Last revised: December 30, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Despite its location in the Deep South, Georgia is also home to the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains. They are located in the state's northwesterly reaches where the topography is quite rugged and rural.
During the 19th century, engineers were confronted with these mountains in an attempt to find the best engineered railroad to connect the state's important markets with western points, notably Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The best known such project was the Western & Atlantic offered the only route through the Appalachians, linking what later became Atlanta with Chattanooga, Tennessee. The railroad was established in 1836 by the Georgia General Assembly to connect the port of Savannah with the Midwest.
Due to construction difficulties, it took more than a decade to complete the 138 miles, finally opening in December, 1849. Today, the old W&A remains in regular service by one of the nation's major Class I carriers, CSX Transportation.
If you are looking for fall foliage train rides in Georgia, both the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway and SAM Shortline Excursion host trips through the autumn season. The Blue Ridge Scenic, located in the mountains near the Tennessee/North Carolina border is the only railroad offering dedicated rides to view the fall colors where they operate part of the old Louisville & Nashville's "Hooke & Eye" line.
In any event, the SAM Shortline is also a fine operation and worth a visit! Geographically, the railroad is located much further south from the Blue Ridge Scenic and 2 1/2 hours from Atlanta.
They offer numerous special events throughout the season (including the "Halloween Express") within climate-controlled cars that continue to run nearly year-round due to the region's very mild weather.
The information presented here briefly highlights both train rides. If you would like to learn more and planning a trip to either railroad, please visit their website included with each listing.
(Blue Ridge): This railroad offers spectacular autumn colors of northern Georgia's Appalachian Mountains.
Passing through the Chattahoochee National Forest the Blue Ridge Scenic hosts Fall Foliage trips from late September through early November thanks to the region's mild climate.
They also host a 1-hour Pumpkin Patch Express during one day in late October. The 26-mile round trip utilizes a section of the old Louisville & Nashville's famous "Hooke & Eye" line, also used by Georgia Northeastern Railroad to provide freight service.
Departing from Blue Ridge one is instantly whisked into a country setting of hills, hollers, deciduous trees, and farms. The line at first follows the Dry Creek before reaching the Toccoa River, a waterway which is never far for the remainder of the trip.
At one point it is even crossed near the small community of Williamstown before reaching McCaysville, the northern terminus. The Blue Ridge Scenic is one of the nation's finest heritage railroads, maintaining first class equipment and top notch accommodations. It is very much worth the ticket price to ride anytime of the year.
(Cordele): The SAM Shortline is one of the longest heritage railroads in the country, offering various trips along a route that spans a total of 34 miles between Cordele and Archery for a 68-mile round trip through Georgia's Veterans State Park.
While they do not host a dedicated fall foliage excursion their season runs through the peak of autumn season of October and November. Their name is an acronym of the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery which built this stretch of railroad.
It was later part of the much larger Seaboard Air Line and today freight service is provided by short line Heart of Georgia Railroad. Heading west from Cordele your journey first takes you past beautiful farms before crossing arguably the line's most scenic location, Lake Blackshear.
Next you will again pass fertile farmland along U.S. 280 and then roll through the small town of Leslie. As you continue west you will see the largest community along this stretch of railroad, Americus.
The western terminus is Plains; here, trains are turned and make the jaunt back to Cordele. Most of the trip is rural, relaxing, and scenic; a perfect way to enjoy the fall colors!