5 best fall foliage train rides on Amtrak

A train ride is a fun adventure any time of year, but trips in the fall offer extra scenery as the leaves turn different shades of red, orange and yellow. Plus, Amtrak trains are usually less crowded if you plan your vacation after Labor Day. It really is a great time to get out and explore. To get started, here are five fall foliage train rides you can book on Amtrak.

1. Hudson River Valley

Hudson River Valley in Fall
Photo by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The Hudson River Valley is one of most beautiful places to see leaves change color starting in mid-September through early October. Multiple Amtrak routes travel along the Hudson River, making it an easy train ride from New York City or Albany, which are the stations at each end of the valley. The train ride is about 2.5 hours one-way between these cities, so it can be a day trip. For river views, find a seat on the left side of the train if you are traveling north from New York City, or on the right side if you are heading south toward Manhattan.

Choose from these routes when booking your tickets:

*The Lake Shore Limited is a long-distance route, so you can reach the Hudson River Valley on this train from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Upstate New York.

2. Vermont

Vermont fall foliage
Photo by Richard Ricciardi

Vermont is another stunning place to see the fall foliage between mid-September and early October, and you can do so on the Vermonter Amtrak route. Trains travel between Washington D.C. and Vermont, with additional stops in Maryland, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Southbound trains that depart from Vermont will offer the best views as it will be all daytime (and daylight) travel. One option is to fly to Vermont and book a one-way Amtrak ticket from there if you don’t want to do the roundtrip.

Otherwise, this train is a good long-weekend trip if you live near one of the Amtrak stations on the route so you can also hike, bike or enjoy other outdoor activities in Vermont before returning home. The Montpelier and Brattleboro Amtrak stations offer the most lodging and activities as destinations to consider.

3. Columbia River Gorge

On the West Coast, the Columbia River Gorge has amazing scenery all year long, but fall leaves are a bonus starting late September into mid-October. The Empire Builder train that arrives and departs from Portland, Oregon is the train to book. It’s a long-distance route that goes all the way to Chicago, but you can shorten the journey by starting or ending the trip in Whitefish, Montana. Major airlines fly into the nearby airport, there’s plenty of lodging near the Amtrak station, and you can see the Rocky Mountains and visit Glacier National Park as a bonus. One-way travel time is about 13.5 hours between Portland and Whitefish.

Minot, North Dakota is another place to start or end the trip if you want to completely travel through the Montana Rockies. Travel time is almost 27 hours between Portland and Minot, and the entire trip between Portland and Chicago is about 45 hours.

4. Colorado Rocky Mountains

Colorado Rockies in autumn
Photo by James Bo Insogna

For a less traditional fall foliage train trip, travel through the Colorado Rocky Mountains on the California Zephyr. The colors here are primary bright yellow and gold scattered around the green pine trees. At the higher elevations on this route, leaves start changing color in early September, with peak viewing at the middle and end of the month.

When planning your trip, keep in mind that the California Zephyr is the second-longest Amtrak route with service between Chicago and Northern California. However, you can do a day trip through the mountains (15 hours) by starting the trip in Denver (requires arriving the day before the train departs unless you live in the area) and traveling to Salt Lake City. In Salt Lake, you’ll need to stay overnight, but then you can fly back home. The other option is to depart from Denver and stay one night or more near the Winter Park or Glenwood Springs Amtrak stations, then travel back to Denver. Check out Colorado train trip ideas to learn more.

5. Appalachian Mountains and Shenandoah Valley

New River fall foliage
Image by David Frampton from Pixabay

The Cardinal Amtrak route is one of the most scenic train rides east of the Mississippi River with travel through the New River Gorge, Appalachian Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. There are many places to board the train as it travels between Chicago and New York City, but eastbound travel will give you the most daylight through the New River Gorge. Because there are limited Amtrak stations on this route that are near major airports, you’ll need to plan for a long-distance journey and a night on the train, especially to see all the scenery in the mountains and the valley.

Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia are great places to start or end your trip on the East Coast as Reagan National Airport is nearby. Chicago and Indianapolis are the major cities at the opposite end of the route that are near airports, with Chicago having the better arrival and departure times.

Note that the Cardinal only operates three days each week, so check train schedules before deciding on your vacation dates. The best time for this trip is late September through mid-October.

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