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Fall foliage family fun: Skip the highway and jump on any of these 10 best fall train rides

Allison Tibaldi
FamilyVacationist.com
Amtrak platform.

For parents and kids alike, fall foliage train rides are a perfect way to savor autumn colors as you roll along through the scenic countryside. You’re not stuck navigating busy highways on a family road trip, so there’s plenty of time for relaxed togetherness as you soak in fall’s sun-kissed days. And no one will ask “Are we there yet?” because with a fall train ride getting there is part of the fun. 

From multi-day family travel adventures to simple weekend getaways, here are the best fall train rides in the U.S. for razzle-dazzle foliage.

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1. Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express

New York to Vermont

Ethan Allen Express

With daily service between New York City and Vermont, Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express fall foliage train ride takes you on a journey through storybook New England villages and upstate New York landscapes. Soak in snippets of cute farms and idyllic towns in the Hudson River Valley along with the glorious Green Mountains of Vermont. 

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The Green Mountain State is known for its autumn displays with oak, maple and ash trees exploding in rainbow pops of crimson, tangerine and saffron. The scenic train ride ends in the classic New England fall getaway spot of Burlington, a charming pedestrian-friendly city on the shores of Lake Champlain.

2. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

Seattle to Los Angeles

Amtrak family.

Widely regarded as the most dazzling West Coast train route in the U.S., Amtrak’s Coast Starlight links Seattle to Los Angeles. Lush forests, fertile valleys and rambling stretches of Pacific shoreline await passengers.

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As the weather cools, Washington, Oregon and Northern California’s expanse of evergreens, including Douglas fir and Western hemlock, are punctuated by broad-leaved maple, poplar and alder trees in bold autumn shades. The peaks of the Cascade Range are ignited with splashes of yellow, red and orange for a kaleidoscope of color. 

3. Rocky Mountaineer Rockies to Red Rocks

Denver to Moab

Rocky Mountaineer

The Rockies are a fairytale in autumn and there’s no better way to appreciate their sublime beauty than fall foliage train rides onboard a luxury train. The Rocky Mountaineer’s newest route, Rockies to Red Rocks, is a two-day trip traveling between Denver and Moab. It runs until October, a good time to immerse yourself in a canopy of yellow created by countless Aspen trees. 

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With an air of yesteryear elegance, all of the Rocky Mountaineer routes are first-class all the way. At night, you’re escorted off the train to sleep in a fine hotel. Stellar service and top-notch dining on board are gravy on top.

4. Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

Mount Washington Cog Railway

The world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway, New Hampshire’s historic Mount Washington Cog Railway uses both steam and bio-diesel powered locomotives to carry passengers to the summit of the tallest peak in the northeast. The three-hour round-trip fall foliage train ride departs and returns from Bretton Woods in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. 

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While the coaches are mechanically state-of-the-art, a retro aesthetic replicates what travelers would have experienced in the early 1900s, making it a fun idea to incorporate as part of a multigenerational vacation with grandparents

Cold weather comes early at Mt. Washington’s high altitude, with leaves usually starting to blush by mid-September. During the one-hour layover atop the summit, you can explore the Mount Washington Observatory and enjoy views that stretch to five states, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean.

5. Amtrak’s Cardinal

New York to Chicago

Family on Amtrak.

Revel in a panorama of autumn tones as you traverse the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley and the West Virginia countryside on Amtrak’s Cardinal, a route that meanders from New York to Chicago. Tall peaks, big cities and small towns present scenery to suit a variety of tastes. Departing three days a week, this scenic train route delivers an eyeful of fall color over the course of its 26-hour journey. 

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6. Grand Canyon Railway

Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon South Rim

Grand Canyon Railway

The Grand Canyon is one of the country’s natural wonders that every kid should see, but why drive there when you can ride a vintage train straight to the South Rim instead? The Grand Canyon Railway departs from Williams, Arizona, in the morning and returns in the afternoon. During the two-hour and 15-minute ride, you’ll enjoy live Wild West entertainment including strolling musicians and a hilarious mock train robbery. 

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Color changes on this route are more subtle than other fall foliage train rides, yet as you travel through Arizona’s high desert of red buttes, scrub brush and pinyon pines, you’ll be rewarded with crisp temperatures and a deep blue sky that combine to make it a fabulous way to soak in the changing landscape.

7. Amtrak’s Downeaster

Boston to Brunswick

Amtrak family enjoying the view.

This three-hour Amtrak ride through portions of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine combines stops in some of New England’s most beloved cities with magnificent glimpses of seasonal colors. Running between Boston’s North Station and Brunswick, Maine, the Downeaster is a leaf-peeper’s delight in the fall. Blazes of color are punctuated by historic towns, New England beaches and flocks of migratory birds flying overhead. 

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Along the way, you’ll stop in the culinary sweet spot of Portland and feast on creamy clam chowder or the lobster roll of your dreams. The final stop on this foliage ride is Brunswick, where you can snap postcard-perfect photos from the top of Androscoggin Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge built in 1892.

8. Western Maryland Scenic Railroad’s Frostburg Flyer

Cumberland to Frostburg

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is a heritage rail company that utilizes both steam and diesel locomotives. Passengers on the Frostburg Flyer ride in vintage rail cars from Cumberland to Frostburg as the train ascends an impressive swath of the Allegheny Mountains. 

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You’ll cross hardwood forests brushed with a rainbow swirl of sunny yellows, brilliant oranges and bold reds. Live commentary enhances the experience of the fall foliage train ride. The round-trip takes about three and a half hours, including a 90-minute stop in Frostburg. 

9. Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Chicago to Emeryville

Amtrak CA Zephyr Colorado

Amrak’s California Zephyr travels daily between Chicago and Emeryville, California, with connecting bus service to San Francisco. You don’t need to ride the 51-hour route in its entirety to make it a worthy fall trip. From the buttery hues of Colorado’s Aspen trees to the brilliant oranges and fiery reds of dogwoods and maples in the Sierra Nevada, expect a painter’s palate. 

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10. East Broad Top Railroad 

Rockhill Furnace to Colgate Grove

East Broad Top

Located in Central Pennsylvania, the East Broad Top Railroad offers nostalgic one-hour fall foliage train excursions that are the perfect length if you’re vacationing with toddlers or grade school-aged kids. Constructed in 1872, East Broad Top Railroad is the oldest narrow-gauge railroad in the United States. The historical integrity of the railroad has been meticulously preserved, so a ride feels like a moving museum. 

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There’s no shortage of spectacular leaf peeping in the dense woodlands, too. Each October, the Great Pumpkin Patch Express invites kids to wear their Halloween costumes, meet Snoopy and pick a pumpkin from the patch. 

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FamilyVacationist.com covers family vacation ideas; family vacation spots; all-inclusive family resorts; and must-have travel accessories for families of all shapes, sizes and orientations. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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