Last revised: October 26, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Pennsylvania is filled with activities for the entire family to enjoy, from big cities and theme parks to a world famous Amish Country and numerous scenic train rides.
Some of the state's notable rail trips include fall foliage excursions each September and October where visitors can view the breathtaking colors of an Appalachian autumn.
The railroads hosting these trips are all highlighted below, including the Strasburg Rail Railroad, the second most popular tourist line in the country behind only the White Pass & Yukon Route in Alaska.
(Boyertown): A relatively new heritage line that began in 2014, the Colebrookdale Railroad (also known as the Secret Valley Line) began service over 8.6 miles of the old Reading Railroad between Boyertown and Pottstown.
The Colebrookdale offers a multitude of special excursions and upscale amenities throughout the year (such as on-board dining) making it a growing Pennsylvania attraction.
Their equipment is always clean and very well kept, both inside and out. They currently offer their Autumn Splendor - Hayride On Rails and Bonfire Train during the fall season.
Your trip begins in Boyertown (from a replica station) and immediately enters a wooded location near Ironstone Creek. This stream is followed much of the way until crossing the larger Manatawny Creek; not far from this point you arrive in Pottstown.
The trip is a mixture of farms, woods, and rural Americana making it one of Pennsylvania's finest tourist railroads.
(Jim Thorpe): This excursion is operated on and owned by freight line Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern (Reading & Northern or RBM&N), a growing and successful Class II "regional" system.
Your trip departs from the beautifully preserved Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) freight station located on the south side of town along the Lehigh River's western bank. It is one of the longest fall foliage trips available anywhere, lasting over 3 hours.
You have your choice of either taking a steam or diesel powered train. The former is a restored 4-6-2 "Pacific" type originally built for the Gulf, Mobile & Northern in 1928. The handsome engine is superbly maintained and always draws large crowds.
The RBM&N runs these autumn trips on select dates in October and November. They also now include dome service; very much worth the price if within one's budget!
As you leave Jim Thorpe the train will first head north along the Lehigh River before turning west along Nesquehoning Creek. The line was part of the old CNJ's western lines to serve eastern Pennsylvania's booming anthracite coal industry.
This particular corridor was a branch that extended from Jim Thorpe to a connection with the Reading at Haucks. You remain on the CNJ until reaching this town at which point the remaining trip to Pottsville was over the former Reading.
You turn south at Haucks and somewhat east along the Little Schuylkill River before passing between the Locus and Nesquehoning Mountain and arrive in Tamaqua. From here you will continue south on the Reading main line to Port Clinton.
Next, you head northwesterly near the Schuylkill River before arriving in Pottsville. The trip is typical Pennsylvania; river valleys, distant mountains, and rural small towns.
(Titusville): The OC&T operates 16.5 miles of a former Pennsylvania Railroad corridor between Titusville and Oil City.
The line follows the famous Oil Creek the entire way. While a secondary corridor under the PRR it did act as another north-south route between Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
The region is also famous as the location where oil was first discovered in America. On August 27, 1859 George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake found "rock oil" via a drilling rig at a site on Oil Creek near Titusville.
Along with the OC&T's standard excursions the railroad also hosts murder mystery dinner trains throughout the year as well as Fall Foliage Tours each October. The valley's scenery is typical of Pennsylvania featuring rolling hills, lush forests, and plenty of bucolic settings.
(Ronks/Strasburg): Our country's second most popular tourist railroad seeing 400,000 riders annually is located in Pennsylvania bucolic Lancaster County, the world's largest Amish community.
This makes it a major tourist attraction with the railroad and county enjoying a symbiotic relationship. The Strasburg's major draw is its first class accommodations and demand for authenticity representing rail operations as they appeared in the early 20th century.
Interestingly, the railroad was nearly abandoned in 1957 as the little 4.5-mile short line had run its course and was no longer needed. Its savior was Henry K. Long, a train enthusiast who saw potential in the property as a tourist attraction.
Today, Strasburg is the oldest chartered American railroad still in operation. Its name dates back to 1832 when today's word railroad was typically written as two ("Rail Road"). If there is one such heritage line you should ride once in your lifetime, Strasburg is it.
While a dedicated fall foliage ride is not offered you can choose from several different excursions throughout the autumn season. The entire trip contains views of flat bucolic farmland with distant mountains.
(Wellsboro): Not many freight railroads are open to the idea of hosting public excursions but the Wellsboro & Corning is an exception.
This short line is a component of the much larger Genesee & Wyoming, a conglomerate operating over 100 railroads in different countries.
While the W&C maintains 42 miles of the old New York Central's Pennsylvania Division between Corning and Wellsboro, public excursions only run from the latter town to Tioga, a distance of 16 miles.
They do not offer dedicated fall foliage excursions but their season runs through October during the peak of the autumn colors.
Your trip takes you along Marsh and Crooked Creeks as the valley's provide wonderful scenery of north-central Pennsylvania's rural communities and towns with trips concluding at Hammond Lake. The Tioga Central is a fine railroad offering club car, dining, and open-air observation amenities.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the railroad shutdown operations for the 2020 season and has not reopened since that time. It is believed the operation has permanently closed.
(Kempton): The WK&S is based in Kempton operating a unique blend of steam and diesel locomotives. Their iron horse is an 0-6-0ST #65, manufactured by H.K. Porter in 1930.
It typically pulls trains when not down for maintenance and inspection. Along with standard excursions the WK&S also offers chartered trips.
They maintain just 2.6 miles of the Reading's old Slatington Branch, which was spared from abandonment by a group of enthusiasts who wished to see public excursions hosted over this short segment.
It is one of the oldest heritage railroads in the country with a history dating back to 1963. Every fall the railroad offers their Fall Foliage Excursion during one weekend in October. Your trip departs from Kempton amid rural farmland.
You will immediately enter wood-line along Ontelaunee Creek, a stream which the tracks stays near during the run to Wanamakers.
(West Chester): Philadelphia and its suburbs was primarily dominated by two railroads, the Pennsylvania (PRR) and Reading.
The West Chester Railroad utilizes 7.2 miles of the PRR (according to the Pennsylvania's "September 29, 1929" timetable) between West Chester and Glen Mills.
This track was the very end of a 27.5 mile branch out of Philadelphia which was part of the PRR's Maryland Division. It was essentially a suburban corridor designed to transport commuters to and from their places of work.
To improve efficiency the railroad even had the route electrified; this history can still be seen via metal catenary supports lining the right-of-way. Your trip will primarily follow Chester Creek; despite the surrounding development the journey is quite rural and very scenic.
Each fall the West Chester Railroad hosts their Fall Foliage Express from late September through early October allowing guests the chance to see autumn's splendor and the region's rail history.
During the trip you will see four historic stations; Westtown, Cheyney, Locksley, and the especially beautiful structure at Glen Mills.