Last revised: October 26, 2023
By: Adam Burns
One of the great states to view the fall colors in Appalachia by train is Tennessee. Rocky Top is home to one of the longest autumn excursions in the nation at the Tennessee Central Railway Museum, based an Nashville, an all day event that covers more than 150 miles.
You can also ride behind steam-powered trips at Three Rivers Rambler; located in downtown Knoxville this heritage line operates along the beautiful Tennessee River.
The Rambler does not host dedicated fall foliage rides but their seasonal schedule runs through the autumn offering guests the chance to see the spectacular colors of the Knoxville region.
Both excursions are quite popular due to their location. For those interested in Tennessee's rail history, the Tennessee Central Railway Museum utilizes part of the old Tennessee Central Railway's main line east of Nashville while the Rambler operates some of the old Southern Railway.
The state is, from an operational standpoint, an interesting dichotomy; it's home to important main lines of the old Louisville & Nashville, Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis, and previously mentioned Tennessee Central running from east to west.
There were also important corridors maintained by the Southern Railway, Illinois Central, and Gulf, Mobile & Ohio that ran the less-common alignment from north-to-south.
(Nashville): The state's largest railroad museum is based in Nashville and focuses on its rail heritage. The TCRM is named for the railroad that served its home state, the Tennessee Central.
It sadly shutdown operations in 1968 due to declining revenue and increased competition. Aside from static displays the TCRM offers many excursions throughout the year thanks to the generosity of short line freight carrier, the Nashville & Eastern.
The N&E maintains a long section of the former Tennessee Central right-of-way east of Nashville and has been in service since 1986. The museum has become well-known for its use of high quality equipment, dinner trains, winery trips, and other upscale excursions.
During October they offer fall foliage specials that include round trips of up to 164 miles. At ten hours, truly an all day event, they are the longest such excursions you can experience anywhere in the country.
The Tennessee Valley Railroad (TVR), a component of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, has a history dating back to as early as 1960. Its more modern form was born in 1969 when the organization acquired a section of ex-Southern Railway trackage.
Today, you can enjoy a 6-mile round trip with trains departing from the Grand Junction depot in Chattanooga. The TVR has grown substantially since its early days and now offers a wide selection of excursions, from dinner and wine trains to special events, such as hosting "A Day Out With Thomas" where Thomas the Tank Engine will make an appearance.
The TVR does not host dedicated fall foliage train rides. However, the railroad's operating season lasts through the autumn season, allowing guests the chance to see the region's brilliant fall colors. Probably the best way to do so would be via the railroad's "Hiwassee Loop" trip.
This excursion departs from Delano, Tennessee and traverses the famous Hiwassee Loop. The trip lasts 5 hours and covers 50 miles! Despite not offering dinner aboard the train it does have snacks and drinks available.
(Knoxville): Another popular train ride is located in a major metropolitan area is the Three Rivers Rambler. This particular attraction draws the crowds for more than just the scenery, they also have a working steam locomotive; Southern Railway 2-8-0 #154 (built by the Schenectady Works in 1890).
In addition, there are three others on the property and two are under restoration. The attraction operates year-round but does not host dedicated fall foliage trips.
Nevertheless, their standard excursions continue through autumn allowing for incredible views of Appalachia along the Tennessee River.
The 11-mile trip (over original Southern Railway track) departs from 2560 University Commons Way within the University of Tennessee's campus.
From this point you head east out of the city and cross the Holston River. From here the topography is largely rural and classic for this region; rugged hills, lush vegetation, deciduous hardwoods, and rural settings. The line heads out to the area of Asbury whereupon trains return to Knoxville.