Published: January 23, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Oregon is well known for its dense evergreen forests of Douglas fir, giant sequoias, and ponderosa pines. As such, the state is usually forgotten as a place to see fabulous fall colors each autumn.
Aside from the evergreens, you can maples, oaks, dogwoods, ash, birch, alder, aspen, cottonwoods and others that burst into brilliant shades of red, yellow, branch, burgundy, and gold each October.
Oregon is home to a handful of heritage railroads which offer fall foliage specials geared specifically towards offering guests the chance to see the autumn colors in a way most of the general public cannot. The information below briefly highlights these locations.
(Hood River): The Mt. Hood Railroad operates 22.2 miles from Hood River to Parkdale as a freight line which also hosts public excursions. The company has a fascinating history; it is not a startup but instead carries a history dating back to the early 1900's.
It opened in 1909 to serve the fruit and timber industries along with local communities. After nearly 60 years of independent service it was acquired by Union Pacific in 1968. It became a private entity once more in 1987, which it remains today.
The Mt. Hood's standard excursion is known as the Parkdale Excursion Train and, which runs throughout much of the year. Each autumn they host the Fall Harvest Special during select dates in October. From their website:
"Fall in Oregon brings the rich colorful tones that showcase the variety of trees in our area contrasted against the green pines and rugged mountain peaks.
To compliment Mother Nature’s stunning seasonal show we added a range of autumn activities to our most popular ride to Parkdale that includes two photo stops, harvest gift, samples of area Harvest Brews, and an on-board Guest Speaker."
(Elgin): The Eagle Cap Excursion Train, based in Elgin, is located in northeast Oregon using RDCs (or Rail Diesel Cars) self-propelled rail cars to host excursions. One day each September they host Fall Foliage specials.
Your trip begins at Elgin from a replica depot; from this point you will travel north along the Grande Ronde River before crossing at the Wallowa River's confluence where the line then turns south towards Wallowa and Joseph.
The entire corridor is 63 miles and provides fantastic panoramic views of northeastern Oregon's arid mountains and topography.
The line was built by the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company during the 1890's as the Joseph Branch, which wound up as an important component of Union Pacific's lines throughout the Pacific Northwest.
By the mid-1990's, UP saw the line as superfluous, wishing to either sell or abandon it. In 2002 it was purchased by Union and Wallowa counties for continued freight service, now maintained by the publicly-owned Wallowa Union Railroad.
(Garibaldi): This tourist railroad is based in the beautiful Tillamook Bay area and is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest to see iconic steam engines in action.
They currently have four in operation and two others in their collection. The Oregon Coast Scenic maintains 46 miles over short line Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad, which owns 101 miles of a former Southern Pacific corridor.
Unfortunately, severe storms in 2007 knocked out part of the corridor which still has not been repaired. During weekends in October they offer Fall Splendor excursions which depart from Wheeler with round-trips lasting 2 hours.
From this point you will head east and cross the Nehalem River, a waterway the train follows the entire way to Batterson, about 8 miles away. The mountains and rural setting make this a wonderful way to experience the autumn colors.
(Sumpter): Not many states can claim multiple attractions which operate historic steam locomotives but Oregon does, indeed, hold this honor.
The Sumpter Valley Railroad currently has two narrow-gauge (3 foot) examples in service; White Pass & Yukon 2-8-2 #19 (built American Locomotive in 1920) and W.H. Eccles Lumber Company 2-Truck Heisler (40-ton) #3 (built by Heisler in 1915).
Their regular season runs from May through September although they host specials in October and for the holiday season. This includes a special fall foliage run in mid-October as well as a Photographers' Weekend hosted that month.
The Sumpter Valley has rebuilt 5 miles of an old logging railroad between Sumpter and McEwen has been restored. The trip runs through the mountains almost exclusively and is never far from the Powder River.