The Seven Best Scenic Railroads in the United States

Check out Hopper's picks for the seven best scenic railroads in American small towns. These (mostly steam) trains take visitors on short but scenic trips.

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

America wasn’t built on trains but it certainly blossomed into economic fruition with the advent of rail transportation. Towns could be connected; lumber, oil and coal were shipped efficiently and the Industrial Age swiftly came to life – all because of churning steam engines. Now the novelty locomotives left over from the ages past are testaments to our rich and nuanced history of rail transportation, but riding on one still feels like tunneling back through time. Not only are steam train tours a fantastic way to take in sweeping landscapes and panoramas of idyllic farmlands that still exist in abundance, but they also allow passengers to see America through the eyes of our forefathers long passed. Read on to discover which small towns have historic scenic railroads for visitors to enjoy.

7. Discover the silver ore mines on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in Virginia City, Nevada

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Virginia & Truckee Railroad, Virginia City – photo by Nancy Kissack

Located 30 minutes from Reno and about an hour from Lake Tahoe, Virginia City is a popular place to visit for historical trips owing to its long history of mining and Wild West historical sights on offer. See history passing outside the windows of a locomotive along the official Virginia and Truckee Railroad. Visitors can choose the route they’d like to take – "Sisters in History Route" or the "Historic Route" – and jump aboard the train to ride through the multimillion dollar reconstruction of the historic railroad that once connected Reno with Carson City, Virginia City and Minden. The train takes passengers departing from Virginia City three miles along the original line past old mines and silver ore veins.

6. A moving picture of hills, valleys and woodland out the windows of the New Hope And Ivyland Railroad in New Hope, Pennsylvania

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New Hope And Ivyland Railroad, New Hope – photo by Ralph Berglund

Situated by the Delaware River and cut through by the Delaware Canal, New Hope is a small, pretty village in the heart of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The settlement was founded in the early 18th century as a mid-journey resting point between New York City and Philadelphia. This history is felt more viscerally by some, and New Hope is famed as one of America’s most haunted towns. A great way to chase after ghosts is by hopping aboard a train on the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad. Starting from New Hope’s 1890s train station, a coal-black steam train travels Bucks County, chugging through its hills, valleys and woodland. The train has authentic 1920s vintage passenger coaches and an antique bar car. Alternatively, a historic diesel locomotive follows the same route.

5. Pulp and paper and passing scenery on the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in the Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia

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Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, West Virginia – photo by Wayfarin' Stranger

Greenbrier Valley is West Virginia’s outdoor playground, as their forests and national parks provide some of America’s most ecologically diverse terrain, opening visitors up to a variety of year-round activities. In the valley, the town of Cass in particular traces a long history that reaches back to the heyday of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill, and the remnants of that have become tourism attractions to inform both residents and tourists on its lumber history. One of the largest draws is the steam-powered, restored Shay locomotive that travels the same line that was built in 1901 for the purpose of hauling lumber to the Cass Mill. Upon visiting a restored logging camp at Whittaker Station, visitors discover how loggers lived in the 1940s and the equipment that they used. A museum and restored houses transport train passengers into the rich history of West Virginia.

4. Chug into the Smoky River Valley with the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad in Abilene, Kansas

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Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad, Abilene – photo by Hi! I'm Rebecca

Abilene flourished as a cattle-ranching town, encouraged by the development of the Kansas Pacific Railway through the town. Railroads were laid and plains were occupied by stockyards breeding cattle and horses. The Rock Island Depot was built in 1887, and after nearly a century and a half, it continues to send off steam locomotives off into the Smoky Hill River Valley. What used to be a serious commuter route is now a train through time. In addition to getting the novelty experience of riding a real steam locomotive, passengers get to enjoy the sweeping landscapes of Old Abilene Town, Kansas farm country and the local wilderness while getting a history lesson. There is an option of a regular passenger train, steam train or a dinner train.

3. Enjoy the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in Bardstown, Kentucky

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My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, Bardstown – photo by JSH

Bardstown is a town with many quirks, rooted in rich, smoky brown liquor and the songs of seminal folk musician Stephen Foster. The My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in Bardstown is exactly what it sounds like: a train that serves dinner. Patrons can purchase tickets and embark upon a 2.5-hour return trip that sees the train travel 37 miles through the scenic Kentucky countryside. Lunch, dinner and special events like murder mystery excursions are available, and the fare is classic Bluegrass. Passengers board the train at the well preserved Bardstown Depot, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

2. Take a ride on the Essex Steam Train And Riverboat in Essex, Connecticut

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Essex Steam Train And Riverboat, Essex – photo by Julie and Adam

Essex, Connecticut, may be the most truly New England town in all of New England. As an early shipping and shipbuilding town, Essex played a key role in the War of 1812, suffering the Great Attack from the British coming in through the Connecticut River. Since then, the town has retained its great American pride, as well as its small-town friendliness. The town is lined with historic buildings and Federal-style houses, while surrounding the area is the great Connecticut River and a handful of parks and forests. A very fun way to traverse these green (and often red, orange and yellow colors) is by taking a ride on the Essex Steam Train. Like the rest of the town, it has a timeless quality – the best thing about natural life is that it invariably remains the same over the course of hundreds of years. Peering out the window of the Essex Steam Train on a track that dates from the late 1800s and watching the Connecticut River Valley slowly pass, it won’t feel like much has changed over the past century and a half. It feels like a time machine, and for all intents and purposes, it may as well be one.

1. Enjoy the Switzerland of America on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

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Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, Jim Thorpe – photo by Sharon Exner

The historic town of Jim Thorpe is a tiny mass of Victorian architecture, historical attractions and unique shops surrounded by steep hillsides, green-draped mountains and lush forests. The train ride through Lehigh Gorge State Park covers all of the scenery around Jim Thorpe that earned this town the nickname "The Switzerland of America." This 16-mile round trip takes passengers from Jim Thorpe over through Glen Onoko and onto the state park trail, following the Lehigh River and twisting onto Old Penn Haven. If none of these names sound familiar, the train conductor there will be narrating the whole trip. The train themselves are a historical sight to behold – the large clear windows of these 1920s passenger coaches provide all the air conditioning that any passenger would need, and the company even offers open air cars in which passengers can enjoy the breeze. To learn more about the train lines and the state park, visitors can make a stop at the train museum located right next to the station.

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