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5 Most Scenic Train Rides in North Carolina

Trains are a connection to the past while simultaneously offering a glimpse into the future. When picturing train rides in the United States, you might imagine blazing along the Pacific Ocean on the famous Starlight Train or chugging through the Rockies on the Rocky Mountain Express, but North Carolina offers some of the most beautiful stretches of railroad in America. Picture misty mountain vistas, lazily chugging along ancient rivers, and a billowing trail of steam guiding you along the track.

These trains allow you to see pristine wilderness, untouched and unseen by most highways and hiking trails. Unique experiences like a Carolina moonshine tasting and a sprint through the Nantahala Gorge aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Express are some of the incredible adventures in store, while the Tweetsie Railroad is a window to the past featuring steam locomotives steeped in Carolina history. From mountains to sea, these are the most scenic train rides in North Carolina.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad - Bryson City Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Credit: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad - Bryson City

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is certainly the most sought-after ticket in all of North Carolina. With such a stunning stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains to explore just outside of Bryson City, it’s no wonder this railroad is still in such high demand. Originally the Murphy Branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad, these tracks were laid in 1880 and effectively connected Asheville to the rest of America. This 53-mile span of railroad track cuts through some of the most scenic stretches of land in Appalachia, including mountain tunnels and 25 bridges, and offers unique experiences you can’t find anywhere else. Rail adventures that are always on offer include the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, a beautiful traverse cutting 44 miles through alpine forests, and the Tuckasegee River Excursion, which chugs 32 miles in unison with the powerful Tuckasegee River itself. 

Look through their full list of special train journeys, which include the Carolina Moonshine Experience and holiday events like the Polar Express. Tickets range in class from a fancy affair in Adult First Class, Premium Open Air Gondola, and Crown Class to humble rides in Coach Class and the Open Air Gondola. Depending on which option you choose, your ride length can range from 3 ½ hours to an entire day! Both historic steam locomotives and diesel trains are used; although steam engines are undoubtedly the most magical experience, it can be difficult to snag these limited tickets. Whether your interest is thoroughly peaked post-train ride or you’re an avid rail buff and trainspotter, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Model Train Museum is a delight with its vast collection and the perfect finale to your visit. 

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Triangle's Train: New Hope Valley Railway - Bonsal to New Hill Triangle's Train: New Hope Valley Railway
Credit: Triangle's Train: New Hope Valley Railway by Triangle's Train: New Hope Valley Railway

Triangle's Train: New Hope Valley Railway - Bonsal to New Hill

Just 30 miles outside of North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh, the New Hope Valley Railway is giving rail enthusiasts a place to gather. Lovingly known as the Triangle Train, this section of track was born in the very early 1900s for the Durham & South Carolina Railroad. Today, the train travels along 4 miles of historic railroad track from the tiny towns of Bonsal to New Hill, returning back at the depot after about an hour. Enjoy views outside the window of quintessential Carolina pine forests and the breeze in your hair.

This may be one of the only railways in the country that allows visitors to man the controls and become an engineer for a day! The “Operate a Loco” program quite literally trains guests to operate a diesel locomotive, a true one-of-a-kind experience. For those who are looking for a family affair, rent out the 10-person “Family Caboose,” which connects to the back of the train. True railway enthusiasts should be sure to pop into the open-air North Carolina Railway Museum, which is located on-site, or book your next birthday party in the vintage, stationary “Birthday Caboose.” 

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North Carolina Transportation Museum - Spencer N.C. Transportation Museum
Credit: N.C. Transportation Museum by N.C. Transportation Museum

North Carolina Transportation Museum - Spencer

The North Carolina Transportation Museum is the queen of railroad exhibits in North Carolina. Located in the town of Spencer, the NCTM is less than an hour north of Charlotte and makes for a wonderful weekend trip for kids and rail lovers alike. This railyard was once a locomotive repair facility – the largest of its kind in this corner of the U.S. Permanent exhibits include The Power of Steam and The Life of a Brakeman, each giving an in-depth look at not only steam locomotives but what it took to operate these behemoths of transportation.

While it’s just a short 25-minute ride, the train takes visitors through the museum’s 60 acres of idyllic farmland and countryside. Various special train rides are offered for both adults and children, including the “Day Out With Thomas,” where the little ones can take a ride with either Thomas himself or Percy pulling the train, and the “Wine & Dine” option, which includes a cocktail hour prior to the train’s departure. Additional annual holiday-themed events include the Halloween Train and Polar Express.

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Tweetsie Railroad - Blowing Rock Tweetsie Railroad
Credit: Tweetsie Railroad by Tweetsie Railroad

Tweetsie Railroad - Blowing Rock

Located in Blowing Rock, NC the Tweetsie Railroad is an iconic feature in Western North Carolina’s landscape. Traversing wooden trestles and snaking its way through the dense forests of Appalachia, the Tweetsie Railroad is home to two historic steam locomotives, originally built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. No. 190, the “Yukon Queen” hails all the way from Alaska and previously ran a route that connected Skagway to Whitehorse in the Canadian Province of Yukon. But the No. 12 locomotive is where the Tweetsie Railroad got its name. “Tweetsie” is the “Yukon Queen’s” sister, although she stayed closer to her roots – and was almost 30 years older. “Tweetsie” was originally part of the East Tennessee & West North Carolina Railroad. She ran a route between Johnson City, TN, and Boone, NC, for 21 years before retiring to become a ride and attraction in 1957.

Rides last about 25 minutes and take visitors on a quick jaunt through serene countryside with a live Wild West themed show. The Tweetsie Railroad has become something of an amusement park with a small collection of rides, including a Ferris wheel and carousel, and fun activities for children like gold panning and a petting zoo. An original Steam Locomotive Repair Shop is still in operation on site and is one of the last of its kind in America. The Tweetsie Railroad offers special events throughout the year, including the Ghost Train and Tweetsie Christmas. Be sure to check their website before planning your website as Tweetsie Railroad’s hours vary by season.

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Craggy Mountain Line - Asheville Craggy Mountain Line
Credit: Craggy Mountain Line by Craggy Mountain Line

Craggy Mountain Line - Asheville

North Carolina’s Craggy Mountain Line is the pipsqueak of the bunch. Its past life was lived as an original trolley car for Asheville’s public transportation that came about in the late 1800’s. The Craggy Mountain Lines never left Asheville and is located just a 30-minute drive north of the “Land of the Sky.” Affectionately known as “The Craggy,” this group of volunteers is the sole reason that the Craggy Mountain Line exists today and returned the trolley car to its original glory through a painstaking restoration process. Now a non-profit organization, they reopened this 3.45-mile historic section of railroad stretching from Asheville to Craggy Branch. Eventually, the group would like to establish a rail museum to teach visitors about the railway’s history. 

This 90-minute joy ride, with a pit stop in the town of Woodfin (a perfect picnic stop), is a 7-mile, open-air ride and a wonderful excuse for visitors to get out in nature while letting the train do all the heavy lifting. Passing through Asheville’s dense forests and striking mountain vistas in the distance, this strip of track is even more stunning in autumn as the leaves begin to turn. Groups over 25 can rent out the entire train car in two-hour increments if you’re looking for a special place to hold your next family gathering! Be aware that the train only operates on Thursdays and Saturdays at 4:00 pm precisely. 

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