Although many explore the quaint mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina, via the Blue Ridge Parkway -- a 469-mile scenic drive alongside towering waterfalls, sprawling wetlands and craggily mountaintops -- it’s possible to leave your car at home and still take in the region’s majestic landscape. Leave downtown Asheville behind -- an area dotted with cozy boutique shops, rustic barbecue joints and more than 20 art galleries -- and book a ride upon a scenic train excursion through the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and acres of pristine national forests.
Go West, Young Man
Take a ride upon the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City, one hour west of Asheville. The line’s standard excursion is a 4.5-hour train ride through the Nantahala Gorge, along the Tennessee and Nantahala rivers and across Fontana Lake via a trellis bridge. Ride in an open air car or adults-only dining car as you listen to bluegrass music and narrated tales of the region. Special excursions include the Fall Foliage tour, with a stop at a pumpkin patch, and Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience, where you can sample from a variety of moonshine concoctions. Make your way to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, one hour and 45 minutes west of Asheville and nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains. The amusement park, owned and operated by country legend Dolly Parton, is home to the Dollywood Express, a coal-fired, steam engine train. The Dollywood Express embarks on a 5-mile trip alongside the park’s other rides.
Southern Appalachia Railway Museum in Knoxville, Tennessee, operates the Secret City Scenic Excursion Train out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Based two hours and 15 minutes northwest of Asheville, the ride is a one-hour, 14-mile roundtrip excursion along across forested hills, Poplar Creek and Watts Bar Lake. Grab snacks and beverages from the open air concession car or just relax in the restored 1940s coach and dining cars. The train runs on select weekends from April through December. Almost two hours northwest of Asheville, Three Rivers Rambler hosts an 11-mile, 90-minute journey out of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Set out on a 1920s steam engine as you make your way past farmland and quarries before reaching the confluence of the French Broad, Holston and Tennessee rivers. Excursions typically take place between October and December.
North by Northeast
Step back in time with a trip to Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West theme park in Blowing Rock, just 90 minutes northeast of Asheville. In addition to stage shows, a small zoo and carnival rides, the park includes two vintage steam locomotives built in 1917 and 1943. The train ride, which circumvents the park, is included with the cost of park admission. Special train rides, such as the Halloween Ghost Train or a Day out with Thomas, require separate fees. The NC Transportation Museum is in Spencer, a little over two hours east of Asheville. The 57-acre facility has exhibits showcasing the region’s railroad history, including historic steam and diesel locomotives. A 25-minute narrated train ride is included in the cost of your admission. For an added fee, you can ride with the engineer. Occasionally, the museum hosts special extensive excursions to Appomattox, Virginia, site of the Confederate Army’s surrender, and Toccoa, Georgia, home to the 186-foot-tall Toccoa Falls.
Skipping Down South
The South Carolina Railroad Museum in Winnsboro, South Carolina is a little more than two hours southeast of Asheville. The museum operates the Rockton, Rion and Western Railroad, which offers scenic excursions on weekends from May through December. Ride upon a first-class dining, 1950s passenger and open air cars as you soak up the sights of the surrounding countryside and wooded regions during the approximately one-hour journey. The museum stages special events as well, including barbecue dinner excursions and rides with Santa. Blue Ridge Scenic Railway departs from Blue Ridge, Georgia, 2.5 hours southwest of Asheville. Embark on a four-hour, 26-mile roundtrip journey through the Chattahoochee National Forest and along the Toccoa River, complete with a stop in the quaint sister cities of McCaysville and Copperhill, Georgia. Shorter rides are available on Sundays. The ride takes place on vintage passenger and open air cars. Special excursions include the Rotary Blues Train, with live music, dinner and dancing.