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What if you could travel through picturesque landscapes and travel back in time, simultaneously? Would it feel like a dream? If you ask us, there’s nothing quite like a leisurely train ride through rolling hills and small towns, and North Carolina is a great place to experience riding the rails.
Train trips in the Tar Heel state start with the views and continue to impress. There’s extensive history, impeccable scenic beauty, and an exciting sense of exploration that comes with any railroad you find.
You’ve got adventure in store, between a historic railroad, an immersive museum, and numerous special events for the entire family. Take a peek at the map below to see which rail line you’re closest to, and then read on to learn more about the most scenic train rides in North Carolina.
- Best Train Rides in North Carolina
- 1. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
- 2. Craggy Mountain Line
- 3. North Carolina Transportation Museum
- 4. Tweetsie Railroad
- 5. New Hope Valley Railway
- 6. NC Department of Transportation – Rail Division
- 7. WNC Wagon Train Inc.
- Tips for a Fantastic Train Journey in North Carolina
- History of the North Carolina Rail System
Best Train Rides in North Carolina
1. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Located in the heart of Bryson City, you’ll be “all aboard!” at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Kick back to enjoy a two-hour train ride along the Nantahala River and view beautiful Fontana Lake through your window.
These train rides carry you around Nantahala National Forest and over the gorge with amazing scenic views. You can witness steam-powered and diesel-engine locomotives at work. You’ll have a special menu in first class, a premium open-air gondola, or the Nantahala Gorge Excursion.
An assortment of activities are available to you, too, including but not limited to Bryson City’s Nantahala River Guided Whitewater Rafting Trip, the Zip Line Adventure Park Pass with Gear, and the Mountaintop Zip Line Experience.
Around the holidays, book a real Polar Express ride for the whole family. Featuring hot cocoa and a visit from Santa, great memories await at the historic Great Smoky Mountain Railroad at Bryson City depot. Book your tickets online! Earliest rides typically begin around 10:30 a.m. and run until 8:20 p.m.
Also, a fun local tip: Real adventurers should check out the crown class in the Tuckasegee River Excursion, the Carolina Moonshine Experience, and other unique trips offered by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Accessibility: The open-air gondola has a hydraulic lift for wheelchair boarding and deboarding assistance and a handicap-accessible restroom. Golf cart boarding assistance is also available for guests with limited capabilities.
Best time to visit: May-December
Tickets and Prices: $58-$150 depending on your package and trip.
See Related: Things to Do in Fayetteville, North Carolina
2. Craggy Mountain Line
As a non-profit organization, the Craggy Mountain Line gives back whenever someone pays for a ride. Hop aboard and enjoy the seven-mile open-air trip, basking in both striking scenes and knowing that your money has gone directly toward restoring the historic railroad.
Part of what was once the Southern Railroad, the Craggy Mountain Line, is only moving forward. In the future, the team hopes to curate a museum, continually restore old train cars, use boxcars as storage for the community, rehabilitate the rail lines, and more.
If you come during the right season, your entire family can enjoy an Easter egg hunt that’s since become a tradition. We know you don’t want to miss roaming a quaint village for goodies—and the kids don’t, either.
Trains run between 1–6 p.m., with standard rides falling every Thursday and Saturday at 4 p.m. Buy tickets here!
Best time to visit: September-December
Tickets and Prices: $15 a person, kids under three ride free. Specialty trips are $18 per person.
3. North Carolina Transportation Museum
At the North Carolina Transportation Museum, enjoy access to regular train rides that carry you around the 60-acre property and specialty events like Wine & Dine on the Rails, winter holiday train rides, and others.
While visiting, you’ll have access to much more than just trains. A historic site that once held one of the most extensive steam locomotive repair facilities in the Southeast, this museum discusses the history of all kinds of transportation, starting with railroading.
Upon arrival, you’ll be welcomed into the Barber Junction Depot, a once-used train station now serving as the visitor center. Another on-site historic structure is the Bob Julian Roundhouse, which houses various locomotives, passenger trains, and a size-accurate replica Wright Flyer.
Accessibility: Trains offer wheelchair lifts and tie-downs; exhibits are accessible to persons with disabilities. Wheelchair rental is available.
Best time to visit: Year-round!
Tickets and Prices: Museum admission is $4-$6 (children under two free), while admission + train ride is $8-$12. Seated vs. standing diesel locomotive cab rides are $25 and $20, and caboose rides are $10, all plus admission.
4. Tweetsie Railroad
Tweetsie Railroad train station boasts everything from a Wild West theme park to one of the country’s few last surviving steam locomotive engines… and that’s just the beginning. Unlimited trips behind a locomotive come with admission to the theme park and entry to the Deer Park Zoo, rides, and gold panning.
Want to see the famed steam locomotive? Titled the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad Locomotive No. 12, this gem is a must-see for history lovers and train fans alike.
If you’re looking for a longer, more exclusive train ride, you can opt for a seasonal trip: Ghost Train Family-Friendly Halloween Celebration or Tweetsie Christmas. Both have plenty of exciting activities for the whole family!
Get started with buying your admission ticket. Regular trains run every 45 minutes while the park is open, while specialty events typically start around 7:15 p.m. during the holidays.
Accessibility: Closer parking for guests with disabilities, widespread wheelchair accessibility, and rentals available. Service animals are also welcome.
The best time to visit: May-August, although the park is open for limited spans (like Labor Day) from October-December.
Tickets and Prices: Daytime admission and specialty train rides cost $40-$60 for children over two and adults.
See Related: Things to Do in Asheville, North Carolina
5. New Hope Valley Railway
New Hope Valley Railway is a delightful stop in New Hill. Here, you’ll visit the North Carolina Railway Museum (NCRM)! Featuring Triangle’s Train, four miles of piney forest, open-air rides, and snacks, your voyage will last about an hour and a half, but make memories to last a lifetime.
As a non-profit organization, the New Hope Valley Railway dedicates 100% of ticket sales to the NCRM. This means that your payment benefits the museum whenever you take part in a ride.
Some of these rides are seasonal, like Track or Treat Halloween Express and Boo n’ Choo Train Ride in October, Brew n’ Choo Train Ride for veterans in early November, and Santa’s Reindeer Roundup in December. Be sure to book your tickets online ahead of time. In October, the train runs from 2:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m., 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in November, and 9:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. in December.
As a fun bonus tip, here’s something to check out: An hour from New Hope Valley Railway, Selma holds its annual “Railroad Days Festival” every October!
Accessibility: Parking lot, restrooms in the railyard, and a chairlift available.
Best time to visit: October-December
Tickets and Prices: $11-175 dollars depending on your package; children under two ride free.
6. NC Department of Transportation – Rail Division
While this might not be your average small-town historic train, the NC Department of Transportation rail division delivers with NC By Train. The official brand of the state government doesn’t make these trips any less scenic.
Remember the state’s railroad history? Thanks to it, the rail system has become integral to interstate transportation.
With sixteen stations, reasonable coach class (one-way/round trip) tickets, and consistent trains, the NC Department of Transportation takes you all over. Nine of those stations touch on the 172-mile stretch between Charlotte and Raleigh, both notoriously busy and beautiful.
Accessibility: Both the Piedmont and the Carolinian trains are accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (according to NCByTrain.org).
Best time to visit: Year-round!
Tickets and Prices: Tickets are booked through Amtrak, so pricing varies from coach class (around $27 to $150, depending on time and date) to private rooms, which can go for as much as $600.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Asheville, North Carolina
7. WNC Wagon Train Inc.
Not a train in the locomotive sense but rather a wagon, this trip is a fun, unexpected take on the “western North Carolina train rides.” WNC Wagon Train Inc. curates a delightful experience unlike any other rides in the state: Instead of a locomotive, you’re pulled by a horse!
This wagon train is a near-historically accurate journey that carries you through unused roads and quiet countryside in and around the Smoky Mountains. Rides are hosted in the spring, fall, and summer, with access to campsites, streams, and pleasant mountain routes.
Remember to set aside time for this trip—you can anticipate being in the back of a wagon for a few days. Camping is a commitment, but still, it’s an experience to remember!
Visit their website for updated information on tickets and times.
Best time to visit: May-September
Tickets and Prices: $50 flat rate for a family, $25 for individual.
Tips for a Fantastic Train Journey in North Carolina
You know all about the state’s many historic trains and other stops along your journey, like the North Carolina Railway Museum. What else must you know to be sure you have a safe, relaxing ride?
- Visit in the fall, when the railways are most stunning.
- Closed-toed shoes are recommended for most trains.
- Bring sunblock!
- Rain checks may not be given, depending on the company.
If you want more activities, locals suggest visiting is the Wilmington Railroad Museum in Wilmington. Enjoy a self-guided tour, a whole museum including a 100-year-old steam engine, and a gift shop, all for a grand total of $6-$10 per ticket (depending on the ages in your group).
No matter what, though, you’ll have a great time. This state has beautiful scenery, warm hospitality, and a rich history. Enjoy your visit!
History of the North Carolina Rail System
The North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) has an incredibly complex history. This past has helped contribute to significant growth and forever changed how people move around the state.
The railroad would be designed to connect the coast in the East to the plateau further West. Further development would continue until 1856, when the first train ran 223 miles from Charlotte to Goldsboro.
This was only the beginning of its impact on North Carolina’s economy. From 1856, the NCRR began carting passengers and freight across the state. Consequently, it’s credited with the growth of multiple towns that developed at stops along the line!
|1848||NC legislature authorizes construction of the railroad.|
|1854||NC legislature approves funding that grants 75% ownership of the railroad to the state.|
|1856||First train runs the full length of 223 miles. Towns also begin sprouting along the railway.|
|1865||Civil War ends, resulting in heavy damages to the NCRR. Remained under government management with temporary repairs.|
|1871||Lease years begin, continuing in part until 1998. This is when the state of NC purchased the remaining 25% private shares of NCRR stock.|
|1934||Diesel-electric propulsion comes to passenger trains.|
|1998||State of NC buys remaining NCRR private stock.|
|2001 – On||Assorted rail and bridge upgrades to further benefit the existing railroad, new track sections, and more adjustments.|
Data from NCRR.com.
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A bona fide expert in budget travel, Lana has been to 25 countries across four continents (although she hopes to round that up to seven soon!), as well as 29 U.S. states. She has a penchant for country hopping and proudly presents tips and tricks to help our readers do the same. Lana is currently based near Philadelphia, but spends a significant amount of time in Italy with family.
She’s fluent in three languages – English, Italian, and American Sign Language – and, through her studies, has been inducted into the Phi Beta Delta Honor Society for International Scholars and the Gamma Kappa Alpha Italian Language Society.