From frontier times all the way up to the latest update of Red Dead Redemption, seeing masks on a train signaled you were about to lose your pocket watch. That 200-year American tradition has been flipped on its head: Today, though, a masked stranger pointing something at your head is a sign of safety. And thank god too: Railways major and minor have adopted elevated safety protocols—masks, pre-boarding temperature checks, social distancing—just in time for you to take advantage of fall foliage season.
When it comes to taking in the fall colors, trains have infinite advantages. There are no traffic jams. You can nap if you so desire. There are open-air viewing cars and, often, bars. Moreover, they allow you to chug through forests and up mountains to get the greatest, most immersive fall-color experience out there. The below railways are offering up unbeatable chances to soak up the colors in style: All with safety policies in place to ensure you’re as safe as you can be while riding the rails.
Bryson City, North Carolina
Tickets start at $83
Every year North Carolina puts on a vivid, highly underrated display along the Tuckasegee River shoreline, peppered with buttery gold, burnt sienna, and deep crimson. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion is a 4.5-hour voyage into the heart of it all. Snaking along the Nantahala River and across vertiginous trusses, the train stops off at the Nantahala Outdoors Center so you can get a closer, more stationary look. Book the excursion aboard their modern diesel train, or go the purist route and request their vintage steam engine locomotive.
Colorado to New Mexico
Tickets start around $110
Movie buffs may recognize this vintage coal-fired steam engine from its big break in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it actually dates back to the 1880s. This rolling National Historic Landmark traverses 64 miles, bringing passengers through the Rocky Mountains, along the tapered Toltec Gorge, and across the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass. The route zigzags past miles of quintessential Western scenery, historical sites, towering mountain peaks, and woodland wildlife. If you want to get in on this year’s trip, better act fast: The last train rolls out on October 18. But if you’re looking way ahead to next year to travel—and, look, who isn’t—it’s never too early to book for 2021.
Tickets start around $84.95
If there’s anything Southerners love more than sitting and staring, it’s eating while they do it. And you’ll eat in style during this 20-mile trip between Bardstown and Limestone Springs in Kentucky’s famed Bourbon County. Once aboard, prepare for a gourmet meal served alongside the ever-changing backdrop of Kentucky’s fall foliage and postcard-perfect scenery. The train runs year-round, but prospective passengers should still plan ahead — reservations tend to fill up quickly. Speaking of bourbon, it’d be a shame to have that prime rib without some of the brown stuff: Upgrade to a Bourbon Excursion and you’ll get your sights and bites with a pairing courtesy of a master distiller.
North Conway, New Hampshire
Tickets start at $19
Any New Englander knows that New Hampshire in October is the epitome of the autumn jaw-dropper, and this coastal stretch serves up some of the most vibrant views this side of the Mississippi. Hop aboard this vintage passenger train and wind through Crawford Notch, an area beloved by adventurists thanks to its staggering bluffs, cascading streams, and panoramic mountain views. Add some fiery maples to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for an unforgettable train ride. Learn about the historic route and local folklore as you trek along tracks laid nearly 150 years ago.
Hood River Valley, Oregon
Tickets start at $30
A relatively short but nonetheless stunning excursion, the Mount Hood Railroad’s hour-long excursion snakes through the Hood River Valley floor. But what a valley floor it is: Hood River is an impossibly cozy town in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, one of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest. The train ride allows you to peep the foliage as it creeps from the river banks steadily into the snow-peaked Mount Hood. More crucially, after the ride you’re in the heart of Oregon’s fruit-growing country, and those mountain roads wind up into an endless array of orchards, cideries, and wineries.
Tickets start around $74
Chances are Arizona isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think “fall foliage,” but don’t rule it out. This 1940s-era train has a romantic charm about it, and its Sedona Fall Colors Tour — available in October and November — teems with shades of amber, garnet, and gold. The limited edition Ales on Rails route rolls every Thursday to Sunday from late September through the end of October — you can quench your thirst with the railroad’s exclusive private label brew or other local craft varieties during your four-hour tour.
Maine to Massachusetts
Tickets start around $60 roundtrip
For more of New England’s seasonal splendors, hitch a ride on this route that snakes its way from Brunswick, Maine to Boston. It operates year-round, but really comes to life in the fall, schlepping passengers through kaleidoscopic panoramic views. It even offers free Wi-Fi so you can ’gram from the tram and document your journey all up and down the coast. The train is also pet friendly, so bring a dog and get snuggled the whole way.
MORE: One tiny train tunnel is the missing link that could finally connect the entire East Coast.
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Tickets start at $80 roundtrip
The best way to climb the highest peak in the Northeast is while sitting. The Washington Cog Railway has been dutifully carrying passengers up and down the mountain for nearly 150 years. A three-hour trip here includes an hour at the summit where you can avail yourself of the observatory — and panoramic views of five states, two countries, and an ocean. And a snack bar. Summit season closes before October’s out, but if you missed the boarding call you can tide yourself over until next year with this virtual tour.
Green Mountain Railroad
Tickets start at $25
Vermont was going to crop up on this list at some point. We knew it; you knew it; these guys probably knew it, too. Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad offers a number of packages—cocktails, murder mystery… they’ll even drop you off at a pumpkin patch—but the best deal here is either of the Fall Foliage tours that operate late September through late October. We recommend the Chester-to-Rockingham route, based on our assumption that you, like everyone else, are enchanted by those signature Vermont covered bridges.
Cass, West Virginia
Tickets start at $35
Despite the astute analysis of Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunn, John Denver was absolutely not full of shit. Especially when he called West Virginia “almost heaven.” The scenery here is nothing short of spectacular, especially in the fall, and this quick jaunt is the best way to soak it up. You can choose a two-hour journey along the Greenbrier River and into the Monongahela National Forest via the coal-fired Durbin Rocket or long-haul it for 4.5 into the heights of Appalachia with the Bald Knob trip, which takes you to the second-highest vista point in West Virginia. Either way, you’re bound to run out of alternatives to the word “amber” and “fiery” en route.
These are original locomotives once used to transport lumber to mining camps, now hauling passengers up a four-mile, 11%-grade slope with sweeping views of the mountains below. At the top of the ride is Whittaker Station, a restored logging camp. For optimum results, go in October when the fall foliage is at peak amazingness.
Bonus: Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Pikes Peak, Colorado
After more than a century of service, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is temporarily closed for some well-earned maintenance. It’ll reopen in 2021 — at which point you’ll want to avail yourself of it for the unparalleled views of the Colorado Front Range, sure, but also for the donuts. Pikes Peak is probably the most beloved fourteener in Colorado, maybe the world (or at least, that’s how it feels when you’re in Colorado) and the most gorgeous, least back-breaking way to see it is by train. Which, again, leads to donuts.
Previously published on Thrillist.