North Carolina Train Rides

North Carolina train rides have a lot to offer even though it seems that the state is sometimes forgotten or not known for its tourist railroads. Two of the country's more popular such operations are located in the beautiful Smoky Mountains, to the state's west, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and Tweetsie Railroad. Both own or operate steam locomotives and part of their popularity is due to their mountainous location. If you enjoy steam you can also catch it in action at the North Carolina Transportation Museum and the New Hope Valley Railway located in the state's Piedmont region. Finally, there is the Charlotte Trolley, which operates historic trolley cars for visitors and tourists (you can also catch the city's new "Lynx" light rail transit system). Please note!  The guide here pertains only to train rides in NC related to vacation and tourism destinations.  If you are interested in intercity/long distance rail travel please visit Amtrak's website.

The Tar Heel State has a history with trains that dates back to the 1830s and during the industry's heyday featured everything from coal branch operations in the mountains (notably the Clinchfield Railroad) to coastal operations to the east between Elizabeth City and the port city of Wilmington. While all of North Carolina's excursion trains are worth seeing if there was one tourist railroad in particular you should visit it would be the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (GMSR). The railroad not only offer great scenery but guests also have the option of choosing between several different excursions and packages, all in climate-controlled and matching cars (their equipment is painted in a beautiful dark maroon and yellow/orange livery. Finally, if you are interested in North Carolina train rides that pertain to specific events, such as "The Polar Express," Halloween, Thomas the Tank Engine excursions, or fall foliage events please visit the main tourist trains section of this website.

North Carolina Train Rides And Museums For 2018

Charlotte Trolley

One of the more unique train rides in NC can be found at the Charlotte Trolley which looks to preserve the history of Charlotte's former interurban operations. The trolley operates on the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and current has two cars operational.

Cherryville Model Railroad Club/Museum

This small organization is based inside the town of Cherryville's restored Seaboard Air Line depot.  There is no cost to view their layouts housed inside although they do accept donations.  The club normally operates on select days of the week.

Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

Without question, the most popular of all NC train rides can be found at the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City. This attraction has been in operation since 1988 using tracks once owned by the venerable Southern Railway, which the company called its Murphy Branch. Train rides are hosted throughout much of the year although they also offer special events as well, such as "Thomas The Train" and holiday festivities. The railroad is covered in more detail at the site.

National Railroad Museum And Hall Of Fame

This small museum is located at Hamlet inside the Seaboard Air Line's beautifully restored depot which dates back to 1900.  It has been open since 1976 and tells the local railroad history via numerous exhibits, displays, and various other artifacts.  The facility is normally open each weekend.

New Hope Valley Railway

The New Hope Valley Railway based in New Hill operates NC train rides on trackage originally built by the New Hope Valley Railroad, later part of the Seaboard Air Line system. They currently have a multitude of various diesel locomotive switchers they use to power their trains along with one operable 0-4-0T steam locomotive. 

North Carolina Transportation Museum

The one place in NC where both train rides and a nice collection of preserved equipment can be experienced is at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.  It is located in Spencer, situated on the former Southern Railway’s largest steam locomotive repair shops. Today the museum sees tens of thousands annually and is housed in three of the former shop buildings (currently); the Bob Julian Roundhouse, the Flue Shop, and the Master Mechanics Shop. As part of the museum they operate excursion trains on the museum grounds and is one of just two locations in the United States to feature the live steam locomotive version of Thomas the tank engine.

Train Rides In NC At A Glance

As you can see from the information presented here, there are a number of quality trains rides in NC to choose from.  The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (GMSR) and Tweetsie Railroad are top tourist destinations which attract riders from around the country.  The former sees nearly 180,000 annually while the latter is regarded as one of the "Top 20 Events In The Southeast" according to Southeast Tourism Society (it is also recognized as the "Best Place To Take The Kids In The Blue Ridge Mountains" according to Blue Ridge Country Magazine).  The history of these operations can be traced well back into the 19th century as the GMSR was built as the Western North Carolina Railroad's Murphy Branch (a later component of the modern Southern Railway) and the Tweetsie the narrow-gauge East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad (who's nickname was the "Tweetsie Railroad").  Overall, the state has a rich heritage with railroads, tracing their roots back to the movement of agriculture (tobacco and cotton), manufacturing, and textiles.  To some extent this remains the case today.

Train Rides In NC, Amtrak

Finally, while this guide is geared towards NC train rides as tourist attractions a brief mention of the state's commuter and intercity services.  Few others offer such a vast collection of services as North Carolina.  The long term plans involve opening a passenger route from the Atlantic coast (Wilmington) to the mountains (Asheville) while linking the state's major cities in the process.  To do this, several rail corridors abandoned years ago have been preserved for future use.  If not for this foresight the state's long-term objective would be impossible to accomplish.  North Carolina also has plans to open high-speed service from Raleigh to Richmond, very near Amtrak's Northeast Corridor which begins at Washington, D.C.  In addition, a connection to Virginia's capital city would open through connections to other Amtrak trains which will provide direct service into the Northeast.  The initiative, of course, is a long-term endeavor but the future is promising in one of America's most forward-thinking states regarding passenger rail.  If you are interested in learning more about these train rides in NC please click here.

Old Rock School Railway Museum

This museum is located in Valdese and operated by the Piedmont & Western Railroad Club.  They offer tours during the weekend of their extensive model layouts, by appointment only.

Piedmont Railroad Museum & Library, Inc. 

This relatively recent organization was formed in 2017 to preserve the rail history of central and eastern North Carolina.  While the state was served by big names in this region such as the Southern, Atlantic Coast Line, and Seaboard Air Line there were also several mid-sized systems or short lines located there; names like the Norfolk Southern, Carolina & Northwestern, Atlantic & East Carolina Railway, Durham & Southern, and Piedmont & Northern.  The group has plans to feature a museum and library named the Piedmont Model Railroad Park which will be open to the public.  For the time being you can visit their hobby shop called the Piedmont Model Railroad Park Store at the Cary Towne Center.

Smoky Mountain Trains

This small organization is located in Bryson City in the western part of the state, which is also home to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.  The museum features an impressive collection of Lionel model trains and is open during select days of each week.

Wilmington Railroad Museum

The Wilmington Railroad Museum is located in the port of Wilmington near the coast.  It first began in 1979 and in 1983 acquired the former Atlantic Coast Line freight depot, in which the organization is still housed today.  They have several artifacts on-hand, a model train layout, as well as a small collection of rolling stock (this includes ACL 4-6-0 #250 built by Baldwin in 1910).

Tweetsie Railroad

The Tweetsie Railroad, based in Blowing Rock, North Carolina has been operating since 1957 and is based from the historic East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad (a classic narrow-gauge system which once served both its namesake states). If there are two NC train rides you should experience it is the Tweetsie and Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.  Today, they use three miles of trackage to host train rides, most often employing their, 4-6-0 "Ten wheeler", #12, to pull excursions. A further history of the railroad can be found here at the site.  Finally, for more reading about the original ET&WNC system please click here.

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