Published: October 13, 2022
By: Adam Burns
West Virginia is nationally recognized for its scenic beauty with the state almost entirely blanketed within the Appalachian Mountains. In addition, with a small population and areas which rarely see humans at all much of the Mountain State remains undeveloped.
As a result, autumns here are absolutely breathtaking and attract thousands of visitors each year. Many of these tourist stick to main highways and rural backroads. However, many are not aware that you can also enjoy the colors by rail as well.
The West Virginia Central/Durbin & Greenbrier Valley has become the top attraction for such trips as passengers can do so within climate-controlled cars while also enjoying a full course meal if they so choose.
However, the Cass Scenic Railroad is also a top attraction thanks to its location and use of rare geared steam locomotives. Their fall foliage trips each September is one of their busiest times of the year, as well as a way to cap each operating season.
As the weather grows colder the railroad shuts down for the winter and overhauls its locomotives and rolling stock as needed.
The information included on this page highlights all of the fall foliage train rides available in West Virginia, which currently includes Cass Scenic, West Virginia Central, Potomac Eagle Scenic, and the Autumn Colors Express which departs from Huntington.
(Cass): One of the nation's top heritage railroads and the best place to see geared steam locomotives in action is the Cass Scenic Railroad in rural Cass, a little over an hour's drive from either Lewisburg or Elkins.
It is also based just a few miles from the state's most famous ski resort, Snowshoe. Situated within the Monongahela National Forest the railroad is well-suited to host picturesque fall foliage outings within the heart of West Virginia's Appalachian Mountains.
These trips, running up to 11 miles, feature open-air cars so please be sure to dress accordingly. Trains depart from the rebuilt depot in Cass and wind their way up grades as high as 9%!
This is very, very steep for a main line railroad which typically finds anything over 2% or 3% quite rugged. You can choose from three destinations; Whittaker Station (halfway), Bald Knob (top of the mountain), or a connection with the West Virginia Central at the old logging community of Spruce.
Soon, a fourth connection will be made with the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley near Cass along the Greenbrier River over the old Chesapeake & Ohio Railway's Greenbrier Branch (or Greenbrier Division).
This will allow for trips of 14 additional miles to rural Durbin. Their seasonal schedule runs from May through the end of October.
(Huntington): A train ride that runs exclusively for fall foliage viewing, the Autumn Colors Express has been held nearly every year since 1966.
Until 2019 it was hosted by the Collis P. Huntington Historical Society and known as the New River Train. Alas, conflict with Amtrak and rising costs precluded the group from continuing beyond 2018.
As a result, a new operation known as the Railway Excursion Management Company took over. They ran their first outing in 2019 and witnessed some 2,500 passengers.
The trip departs Huntington, rolls through Charleston and heads east as far as Hinton over the old Chesapeake & Ohio main line. You initially follow the Mud River before reaching the Kanawha River.
This waterway is followed through Charleston and continues until entering the New River Gorge, the trip's highlight, at Gauley Bridge.
The beauty of this region, with its tall, foliage-draped cliffs above and water rapids below has made it a popular event for over a half-century. While steam locomotives are no longer allowed, it continues to draw large crowds today.
(Romney): Located in the state's Eastern Panhandle on a branch line originally owned by the Baltimore & Ohio the Potomac Eagle Scenic meanders along the beautiful South Branch of the Potomac River featuring scenes of rolling hills, small towns, and bucolic farms.
The line was a relatively minor part of the 10,000+ mile B&O network; it was listed as two separate corridors, the 15.4-mile South Branch (Green Spring-Romney) and 36.6-mile Moorefield & Virginia Branch (Romney-Petersburg).
Together, they acted as one singular route spanning 52 miles. The West Virginia State Rail Authority (SRA) acquired the tracks in 1978 to prevent their abandonment by then-Chessie System.
At first freight trains were the only thing to be found here (via the South Branch Valley Railroad) but in 1991 public excursions began. The Potomac Eagle Scenic's schedule runs from May through November with Christmas specials held during December.
(Elkins): Based in Elkins and not far from the Cass Scenic Railroad the WVC operates along the Greenbrier and Tygart Rivers offering a wide range of excursions in climate controlled cars.
The railroad began in 1998 when the state of West Virginia, via the State Rail Authority, acquired 132.13 miles of the old Western Maryland to prevent its near-certain abandonment by CSX Transportation.
Today, the WVC operates from Tygart Junction to Elkins (via Belington) as well as from Elkins to Big Cut (via Spruce).
Interestingly, the largest section between Bemis and Webster Springs (80 miles) has sat disused for more than 20 years and is unlikely to be reactivated.
The West Virginia Central does not host a dedicated fall foliage train but its schedule runs through the autumn season.
Most trips depart from the beautifully preserved WM depot in Elkins (also the railroad's headquarters) and follows either Roaring Creek or the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. The WVC is one of four fabulous choices to see the Mountain State's fall colors by rail.
The same company also operates the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley just down the road in Durbin, which uses a restored Climax geared steam locomotive via open-air cars along a short stretch of the C&O's old Greenbrier Branch, which will soon reconnect with the Cass Scenic in Cass.