Last revised: October 26, 2023
By: Adam Burns
North Carolina's natural scenic beauty attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, from the western mountains to the coastal beaches.
During the fall season, however, it is the mountains that receive the most attention as the Great Smoky Mountains, Nantahala National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, and nearby Cherokee National Forest burst into vibrant shades of reds, yellows, vermillions, and browns.
The colors not only attract visitors to North Carolina but also throughout the central Appalachian region from Georgia to West Virginia. The heritage railroads located within these states draw quite a crowd during September and October as guests enjoy a relaxing train ride to view the colors.
Depending on the railroad, some provide the option of either "open air" gondola cars, allowing the guests the chance to see and photograph the colors from and outdoor rail car (usually featuring center bench seats), or climate-controlled coach/lounge/parlor cars for the ultimate in comfort.
At most railroads their exclusive fall foliage trips sell out very quickly so be sure and check their websites often for dates, times, and ticket availability.
In North Carolina there are two organizations operating train rides during the autumn and both are very popular, the Tweetsie Railroad and Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR). The latter is especially noteworthy as the GSMR operates steam and diesel locomotives as well as an entire fleet of climate-controlled cars.
Today, the railroad boasts around 200,000 riders annually and contributes greatly to the region's tourism. The "Tweetsie," has become a popular attraction in Blowing Rock, located about 3 hours northeast of the GSMR, which maintains a fleet of historic "narrow gauge" steam locomotives.
The railroad operates on a circuit of track in the 1950s although its name is derived from a nearby famous freight line, the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad. The information presented here briefly highlights both tourist attractions and offers links to their websites.
(Bryson City): The Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina attract millions annually for their recreation (fishing, hiking, whitewater rafting, camping, and other activities), natural beauty, and breathtaking fall colors.
It just so happens that one of the nation's top heritage railroads is also located here, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. It witnesses tens of thousands annually hosting trips over 40 miles of the old Southern Railway's "Murphy Branch" between Bryson City and Nantahala.
The railroad's official fall foliage train is the Pumpkin Patch Express, an event primarily geared towards the kids. However, their trains (offering a wide range of packages and options) operate throughout the autumn season, providing guests one of the best ways to see the Smoky Mountains ablaze.
Your journey begins in Bryson City; situated along the Tuckasegee River you immediately cross the waterway upon leaving town.
Your trip takes you beside forest-covered mountains, winds its way along beautiful Fontana Lake (which is also crossed), and through deep hollows. In short, you will not find a finer train ride through the Appalachian Mountain chain.
(Blowing Rock): Just three hours away from the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is the popular Tweetsie Railroad located in another spectacular region of western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It is a nod to narrow-gauge history, specifically the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, colloquially remembered as the "Tweetsie." At its peak this system snaked its way from Johnson City, Tennessee to Boone, North Carolina (66 miles).
It was incredibly scenic, working its way over mountains, through tunnels, and within deep gorges. Alas, a declining need for 3-foot railroads and lack of business led to its demise by 1950 (although a small segment remains in use today for freight service).
The current Tweetsie Railroad does not operate on the original ET&WNC right-of-way. Instead, it utilizes a 3-mile theme park loop south of Boone. The railroad does not host dedicated fall foliage specials but its location and schedule runs through the autumn season.