Experience North Carolina’s transportation heritage first-hand on a fall color ride through the Smoky Mountains. For the most spectacular fall color experience hop aboard one of the train trips offered by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
With several fall excursions available and different packages, you can explore different parts of the mountain region.
Nantahala Gorge Excursion
The Nantahala Gorge Excursion is considered Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s “Premier Fall Foliage Excursion”. This is a 4.5 hour round trip ride that departs from Bryson City and covers 44 miles in the mountains. Throughout the experience, the train winds alongside the charming Nantahala River and through the Nantahala Gorge. The journey also takes you over the historic Fontana Trestle, a trellis bridge over Fontana Lake.
The Nantahala Gorge Excursion includes a 1-hour layover within the round trip. Halfway through your journey, the family will have the opportunity to disembark from the train and explore the gorge, river, and beautiful landscape painted in fall tones.
Depending on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad package that you select, onboard dining is available. First class tickets include a dining menu which typically offers selections such as a BBQ sandwich, chicken salad sandwich, pot roast, vegetarian salad, or turkey wrap. You can also pre-purchase a boxed lunch or grab something at the depot before departure.
Ticket prices vary, beginning at $32 for children 2-12 in the open air gondola ($56 for adults) up to $113 for first class adult tickets on steam engines. Find ticket information at www.gsmr.com/nantahala/
Tuckasegee River Excursion
The other fall excursion option with Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is the Tuckasegee River Excursion. This outing will give you the true small mountain town experience. The trip takes you 32 miles roundtrip and typically lasts 4 hours.
The Tuckasegee River Excursion departs from Bryson City, winding through Western NC mountains with breathtaking views of the foliage. The journey will also take you through the well-known man made Cowee Tunnel. You’ll have a 1.5 hour layover in Dillsboro, a charming historic town with plenty of shops and restaurants for exploring. Plus, your journey will take you by the set where Harrison Ford spent time while filming The Fugitive, one of the many bigscreen hits filmed in the Carolinas.
Tickets for the Tuckasegee River Excursion range in price from $32 – $113 with options to ride in an open-air gondola or enclosed first class cabins. Find ticket information here: www.gsmr.com/tuckasegee/
Fall Foliage Schedule
Although the changing leaves can be slightly unpredictable, fall foliage can typically be seen from early October through early November.
The best times to catch the fall colors in the NC mountains are as below:
- October 3-14 at 5,000 feet
- October 11-14 at 4,000 feet
- October 18-27 at 3,000 feet
- October 24-November 3 at 2,000 feet
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Tips & Tricks
Keep these tips in mind when planning your fall excursion with Great Smoky Mountain Railroad:
- Plan to arrive at least 1 hour prior to your departure time.
- Bryson City is a great area to explore in the fall, so we’d recommend arriving with enough time to explore the town before you hop aboard your train!
- Though The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad provides expected times and an itinerary for your excursions, there is always a chance of delays due to the nature of trains.
- The densely wooded areas that the train passes through could give you a chance to see a wide variety of leaves – there are more than 125 varieties of trees in Western NC.
- The railroad depots were founded in the 1800s and still offer historic charm.
- Find the parking lot at 45 Mitchell Street in Bryson City. Parking is $6 per vehicle
- All cars in the train have public restrooms available. One section is wheelchair accessible. Please ask ahead for assistance.
- No pets are allowed on the train.
Additional tips on seating
- Coach Class seating is in restored vintage cabins that include ceiling fans. Windows can be opened for fresh-air and clear views.
- Crown Class seating is available in restored coaches that have larger windows than Coach Class. Tickets in these cars typically include a souvenir.
- Open Air Gondolas offer outward-facing seating and fresh air with the best chance to catch all of the sights.
- First-Class seating includes meals and souvenirs. This coach also offers a full-service bar in a historic 1940s-era setting, full air conditioning, and a comfortable experience.
More Places for Train Fans
If you don’t have time for a Smoky Mountain train ride, stop into the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum in Bryson City. Of course, watching the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad trains depart is a favorite activity of visitors to Bryson City.
In Hendersonville, you’ll find the historic Hendersonville Depot, where you can climb aboard the railcar on display. Inside the depot you’ll find the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club and you can feast your eyes on the amazing HO scale model railroads.
Explore an extensive collection of vintage railroad photos in a restored depot at the Railroad Depot Museum in Morganton.
Make your way to Spencer to visit the N.C. Transportation Museum. This museum is a must-see for train fanatics. It houses 25 locomotives, a roundhouse and depot.
Head to Winnsboro (about 40 minutes north of Columbia) for a ride on the Rockton Rion & Western Railway at the South Carolina Railroad Museum. The museum features displays of locomotives and cars, plus special seasonally-themed train rides throughout the year.