North Carolina By Train: A Guide for the Fall and Winter
Plus: The special seasonal events from each service
From Thomas the Tank Engine and The Little Engine That Could, to Platform 9¾ and “Murder on The Orient Express,” trains captivate our imaginations. Journey and destination are so deeply interwoven within the massive steel body of a locomotive, that it has long been a favorite trope for storytellers, as well as a favorite toy for children.
In North Carolina, we can choose from an abundance of enchanting train options. Go with a functional, carefree way to travel via NC By Train, or delight in pure whimsy at Tweetsie Railroad. Here are some options for the train lover in all of us.
300 Tweetsie Railroad Lane, Blowing Rock
Tucked in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Tweetsie Railroad, located in Blowing Rock, is the oldest theme park in North Carolina. From its traditional Wild West theme to rotating special events, this park has something for everyone.
Locomotive No. 12, dubbed “Tweetsie,” debuted July 4, 1957, as a family fun activity that gave passengers a 1-mile ride to a picnic site. Since then, the park has added Engine No. 190, the “Yukon Queen,” and expanded the track to a 3-mile loop.
In addition to trains, Tweetsie Railroad consists of hundreds of acres filled with rides, shops, eateries, live entertainment and an animal park.
Through Oct. 27, Tweetsie is open on Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $52 for ages 13 and older, $33 for ages 3-12, and free for ages 2 and younger. Ghost Train also runs Friday and Saturday nights through Oct. 30.
1 Samuel Spencer Drive, Spencer
Billed as “the museum that moves you,” the North Carolina Transportation Museum offers visitors 60 acres of historic artifacts and immersive exhibits.
Four historic buildings are filled with items and stories that will transport visitors to the time of the Southern Railway’s Spencer Shops. The site was once home of the Southern Railway Company’s largest steam locomotive servicing facility.
Over the years, exhibits have been added to encompass all forms of transportation history. Explore steam and diesel locomotives, railroad passenger cars, antique automobiles and aviation exhibits, including a full size Wright Flyer and a Piedmont Airlines DC-3.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Admission is $6 for ages 13 and older, $5 for seniors (ages not specified) and members of the military, and $4 for ages 3-12. Train rides are available Thursday through Sunday as an add-on to the admission price.
45 Mitchell St., Bryson City
If a classic train ride with breathtaking scenery is your goal, look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Based in Bryson City, this railroad line offers two daily train routes on both steam- and diesel-powered locomotives.
The Tuckasegee River Excursion is a four-hour trip to Dillsboro and passes by the famous movie set of “The Fugitive” (1993). The Nantahala Gorge Excursion is a four-and-a-half hour excursion that carries passengers to the beautiful Nantahala Gorge.
THE POLAR EXPRESS Train Ride
Nov. 8 to Dec. 31 (with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day).
Experience Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s “The Polar Express” themed train ride. Once you arrive at the North Pole, Santa boards the train, greets each child and gives him or her a silver bell to keep the magic of Christmas alive. Passengers sing Christmas carols on the return trip.
Tickets quickly sell out. Purchase online in advance. Prices range from $19-$93.
3900 Bonsal Road, New Hill
Located southwest of Raleigh, New Hope Valley Railway calls itself the Triangle’s Train, and caters to true train lovers. Though the railway does not provide daily train rides, volunteers schedule and promote a number of special events during which visitors can go on an approximate one-hour long train ride along 8 miles of track.
It’s also home to the North Carolina Railway Museum, which features antique train cars, memorabilia and a gift shop. In addition to the trains and museum, visitors can view railroad equipment from the 1920s and a model railroad, which features 1,000 feet of miniature track and several model trains, including Thomas the Tank Engine.
Track or Treat Halloween Express
Oct. 16, 23 and 30
Stations located in cities across the state
The North Carolina Department of Transportation owns and operates the Piedmont and Carolinian Amtrak train lines, as well as 16 stations to serve families throughout the state.
A family of four can hop a train from Raleigh to Charlotte for the day for less than $125. Ticket prices cost $12-$28 one way for transportation within North Carolina; $105 for a one-way train from Raleigh to New York City; and $126 for a one-way train from Charlotte to New York City. In addition to offering train travel, NC By Train often partners with local busses and transit systems to make your entire journey hassle-free. Visit the website for deals and specials, and information on everyday and group travel discounts.
Trains have a special place in U.S. history. They transformed the way we communicate, manufacture and explore the world. And though we now have access to more modernized modes of transportation, there is still something magical about feeling the rolling rumble of rails underneath you as the countryside sails by.
Mandy Howard is a freelance writer and mother of three in Raleigh.