areas between Denver and Utah, and Reno, Nev., and the San Francisco Bay area. The journey starts in Chicago and ends in Emeryville, Calif., traveling through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas.
“Once you get out of Denver, you start climbing and the scenery is beautiful,” said Sherry Laskin, a travel writer who runs the Cruise Maven site and focuses on cruise and train travel. “In the fall, aspen trees are changing colors.”
Clocking in at 51 hours and 20 minutes, the California Zephyr is not for the rushed.
Laskin suggests stretching the trip out even more. She said the ideal scenario would be to get off the train in Denver, explore for a couple days from a downtown home base, and stop off the train again in spots including Glenwood Springs, Colo., 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
While Laskin knows the California Zephyr gets a lot of love, she calls this 19-hour Amtrak trip between Chicago and either Boston or New York City “one of the unsung routes that has gorgeous scenery.”
From New York, the train travels along the Hudson River before heading west toward Buffalo; Erie, Pa.; Cleveland and ultimately Chicago. Amtrak says the route is along “some of the prettiest shorelines of the USA,” including the Erie Canal, Mohawk River and south shore of Lake Michigan.
“It’s trees the entire way,” Laskin said. “I’ve done it in the fall, and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ You just cannot stop looking at it.”
3. Copperhill Special
Mike Cyr is all about trains. He’s 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 Eastern Tennessee, Cyr said his “all-time favorite, scenery-wise, especially for the fall colors” is close to home: the Copperhill Special train ride, one of the Hiwassee River Rail Adventures operated by the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
Leaving from Delano, Tenn., the train travels through the lower Hiwassee River Gorge and over the Hiwassee Loop before reaching Copperhill, Tenn., on the border with Georgia. There’s a 90-minute layover to eat or shop in town before the return, and Cyr said there’s even one conductor who plays the banjo, though no guarantees he’ll be on your trip.
“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 stunning and it’s just getting warmed up down here.”
The eight-hour round-trip journey is available on select dates from July through November — and seats are still available for this year. Cyr said he plans to take it again this year.
“When I tell you I have a train problem, it’s pretty bad,” he said.
4. Empire Builder
This Amtrak line runs between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest — either Seattle or Portland. It’s a 46-hour journey.
Blank said the stretch between La Crosse, Wis., and St. Paul, Minn., is “breathtaking in the fall.”
The route includes Montana’s Big Sky country and Glacier National Park. Passengers who head to Seattle will also see the Cascade Mountains, “beautiful in the fall,” Blank said.
5. Cross-country in Canada
The Society of International Railway Travelers, a luxury rail travel agency, books train trips 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 journey in Canada that combines two options: the Canadian, operated by VIA Rail, and the Rocky Mountaineer, run by a privately owned luxury tourist train company.
They can only be combined between mid-April and mid-October, though, when the Rocky Mountaineer operates. Passengers ride the train during the day and stop at a hotel to sleep. The Canadian, which includes sleeping accommodations, runs year-round.
Hardy said her recommendation would be to start in Vancouver and board the Rocky Mountaineer, stay overnight in Kamloops and continue to Banff in the Canadian Rockies. She said travelers can see the Rockies by road for as many days as they’d like, and then head to Jasper where they board the Canadian and continue east to Toronto.
Because her company only books the highest-end rail trips — it is part of the Virtuoso network of agencies, which specialize in luxury travel — Hardy said they recommend GoldLeaf service on the Rocky Mountaineer and Prestige class on the Canadian.
In an email, Hardy said there’s “fabulous leaf peeping” around the greater Toronto area and across Canada from late September to early October.
“Of course they are famous for the brightly colored maples,” she said. “And the larches are bright yellow in the Rockies.”
6. Rockies to the Red Rocks
Rocky Mountaineer launched a U.S. route last year, which operates from mid-April through late October.
Although the route has scenery in common with the California Zephyr, the two-day trip between Denver and Moab includes an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colo. — no sleeping on this train.
Blank said the train has glass-roofed dome cars and called it “a first-class experience.”
“You have a really comfortable seat, you have gourmet meals that are served to you, alcoholic beverages are included, there will be interpretive guides as you go,” he said.
7. Southwest Chief
Laskin said mid-October is a great time for this route, which stretches between Chicago and Los Angeles. The train follows the Santa Fe Trail during its 40-plus-hour journey, and passengers can watch the leaves change as it climbs 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 the Flagstaff station to the Grand Canyon Railway, which promises “cowboys, musicians and a mock early 1900s-style train robbery.”