Last revised: April 14, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Michigan is a naturally beautiful state with winding rivers, bucolic farms, and several national forests. All of this is bracketed by Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior.
It truly comes alive every autumn with maples, oaks, sassafras, sweet gums, dogwoods, and other species turning stunning shades of bright reds, yellows, oranges, burnt umbers, and browns.
Michigan's unique geography, with the state split by Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, means its peak fall foliage colors vary depending the location; the Upper Peninsula typically peaks between late-September and early-October while the northern Lower Peninsula usually peaks between early and mid-October.
Finally, the southern Lower Peninsula tends to peak around mid to late October, with colors sometimes lasting into early November if the fall season has been unseasonably warm.
Train rides in Michigan geared towards viewing the colors are all situated in the southern Lower Peninsula; only the Southern Michigan Railroad hosts trips designed specifically towards viewing the foliage with their Fall Color Tour while the Little River Railroad and Huckleberry Railroad both operate trains through October during the peak fall colors.
(Flint): The Huckleberry Railroad is popular excursion train hosted by the Genesee County Parks as part of the Crossroads Village.
For those interested in rail history, the train runs over a short stretch of the old Pere Marquette's Otisville Branch (which once even extended further beyond this town) along the C.S. Mott Lake.
It is somewhat unique in the railroad has built loops at each end to eliminate the need for turntables or operating locomotives in reserve. Nevertheless, the Huckleberry's real attraction is its fine collection of narrow-gauge steam locomotives.
During the fall season this trip is quite a sight, between the vibrant colors and lakeside views. While they do not operate trains dedicated specifically to fall foliage the Huckleberry Railroad continues to run trains through October. They also a "Ghost & Goodies" event for the kids during Halloween.
While Michigan is not home to any upscale heritage railroads, in the way of first class accommodations, there are two locations operating historic steam locomotives; the Little River Railroad and Huckleberry Railroad.
(Hillsdale): This excursion is located in northeast Indiana with trips departing from various locations including Angola, South Milford, Pleasant Lake, and Hillsdale (Michigan). The excursions are operated in a partnership between the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and the Indiana Northeastern Railroad, the latter a short line freight carrier.
The historical society is well known for having maintaining Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 #765, a Berkshire type steam locomotive built by the Lima Locomotive Works in 1944, in operatable condition for many years. During that time the big engine has pulled many excursions.
The Indiana Rail Experience hosts both diesel and steam powered excursions for the public. During one weekend in mid-October they host the "Michigan Fall Color Train" between Hillsdale and Angola, Indiana. These excursions are roughly 35 miles in length (one direction) and are both steam and diesel powered train rides.
(Coldwater): This excursion is based in Coldwater and operates a 7-mile section of an old New York Central branch to Quincy.
It was once part of a much larger corridor through southern Michigan formerly owned by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. Occasionally, trips run as far east as Hillsdale, 23 miles although generally run the section previously mentioned.
Each October they host the Pumpkin Train, allowing kids to enjoy a train ride and pick out a pumpkin for carving. During the journey be sure and take in the region's beautiful fall colors; you will pass considerable open farmland and patches of woods near the Sauk River.
As an added bonus most Little River Railroad excursions are led by authentic steam locomotives, either 0-4-0T #1 (built by the Vulcan Iron Works in 1908) or Little River 4-6-2 #110 (manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1911 it is noteworthy as the smallest "Pacific" type steamer ever built).
(Clinton): The Southern Michigan Railroad, based in Clinton, has been in operation since 1982 operating about 13.5 miles of a former New York Central line acquired from Conrail which was in danger of being abandoned.
Their typical operating season runs each spring through December, hosting several specials during the year. One such event is the Fall Color Tour held every October. You can also enjoy other local festivals at this time such as the Clinton Fall Festival and Appleumpkin Festival.
All trains depart from Clinton and head south through the Raisin River Valley; before reaching Tecumseh you will cross the river, a spot worth having your camera ready!
Next, you will enjoy a bit of street-running, a rarity in railroading, along Evans Street before leaving town near the Raisin Valley Golf Club. From this point the tracks continue following the river and end at a location known as Lenawee Junction. The trip is a mixture of patchy woods and beautiful open farmland.