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4 fall-foliage train rides in Northern New England

Northern New England's fall foliage is unparalleled—why not explore it on a train ride? | Photo by Craig Zerbe/stock.adobe.com Northern New England's fall foliage is unparalleled—why not explore it on a train ride? | Photo by Craig Zerbe/stock.adobe.com

Autumn drives through the mountains are a time-honored New England tradition. But the passengers get to admire the spectacular fall foliage more than the drivers, who must pay attention to the ups, downs, and hairpin curves, as well as watch for bears that might wander onto the road. And don’t even talk about the traffic! Just ask anyone who has driven New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway on a sunny late-September weekend.

So why not do as vacationers in the past once did: board a restored vintage rail car for a trip that showcases much of the same autumn scenery that admirers have soaked up for generations. Here are 4 fall-foliage train rides that everyone will enjoy.

Read more: 6 drives with stunning views in Northern New England

1. Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum in Maine

Visit the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum before or after riding on the narrow-gauge tracks. | Photo courtesy Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum

Visit the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum before or after riding on the narrow-gauge tracks. | Photo courtesy Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum

In the mid- to late-1800s, narrow-gauge railways (“2-footers,” said to be as wide as a pair of pair of size 12 shoes set heel-to-toe) were popular for logging in Maine. The narrow tracks required less materials to build and could fit into tighter spaces. As years went by, wider tracks became the standard, and these slender trains on narrow tracks fell out of service, often replaced by trucks.

Mix leaf-peeping with an in-depth look at steam-powered narrow-gauge railroading in Alna, an hour north of Portland. The Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum is a working railroad depot, complete with an engine repair shop. Visitors can tour the outdoor museum before taking a 40-minute round-trip scenic ride to pick pumpkins. The train rolls through wild pine forests, farmlands, and Sheepscot Valley hamlets, and in these socially distanced times, the line even offers a private caboose for groups of up to 15 people ($150).

If you want to get your hands dirty, you can join fall volunteer groups that help build and maintain the tracks or assist with forging pieces needed to maintain the trains. Time it right, and your work will be rewarded by a cookout at the line’s event pavilion. Adult tickets start at $15.

2. Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad in Maine

The Belfast & moosehead Lake Railroad has operated for more than 150 years. | Photo by Jennifer Booher/Alamy Stock Photo

The Belfast & moosehead Lake Railroad has operated for more than 150 years. | Photo by Jennifer Booher/Alamy Stock Photo

Roll past bucolic pastures and enjoy lovely views of Unity Pond on classic restored train coaches. Catch the breeze in an open-air car or settle into a heated coach (fall through winter) to enjoy the scenery. First opened in 1870, Unity’s Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad offers excursions on select weekdays as well as weekends throughout the fall, including a 90-minute ride to a pumpkin patch where everyone gets to pick their own. People planning to visit the Common Ground County Fair, which is returning in-person this September, might want to consider the railroad’s special Common Ground train, which drops guests off right at the fairgrounds. Adult tickets start at $15.

3. Café Lafayette Dinner Train in New Hampshire

Enjoy a relaxing 5-course meal aboard the Café Lafayette Dinner Train. | Photo courtesy Café Lafayette Dinner Train

Enjoy a relaxing 5-course meal aboard the Café Lafayette Dinner Train. | Photo courtesy Café Lafayette Dinner Train

In the White Mountains, take “dinner and a show” to new heights as you watch the sunset while enjoying a 5-course meal. The Café Lafayette Dinner Train wends its way from North Woodstock through the Pemigewasset River Valley in restored vintage rail cars—2 from the 1950s and a 1924 Pullman originally from the New York Central line. Even the music fits the theme—enjoy some Frank Sinatra in the 1950s car or channel the 1920s big band–style in the Pullman. As you cross 3 charming trestle bridges, dine on entrées such as soy-ginger salmon or grilled pork tenderloin topped with mushroom cream. The line also operates one of the last dome cars still in operation—the $25 upcharge for that second-story experience is a small price for a ride in history. Main Level, $95 per person; Dome Level, $120 per person. Fares include train ride, dinner, and tax.

4. Hobo & Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad in New Hampshire

The Hobo & Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad offers a 4-hour foliage train that departs from Meredith, New Hampshire. | Photo by Wangkun Jia/Alamy Stock Photo

The Hobo & Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad offers a 4-hour foliage train that departs from Meredith, New Hampshire. | Photo by Wangkun Jia/Alamy Stock Photo

Make serious tracks with the 4-hour Fall Foliage Special on the Hobo & Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad. Operating along part of a rail system dating back to 1848 that once connected Boston to Montreal, the train travels from Meredith up and over Ashland Summit, across the Ashland High Trestle, and past farms and forests before stopping at The Common Man Inn & Spa in Plymouth for a hot buffet lunch. On the way home, the train stops in Ashland at the restored Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad Station, where members of the Ashland Historical Society, dressed in 1860s attire, lead guided tours of the historic station.

The train line offers 3 classes of service, but only coach—a classic commuter rail car with padded bench seats facing each other—is open to families. In First Class, passengers can choose from commuter bench-style seating, armchairs, a couch, and tables. Or travel like a railroad baron in Presidential Class, seated on overstuffed chairs or a plush leather couch. A steward serves light snacks and nonalcoholic beverages in First and Presidential classes.

Reservations are required for the Fall Foliage Special. Coach Class, $75.95 per person; First Class, $101.95 per person; Presidential Class, $115.95 per person.

Read more: Embrace the past at historic New England resorts

New England native Jeanne O’Brien Coffey delights in sharing stories about her corner of the world. Her work has also appeared in Boston and Naturally, Danny Seo magazines.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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