The first regularly scheduled passenger service in South Carolina began back in 1830, and the state's network of train tracks still sees plenty of traffic. Though much of the state's track has been allocated to cargo, keen travelers can still find rails to ride, conductors to meet, wheels to squish pennies and whistles to toot.
The historic rails of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad are plied by two distinct routes, both departing from Bryson City in the morning and returning in the mid-afternoon. The Nantahala Gorge route features live bluegrass music and Appalachian folk stories while the train chugs along the shorelines of the Tennessee and Nantahala rivers. The rails cross a historic trellis bridge to the Nantahala Gorge, where passengers disembark at the Nantahala Outdoor Center before the route loops back to the start. The Tuckasegee River route wends around a similarly spectacular riverside track and includes a 90-minute layover in the pioneer town of Dillsboro.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad also hosts an adults-only evening excursion that takes passengers for a sunset ride. The trip operates out of Bryson City between May 23 and Oct. 31. Passengers board a dinner car for a barbecue buffet and artisanal "moonshine." As canyon views roll past the windows, guests sample hand-crafted, triple-distilled local creations while they learn about the local history of home-brewing and bootlegging. The tour returns after a full traverse of the Nantahala Gorge, which takes a bit more than two hours. For a family-friendly dining experience, board the same train for lunch. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad's "Family First Class," includes a boxed lunch and takes guests on either the Nantahala or Tuckaseegee route while having a meet-and-greet with the conductor.
Located near Winnsboro, the South Carolina Railroad Museum operates a historic three-car steam train on Saturdays between May 31 and Aug. 30. The train takes passengers for a short, scenic ride to the historic town of Greenbriar, with narration from museum docents. Aside from the museum's regular summertime schedule, special off-season events include a pumpkin patch ride in the fall and a wintertime Santa Claus ride for kids. "Caboose Day" is another unusual treat where passengers can snag a seat in one of the museum's restored bay window or cupola cabooses.
For a longer scenic excursion through South Carolina, hop on Amtrak's Crescent route. The route starts in New York City and goes all the way through to New Orleans, but it's easy to pick up the route solely for its South Carolina portion, which connects Spartanburg to Clemson. The route snakes though what's argulably the prettiest scenery in the state: through the canyons, rivers and forests of the Appalacian foothills, alongside historic Civil War battlefields and deep into the heart of the American South. The train offers a cafe, Wi-Fi and bicycle storage, as well as overnight accommodation for through travelers.
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