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Top Train Rides for Fall Foliage in the Southwest

These day trips showcase the stunning beauty of the region​

spinner image The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway in Colorado
Damon Shaw / Alamy Stock Photo

From the Collegiate Peaks in Colorado to the golden chamisa plants in New Mexico, the Southwest shimmers and glows in autumn. Mid-September through October is prime time for fall foliage, and one of the best ways to appreciate the dazzling shades of red, orange and yellow is by train. Many rail routes from 19th-century mining days still twist and turn through mountains and other landscapes seemingly impossible to navigate by car or otherwise. Here, you’ll find a variety of train trips offering the best of the Southwest. 

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spinner image Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway

The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Manitou Springs, Colorado

This train trek to the top of Pikes Peak, at 14,115 feet, travels the highest cog railway in the world as well as the highest railroad in America. The 9-mile trip takes three hours, departing from the new Manitou Springs Depot, at 6,320 feet elevation. As the train slowly rolls up to the summit, you’ll see the historic mining town of Cripple Creek as well as the Denver skyline. You’ll also take in 360-degree views of the Sangre de Cristo and Collegiate mountain ranges painted in vertical lines of golden aspen trees along drainages and swaths of green pines blanketing the slopes. The train stops at the new Pikes Peak Visitor Center, built within sustainable LEED standards, where interpretive exhibits tell the history of the mountain. While you’re there, grab a high-altitude doughnut at the Summit House for the ride back.

Along the way: Look for elk, yellow-bellied marmots and bighorn sheep, which are known to hang out in the area in the fall.

spinner image Verde Canyon Railroad
Kerrick James / Alamy Stock Photo

Tip: Be sure to bring water and drink plenty of it, as it will help you adjust to high altitude.

Cost: Fares start at $58.50 for advance e-tickets; walk-up rates start at $61.

spinner image Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Efrain Padro / Alamy Stock Photo

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, (Southwestern) Colorado

Famous for vintage steam locomotive routes into Colorado high-country, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad delivers iconic Old West charm on its trains with a large dose of scenic alpine beauty. The fall chill adds to the enchanting forested landscape showcasing yellow leafy cottonwood trees next to the meandering Animas River. Several train events and full-day excursions are available this fall: Photography buffs will appreciate the Fall Photo Special train ride, which includes six predetermined photo locations along the colorful autumnal route. For a full-day adventure, book the 45-mile legendary Silverton Steam Train excursion. From the Durango Depot, the train travels three hours each way, with a two-hour stop at the historic mining town of Silverton to check out the sights, including the Old Hundred Gold Mine.

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Along the way: The route offers beautiful views of the 126-mile-long Animas River and the Animas River gorge.

Tip: Mountain weather changes at the drop of a cowboy hat, so dress in layers and bring a jacket, hat and gloves just in case.

Cost: Fares start at $81.

spinner image Heber Valley Railroad
Heber Valley Railroad

Heber Valley Railroad, Park City, Utah

Located at the base of the Wasatch Mountains and just south of Park City, Utah, this historic locomotive railway has been in operation since 1899. The Heber Valley Railroad reflects the golden years of U.S. railways, from the 1920s to the 1950s, with antique cabooses and coal-heated coach cars for rail history aficionados and passengers to enjoy. This year, two historic trains offer fall routes: The Lakeside Limited, dubbed the “over the river and through the woods” route, travels two hours, round trip, along the base of Mount Timpanogos and the Deer Creek Reservoir. The 90-minute round-trip Deer Creek Express chugs through the valley, offering wide-open vistas of the Wasatch Mountains.

Along the way: Heber Valley offers a spectrum of fall color, including maple trees and the ubiquitous quaking aspens along with chokecherry and sagebrush to round out the Southwestern vegetation.

Tip: Ask about the special October Pumpkin Train, which includes a visit to — you guessed it —a pumpkin patch.

Cost: Fares start at $25.

spinner image Verde Canyon Railroad
Kerrick James / Alamy Stock Photo

Verde Canyon Railroad, Clarkdale, Arizona

This four-hour, 40-mile round-trip train ride starts and ends at the Clarkdale Depot and is powered by vintage FP7 locomotives. Not far from Sedona is what locals call Arizona’s other Grand Canyon, the Verde Canyon, set between the Coconino National Forest and Prescott National Forest. The train offers open-air viewing cars and passenger cars with panoramic windows. You’ll feel immersed in nature as the route twists along the Verde River through a protected stretch of high desert country featuring red rock buttes, towering canyon walls and ancient clifftop Indian ruins. In fall, sunlight bathes the canyon walls with a golden sheen, and hues of yellow, orange, red and purple begin to surface among the cottonwood, sycamore, elder, mulberry and oak trees.

Along the way: Look for the dramatic Goodding’s willows, native only to Southwestern river ecosystems, which turn blazing orange and gold as the days grow shorter and the nights cooler.

Tip: Scan the sky for bald eagles — an eagle preservation habitat is nearby.

Cost: Fares start at $109.

spinner image New Mexico Rail Runner Express
ERNIE MONTOYA / New Mexico Rail Runner Express

Rail Runner Express, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This train zips passengers along a 100-mile corridor from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, past multiple pueblos, ending at the city of Belén on a daily basis. Considered a commuter train, the NM Rail Runner Express is a low-cost shuttle that offers an easy, convenient way to see the high desert landscape. In autumn, as the sun dips lower into the sky, an amber glow cloaks the vistas, enhancing the rich browns and red clay colors of the desert and mountains. Cholla cactus and golden yellow chamisa plants dot the desert floor, while yellow cottonwood trees line creeks. You might even get a glimpse of wild horses near an arroyo.

Along the way: The scent of roasting chiles permeates the air throughout the towns of New Mexico, adding an authentic local seasonal element to a vivid train ride.

Tip: Adults age 60 and up ride free on Wednesdays.

Cost: Fares start at $2.50 for a one-way trip.

Gigi Ragland is a Colorado-based travel and food writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Hemispheres, Sierra, AFAR, American Cowgirl and many other publications.

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