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5 sensational and scenic train rides in Northern New England

Mount Washington Cog Railway, Mount Washington, NH. The Mount Washington Cog Railway travels 3,719 feet from the mountain’s base station to the summit. | Photo courtesy Mount Washington Cog Railway

“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” renowned travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote. We agree. There’s something nostalgically charming about riding the rails, letting the scenery unfold in a slow-paced, easygoing rhythm.

During the Golden Age of Railroads, from about 1865 to 1916 when the network was at its peak, hundreds of trains crisscrossed the region, carrying summer “rusticators,” as vacationers were called then, to scenic destinations throughout Northern New England. Later, the growing popularity of automobiles and the expansion of highways led to the decline of railroad travel. Today, savvy businesspeople and passionate enthusiasts are restoring some of the original lines and vintage locomotives, recapturing the romantic allure of train travel. Hop aboard!

1. Conway Scenic Railroad

Conway Scenic Train

Photo by Stan Amster / New England Photography

You’ll have a front-row seat to some of the best views in the East on this train trip through Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. The journey begins at the carefully restored 1874 Victorian North Conway Village train station, which includes a vintage roundhouse, a freight house, and surrounding outbuildings, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 

The train crosses the Saco River and travels through the tiny town of Bartlett before entering Crawford Notch, a deep, forested mountain pass. As you climb from 531 feet to 1,889 feet, you’ll view soaring granite cliffs, steep ravines, and mountain peaks. Finally, you’ll cross the Frankenstein Trestle, perched 85 feet above the ravine floor and stretching more than 520 feet, before stopping at Crawford Notch Station.

“Constructing a railroad through the rugged terrain of Crawford Notch in the late 1800s was a remarkable achievement,” says Brian Solomon, marketing manager at Conway Scenic Railroad. “Many people at the time said it was an impossible engineering feat.”

Info: 38 Norcross Circle, North Conway, New Hampshire. 603-356-5251. Open June 9–October 31. Teens and adults, $62–$88; ages 4–12, $44–$58; infants, $33-$43. Conway Scenic Railway also offers an 11-mile, 55-minute round-trip from North Conway to Conway, and a 21-mile, 1-3/4-hour round-trip from North Conway to Bartlett. The 55-mile round-trip excursion takes 5 hours. 

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2. Downeast Scenic Railroad

Downeast Scenic Railroad

Photo courtesy Downeast Scenic Railroad

The whistle blows, the engine roars, and the train rumbles to a slow start as we begin a nostalgic trip aboard a vintage 1900s rail car. Once dubbed the Bar Harbor Express, it was part of the Maine Central Railroad, bringing hundreds of vacationers to summer cottages along the coast. 

“The trains provided access to the Downeast Maine region and Mount Desert Island, opening the area for tourism and economic growth,” says Thomas Testa, president of Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust Inc. 

Today, the train, which is powered by a restored 1948 locomotive, travels a 13-mile section of the rebuilt line past wetlands, marshes, and residential neighborhoods on the nearly two-hour, round-trip journey. You might spot an osprey nest or beaver dam as you chug along, crossing bridges on your way to the Washington Junction rail yard.

Train enthusiasts will enjoy seeing old train cars, the heavy equipment needed to keep the rail running, and other components as the all-volunteer staff provides a running commentary on the history of the line and the restoration efforts.

Info: 8 Railroad Siding Road, Hancock, Maine. 866-449-7245. Open weekends and holidays, May 23–October 18. Teens and adults, $17; seniors and active military, $15; ages 12 and under, $9; ages 2 and under, free.

You may also like: 6 drives with stunning views in Northern New England

3. Green Mountain Railroad

Green Mountain Railroad

Photo courtesy Green Mountain Railroad

Talk about dinner with a view! On the restored 1937 Champlain Valley Dinner Train, which has a kitchen carriage, you’ll enjoy a multi-course meal showcasing Vermont-made and -raised products, paired with quintessential views of northern Vermont. Gaze out at rolling hills and farmland leading to the shores of Lake Champlain, in the shadow of the Adirondack Mountains. Along the way, you’ll learn about the area’s history and the story of the Vermont Railway. Fun fact: The state of Vermont and a private citizen saved the railroad, making it the nation’s first privately owned railroad operating on publicly owned land.

The family-owned and -operated railroad also offers fall-foliage rides through the lush Okemo Valley. On the two-hour round trip heading northeast from Chester to Ludlow, a vintage 1931 train travels through forests and alongside the Black River before crossing a high trestle with views of Okemo Mountain. The one-hour trip from Chester to Rockingham heads south, rolling past covered bridges and thick forests and through the Brockway Mills Gorge, where the Williams River tumbles 90 feet over a dam. It’s one of the best ways to see Mother Nature’s spectacular autumn show.

Info: 1 Railway Lane, Burlington, Vermont. 800-707-3530Dinner trains open from mid-May to late October. Fall foliage trains open from mid-September to mid-October. Dinner trains, $89–$149; fall foliage trips, $20–$25 for one hour or $20–$28 for two hours.

You may also like: Embrace the past at historic New England resorts

4. The Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington Cog Railway

Photo courtesy Mount Washington Cog Railway

“Try to stand up straight,” the conductor tells us. We do, and our bodies automatically lean forward 45 degrees, as if we’re in a topsy-turvy fun house. This section of the ride is so steep, we have to lean forward to keep our balance.

It's an adventure to ride the Mount Washington Cog Railway, a national Historic Engineering Landmark that was the first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world when it was completed in 1869. You’ll cross Jacob’s Ladder, the world's steepest, highest railroad trestle, and travel through three climates, from spruce and fir boreal forest, through a stunted krummholz, and into alpine. You’ll rise from a forested mountain valley to the barren, boulder-strewn summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. It takes one hour to go three miles, so you’ll have time to soak in the views: dense forest, open boulder fields, and mountain peaks.

Allow three hours for the narrated train trip, which includes an hour at the summit to take photos and to visit the Sherman Adams Visitor Center and its small museum, café, and observation deck. 

Info: 3168 Base Station Road, Mount Washington, New Hampshire. 800-922-8825Open April 4–October 31; trains also run daily in November and weekends throughout the winter but travel only to Waumbek Station, about one-third of the way up the mountain. Teens and adults, $72–$78; ages 4–12, $41; seniors 65 and older, $68–$72; ages 3 and under, free.

5. Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad

Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad

Photo courtesy Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad

This slow-moving chug along the western shore of Lake Winnipesaukee and Paugus Bay will take you back in time to the Gilded Age, when tourists fled cities like Boston and New York to the pristine lakes and mountains of New Hampshire. You’ll get a peek into the backyards of gracious old summer homes and views of New Hampshire’s largest lake, covering 72 square miles and dotted with 264 islands.

You can hop aboard at the main station in Meredith (for a two-hour ride) or at the satellite station in Weirs Beach (one- or two-hour rides) for the shoreline trip. Glimpses of the lake are a bit of a tease; if you want to see more, consider the popular Rail and Sail tour. It combines the train ride with a two-hour, narrated boat cruise around the lake aboard the M/S Mount Washington. The six-hour excursion, which includes free time in Weirs Beach to browse shops, is available daily from late June through late August. 

Info: 154 Main Street, Meredith, New Hampshire. 603-745-2135Open Memorial Day weekend–late October. Lakeshore train: teens and adults, $19–$21; ages 4–12, $14–$16; ages 3 and under, free. Rail and Sail: $44.95 per person.

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