Ride the Rails on Tennessee’s Scenic Trains
Terry Bebout remembers his first train ride. “My grandmother took me on a train trip from Nashville when I was 2, and from then on, I was hooked,” says Bebout, who today is president of the Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville. “There’s just something about trains that fascinates people of all ages, and if you haven’t ridden the rails, you’re missing out.”
Several scenic train rides in Tennessee offer distinct experiences this fall: Tennessee Central Railway, the Tennessee Valley Railroad in Knoxville and Incline Railroad in Chattanooga, all of which are operating this fall with social distancing in mind. The Three Rivers Rambler, based in Knoxville, will be running on a limited schedule this season. Just across the state line, Tennesseans can tour the Blue Ridge Mountains in Blue Ridge, Georgia, or the Great Smoky Mountains in Bryson City, North Carolina, by train.
“The focus of the Tennessee Central Railway Museum is train excursions, even though the word ‘museum’ is in our name because we’re providing a taste of history in a real way,” says Bebout. “When you experience a ride in a vintage train car, it’s almost like going back in time.”
Typically offering multiple rail journeys throughout the year, the Tennessee Central Railway Museum is scaling back operations, as are most other attractions in the state. When it reopens in September, inaugural excursions will take guests on a 90-mile round-trip journey to Watertown with two special adventures: Sept. 5 to the town’s Fall Festival and Sept. 26 for a Train Robbery event.
The Fall Festival features a ’50s-era theme, including a costume contest, a cruise-in car show and other entertainment. Guests can experience the small-town flavor of the square and have lunch in the downtown restaurants.
“People really enjoy our Train Robbery trips, too,” Bebout says. “Along the way, the train is held up by costumed bandits, and any money they collect from passengers is donated to the local high school. Then the robbers show up downtown and confront the local sheriff for another entertaining confrontation. It’s all in fun and makes for a memorable day for the family.”
The trains operate on the Nashville & Eastern Railroad tracks and feature four classes: dining, lounge, coach and dome cars. “All 14 of our cars are 1950s stainless steel Budd cars that have been upgraded with air conditioning and the latest conveniences,” Bebout says. “When we’re on our full schedule, we use all 14 cars and offer many options for rides.”
For more information, visit tcry.org.
While Chattanooga was made famous by the song “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the town’s former railroad depot is now a stylish hotel. However, two scenic trains call the city home — the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and Lookout Mountain Incline Railway.
The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM) operates two departure depots with Grand Junction in Chattanooga and L&N Depot and Museum in Etowah. TVRM features steam-powered locomotives and diesel engines and currently offers multiple excursions — Chickamauga Turn, Dinner on the Diner and Missionary Ridge Local, departing from Grand Junction station. Just an hour up the road, the Hiwassee Loop departs from Etowah.
“All four are very different experiences,” says Olivia Hovey, director of guest services for TVRM. “The Missionary Ridge Local is a 55-minute ride that’s great for all ages. The train crosses the Chickamauga Creek Bridge and goes through a pre-Civil War hand-dug tunnel completed in 1858. The half-way point at East Chattanooga Depot gives riders a chance to stretch their legs and see a turntable demonstration, showing just how the engine can reverse direction for the return trip.”
The Chickamauga Turn is a 6-hour round trip through the area’s historic Civil War areas and allows a generous layover in Chickamauga to see local sites. An hour north of Chattanooga, the scenic Hiwassee Loop 4-hour ride follows a 50-mile route through the lower Hiwassee River Gorge, through Cherokee National Forrest, and up Bald Mountain Loop near Farner, Tennessee. “In the fall, the scenery from the Dome Car is breathtaking, especially as the train crosses the river on the Hiwassee River Bridge.
The Dinner on the Diner two-hour ride recreates the experience of enjoying a meal on board a dining car, with linen table cloths and fine china; it is offered multiple times each month. On Sept. 17, a Wine Dinner Train Excursion features wine pairings and a three-course meal.
For information and reservations, visit tvrail.com.
This year, the Incline Railway celebrates its 125th anniversary. The mile-long ride in enclosed trolley-style cars showcases the Chattanooga valley. Opened in 1895, it is listed as a National Historic Site and a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
The Incline is a funicular railway fashioned like those in Europe. It makes its way up to a peak on a 72.7-degree incline via cables that pull it along the track. It is one of the steepest passenger railways in the world.
For information and reservations, visit ridetheincline.com.
Just across the border
Ride along the Toccoa River and the Appalachian foothills from Blue Ridge to McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee. Established in the 1990s, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway offers enclosed and open cars as it travels through the hardwood forests and farmlands.
A 1-hour ride brings passengers to McCaysville, which is half in Georgia and half in Tennessee. In fact, the state line runs through downtown McCaysville and many visitors make photos of themselves straddling the line between the two states. Georgia residents call the river that runs through town the Toccoa; to Tennessee residents, it’s the Ocoee.
“There is no better way to experience the beauty of fall in the mountains than riding the railway as it winds along the Toccoa River from Georgia into Tennessee,” says Jan Hackett, president of the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce.
For reservations and information, visit brscenic.com.
For a more mountainous journey, visit Bryson City, North Carolina, and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. This year operating its westbound line to Nantahala Outfitters, the train follows the Nantahala River on a 4.5-hour trek.
“This is a super scenic adventure across Fontana Lake and into the Nantahala Gorge,” says Sarah Pressley, marketing manager at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. “With multiple levels of class, including our premium open-air gondola as well as climate-controlled cars, guests can just sit back and enjoy the peaceful scenery.”
A one-hour stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center offers a chance to watch paddlers or explore the river.
For reservations or more information, visit gsmr.com.