The hatchwork of New England highways could almost make you forget that early leaf peepers often arrived not by auto but by rail. These post-Civil War tourists traveled in greater comfort than the hikers and painters who came by wagon and horseback a generation earlier.
Rail remains a good way to enjoy our region’s legendary autumnal extravaganza. No one has to keep their eyes on the road, and you get to share the experience with a coach full of fellow travelers; as spectacular stands of bright trees appear out the windows, the oohs and aahs are contagious. The clacking rattle of steel wheels on steel rails creates a lulling percussive soundtrack.
Here are 10 train trips around New England tailor-made for viewing foliage. Book early — excursions can sell out.
1. Conway Scenic Railroad’s Mountaineer in North Conway, New Hampshire
The train station in North Conway, New Hampshire, erected in 1874, is hard to miss. After all, the village was built around it. Now it’s home to the Conway Scenic Railroad, which offers a foliage excursion on the Mountaineer, a train assembled of 1950s streamline-style cars. They include two glass-domed dining cars so passengers can take in the panoramic vistas. Taking 4 to 5½ hours roundtrip, the train winds up the slopes of the Presidential Range, culminating in a passage over Crawford Notch.
The rails closely parallel Route 302, a road built to follow the tracks rather than vice versa. But for the last few miles, the train has better views of the rugged landscape. It rattles over the high, curving Frankenstein Trestle and the Willey Brook Bridge, which seems to cling to the mountain slopes. The rocky crags and waterfalls along this steep stretch evoke the drama of the Rockies — but much closer to home. If you’re more interested in mountain vistas than fall foliage, the Mountaineer runs through late November.
Details: Through November 21 (603-356-5251; conwayscenic.com). Adult fares from $76; dome dining class from $182 plus lunch.
2. The Vermonter from Springfield, Massachusetts, to White River Junction, Vermont
Amtrak’s Vermonter actually begins in Washington, D.C., and ends near the Canadian border in St. Albans, Vermont. This daily passenger train isn’t marketed as a foliage tour, but the three-hour stretch from Springfield, Massachusetts, to White River Junction, Vermont, is one of the most colorful autumn journeys in New England. Departure times dictate making the round trip over at least two days. Find seats on the same side of the train so that whatever you miss going north, you’ll see heading south.
The train, which follows the tracks of 19th-century railroads through the Connecticut River Valley, pulls out of Springfield in midafternoon, and stops briefly in downtown Holyoke. It quickly leaves urban congestion behind, passing below the wooded hills of the Mount Tom Range. The Vermonter comes into its glory as it zips through the golden farmlands north of Northampton. Blazing red sugar maples dapple the fields as the train speeds through Hatfield, Whately, and Deerfield, on to Greenfield.
The rail line swings east toward Northfield to join the tracks once shared with the Central Vermont Railway. The rails hew close to the Connecticut River. North of Brattleboro, Vermont, you’ll cross the river twice on sturdy bridges between Vermont and New Hampshire. The second bridge crosses downstream from the 1866 Cornish-Windsor bridge, the longest wooden covered bridge in the United States. Look for it on the right-hand side of the northbound train. If you’re on the left, you’ll get a postcard vista of the mottled dark green and flaming orange hillside of Mount Ascutney; pretty soon you’ll see your own covered bridge — the twin bridges over the Ottauquechee River, where the water tumbles down to join the Connecticut.
The Vermonter pulls into the depot at White River Junction near sunset. An old steam locomotive stands silently next to the platform. The Hotel Coolidge (802-295-3118; hotelcoolidge.com; foliage season rates from $149), a historic railroad hotel, is just across the way on South Main Street. The Vermonter heads south the next day a little before noon. As you ride back to Springfield, you’ll be surprised at how much you missed on the way up.
Details: The Vermonter (800-USA-RAIL; amtrak.com) runs northbound daily at 3:15 p.m., southbound from White River Junction daily at 11:37 a.m. Adult fares from $31 each way.
3. Hobo & Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad in Meredith, New Hampshire
The Hobo & Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad traverses tracks built for the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad of the mid-19th century. You won’t make it to Concord — let alone Montreal or Boston — on the four-hour Fall Foliage Special excursion. But you will get a sweet taste of railroad history. Locomotives pull a variety of vintage cars, which might include a 1920s red-sided Lackawanna passenger car or a luxurious Pullman car redesigned for “presidential class” seating. After departing Meredith on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee, the train passes over a high trestle and follows a branch of the Pemigewasset River north into Plymouth. You’ll disembark for a buffet turkey dinner at the Common Man Inn & Spa, located in a former wood mill. On the return trip, the train pauses at the 1869 station in Ashland, which has been restored as a museum. Guides in period garb give tours about the historic rail line. Don’t be disappointed if you’ve booked a damp day. Trains run rain or shine, and the muted light actually makes the bright foliage pop.
Details: Through October 22 (603-745-2135; hoborr.com). Adult fares from $83.
4. Essex Steam Train & Riverboat in Essex, Connecticut
The Connecticut River assumes a grand majesty as it broadens to meet Long Island Sound. On this 2½-hour excursion by train and boat, you’ll get two perspectives on this region of woodlands, wetlands, and marshes — and the river itself. From Essex, a steam locomotive pulls vintage rail coaches, including a circa-1930 parlor car with swivel seats. The train tunnels through foliage on its way north toward Haddam. At the tidal marshes of Pratt Cove and Chester Creek, you’re likely to see herons, egrets, ducks, and swans. Breezes blow through the open windows and the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails is mesmerizing.
At Deep River Landing, you’ll change vantage point as you board the Becky Thatcher, a multi-deck, Mississippi-style riverboat, for an hour-plus of cruising the river near Gillette Castle. You’ll cross paths with the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, cruise past the towering Goodspeed Opera House, and behold the foliage-tipped cliffs of the river gorge before returning to Deep River to reboard the train to Essex.
Details: Through October 27 (860-767-0103; essexsteamtrain.com). Adult fares from $45.
5. Cape Cod Central Railroad in Hyannis
Cape Cod’s unique geology and coastal ecology put a different spin on foliage season. Bronze oaks and golden marsh grasses create the signature colors, but be on the lookout for bright pops of red from thickets of sumac and the Cape’s famed cranberry bogs. From the Hyannis depot, the Cape Cod Excursion train crosses the rural countryside dotted with kettle ponds and bogs. When it reaches the bay side of the peninsula, it veers south of Barnstable Village to shoot through the salt meadows of the Great Marsh, where you might spot dozens of egrets fishing the shallows. After passing through Sandwich — where the glass industry first brought train service to the Cape — the tracks trace the south side of the Cape Cod Canal to a turnaround near the Bourne railroad bridge. On the approximately 2½-hour journey, staff guides provide insight on the fascinating coastal ecology. (A shorter trip leaves from West Barnstable, on Saturdays only.) Equipment will vary, but premium class features full-length dome cars. For ages 21-plus, there’s a swanky club car with a leather-wrapped bar.
Details: Through October 21 (888-797-7245; capetrain.com). Adult fares from $29.99.
6. Downeast Scenic Railroad in Hancock, Maine
When wealthy rusticators from the big cities of the Eastern Seaboard visited their “summer cottages” on Mount Desert Island, many of them arrived in comfort and style on the Bar Harbor Express, which operated from 1902 to 1960. You can retrace some of the history of early Maine tourism aboard the Downeast Scenic Railroad. The trip begins at the railroad’s Washington Junction yard in Hancock, where volunteers work to restore vintage rolling stock. The locomotives themselves may be postwar diesel engines, but they haul lovingly restored early-20th-century wooden coaches as well as a 1904 “combine” car (half seating, half baggage). The railroad also offers an open car with picnic-table seating under an awning. Snacks are sold on the train, but you can also bring your own food. As you tunnel through a wooded landscape of bright maple, birch, and oak foliage, the rhythmic clatter of the wheels evokes the late-19th century, when this 12-mile stretch of historic track was first laid. Rail buffs often find the three-point turnaround at the outset to be one of the more unusual aspects of this 1 hour 45 minute trip.
Details: Through October 9 (866-449-7245; downeastscenicrail.org). Adult fares from $20.
7. Champlain Valley Dinner Train in Burlington, Vermont
Weekend excursions on the Champlain Valley Dinner Train certainly begin in style. The same architect who designed Burlington’s Beaux-Arts Union Station also created Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. You’ll take your seat at a table for four in the elegant 1930s dining cars originally built for the Santa Fe Railway. (For an extra charge, you can reserve a private table.) The measured three-hour roll down and back along the Champlain Valley reveals quintessential vistas of Vermont — the Burlington waterfront, the broad expanse of Lake Champlain, and fields of rolling farmland. The prevalence of sugar maples in this northerly farm country guarantees such a bright show of red, yellow, orange, and even purple foliage that the line adds extra days to its schedule from late September through October. The three-course dinner with multiple choices of entrée (including a vegetarian option) is prepared on the train’s kitchen car, which once belonged to a traveling circus.
Details: Through October 28 (800-707-3530; rails-vt.com). Reserve seating for two at a shared table for $198, with dinner.
8. Mount Washington Cog Railway on Mount Washington, New Hampshire
The Mount Washington Cog Railway began service to the 6,288-foot summit in 1869. In the Gilded Age, people flocked to New Hampshire to ride Sylvester Marsh’s “railway to the moon.” Nowadays, old-fashioned steam engines alternate with biodiesel locomotives for the three-hour round trip on the mountain’s western slope. It’s a thrill to chug up the steep incline locked into the rack-and-pinion railway, a technology pioneered here.
Views from New England’s highest mountain are spectacular, especially in the crisp fall air. To get the full panorama, choose the summit trip (through October 15). From the observation deck at the top, Mount Washington Valley and the mountains of Maine spread out to the east. Even on the 90-minute trip to Waumbek station at 3,900 feet, a clear day affords views to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and to the Quebec border. Either vantage offers a real eagle’s eye view of autumn: the valley floor’s carpet of red and yellow maples and birches set against the red-roofed majesty of the Omni Mount Washington Resort, one of the last survivors of the age of White Mountain grand hotels.
Details: Summit trips run from late April through mid-October; Waumbek runs year-round (800-922-8825; thecog.com). Adult fares from $54 (Waumbek); $74 (summit).
9. Grand Bellevue Rail Dining Experience in Portsmouth, Rhode Island
Unlike the mountain foliage trains of inland New England, the Grand Bellevue Rail Dining Experience combines striking maritime views with the red and orange foliage that dominates the northern third of Aquidneck Island. From the Portsmouth station, the three-car train sets a stately pace north as chefs in the kitchen car prepare the four-course dinners. Guests choose between two refurbished 1948 dining cars. Theater buffs prefer the Murder Mystery experience on the Atlantic Rose, where a whodunit accompanies the meal. If you’re more interested in keeping an eye on the scenery, opt for the wood-trimmed Aquidneck Spruce dining car. On the 2½-hour journey, the track follows the shore of Narragansett Bay, periodically rolling through groves of trees that mask nearby roads from view. After passing beneath the arching Mount Hope Bridge, the train pivots east toward Tiverton. When it reaches the foot of the rail bridge across the Sakonnet River, the Grand Bellevue pauses so diners can take in the water views on both sides while they enjoy their entrées.
Details: Through November 11 (401-295-1203; thegrandbell.com). Adult fares from $99.95 include dinner.
10. MAINE BY TRAIN
By Erinne Magee
As a lifelong Mainer, I wait each year for that period from late summer through early fall when the mornings are crisp but the midday sun has you tying your flannel around your waist — a Bean Boot in two seasons.
The spectrum of autumn colors is never the same from year to year, which means that each drive through New England in the fall is like seeing it for the first time. But when it comes to catching a glimpse of foliage, riding the rail adds another layer of romance to the journey. A fall getaway without the worry of traffic, parking, or stopping for gas makes the Amtrak Downeaster (800-872-7245; amtrakdowneaster.com) an ideal way to see Maine in all its autumnal splendor.
The coastal and southern parts of Maine are the last in the state to be brushed with color, with the first tinges starting in early October and often lasting to the end of the month. When traveling north from Boston, grab a seat on the right side of the train for the most colorful sights.
From Boston to Brunswick, Maine, the last stop for the Downeaster, travelers can expect a journey just under 3½ hours costing $25 to $30 for adult passengers (children and seniors ride for 50 percent of the adult price). For those who prefer a hop-on, hop-off vacation, one way fares between towns range from $3 to $30. While many of the stops are within walking distance of restaurants, shopping, and leaf peeping, those looking to go a little farther can bring a bicycle on board for an additional fee ($3 to $8 per ride), with advance registration.
Just across the New Hampshire border, Wells is the first Maine stop for the Downeaster. Wells is one of the state’s most beautiful beach towns, but it’s not easy to get around by foot. Wells Beach and the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (207-646-9226; fws.gov/refuge/rachel-carson) are both within a 10 minute Uber ride (or roughly 20 minutes biking) from the station. Open year-round, the Maine Diner (207-646-4441; mainediner.com), featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Today, is a must. Visitors come from all over for the homestyle cooking, especially the seafood chowder and lobster pie.
The second stop sits along the Saco River with easy access to a pedestrian bridge connecting Saco and Biddeford. Stretching your legs along the Biddeford RiverWalk offers picturesque scenes of the revitalized mill town. These historic brick buildings now house restaurants, hotels, shops, and cafes. Pop into The Lincoln Hotel for a bite and sip at Batson River Brewing & Distilling (207-815-3980; batsonriver.com/biddeford-maine) or unwind at Elements (207-710-2011; elementsbookscoffeebeer.com), a unique local bookstore with craft beer, coffee from its own roastery, and regular events including a rotating art exhibition.
OLD ORCHARD BEACH
With the buzz of summer tourists winding down this time of year, there’s something special about strolling the pier (which is steps away from the station) watching visitors take in the last of summer. Though the Palace Playland (207-934-2001; palaceplayland.com) rides wrap up on Labor Day, the arcade is open through mid-October, letting that Coney Island vibe linger. This is a seasonal stop, only running from May through October (like many of Old Orchard Beach businesses).
While the heart of the city is not walkable from the Amtrak station, a 10 minute taxi or rideshare trip there will usually run around $10. Portland’s bus, the Metro, also picks up from the station and has several stops through the downtown area, making it easy to pop into art galleries and museums, local breweries, and boutiques. Even if you’re just breaking for a meal before continuing your train ride, Portland is a foodie’s dream. Consider Luke’s Lobster (207-292-5946; lukeslobster.com/pages/portland-pier), on the water where you can watch fishermen pull in the day’s haul. Those looking for something other than seafood can head down the street to Solo Italiano (207-780-0227; soloitalianorestaurant.com). Or, check out the Eastern Promenade, where food trucks have something for every taste bud.
Yes, this is a shopper’s paradise, thanks in part to the long stretch of more than 120 retailers, including many outlet stores. But, its most famous store makes Freeport a town for adventurers as well. L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery programs (888-552-3261; llbeanoutdoors.com) are a great way to experience autumn through some guided fun. Birding tours, archery courses, fly-casting, and paddleboarding are among the activities in town. Or, for ultimate foliage viewing, catch a ride to Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park (207-287-3200; maine.gov/wolfesneckwoods) for easy hiking trails and views of Casco Bay.
A picturesque college town, Brunswick is a place to soak up culture without the crowds of Portland. Walk just a quarter of a mile from the station, and you’ll be at “the mall,” a grassy park with twice-weekly farmers markets through November. Since you’ve reached the end of the Amtrak line, rest your head at OneSixtyFive (207-729-4914; onesixtyfivemaine.com), a historic inn with a variety of charming rooms and suites (from $209 for a midweek stay). The breakfast is so good that even locals stop by to kick off their day with wild blueberry pancakes or house-made granola. Less than a mile away, check out the Swinging Bridge, a pedestrian suspension bridge with breathtaking views of foliage.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon are frequent contributors to the Globe Magazine. Erinne Magee is a Maine-based writer and author of This Is Camp: Poems and Stories About Maine’s Most Celebrated Getaway. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.