Catch the Train to Leaf-Peeping Paradise

These fall foliage destinations can be reached sans airplanes or automobiles

By Cassandra Brooklyn

September 21, 2021


Amtrak's Capitol Limited route | Photo courtesy of Amtrak

Train travel is not only more climate-friendly than air or automobile travel, but it’s also more scenic and more bike-friendly. Amtrak has made it easier to bring your bicycle aboard, meaning fuel-filled transportation isn’t required to reach some of the most dazzling leaf-peeping destinations in the country. Given the car-rental shortage and the accompanying rental-car price hikes, avoiding automobiles altogether is generally more affordable as well as being better for the environment. Here are some fall foliage destinations that can be easily reached by train—and that also don’t require a car when you arrive.

Philadelphia to Pittsburgh

Hop aboard Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian line, which runs from New York City to Pittsburgh, for spectacular fall foliage on both sides of the train (the best views are between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh). The route journeys through sections of the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage (GAP trail), a non-motorized path that begins in Pittsburgh and runs all the way to Washington, DC. You can also reach Pittsburgh via Amtrak’s Capitol Limited line, which runs from Chicago to Washington, DC, and also features impressive fall foliage.

Once you reach The Burgh, a.k.a. Steel City and also Iron City, you can easily explore without a car since most main attractions are in or near the city center. Pittsburgh is also blanketed with biking and hiking trails, some of which make their way along gorgeous riverfront parks that are bursting with colorful trees. These tree-studded bike routes can also take you farther out of town and connect right to the GAP trail. For a unique perspective, ride the Duquesne Incline (kind of like a gondola) to the top of town and gaze down on the changing colors. 

Pittsburgh trails during fall | Photo by Cassandra Brooklyn

Milwaukee to Minneapolis

Amtrak's Empire Builder route runs from Chicago to Seattle, but some of its best leaf-peeping can be found between Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Both cities can be explored without a car (and you’ll find stunning fall foliage along Milwaukee’s walkable and bikeable lakefront pedestrian paths), but the real highlight along the route is Wisconsin Dells. Though the town is mostly known for Noah's Ark, America's largest outdoor waterpark, Wisconsin Dells lights up with color each fall and offers loads of opportunities for leaf-peeping. 

Amtrak drops you right downtown, where you can walk to pretty much everything. In addition to great hiking and biking opportunities (or even just some casual strolling along the Scenic River Walk), there's also leaf-peeping opportunities from out on the water. Upper Dells river boat tours provide a unique vantage of the foliage and the region’s iconic sandstone formations and also include history about the region's geology and Native American past. For a completely fuel-free trip, rent a kayak or canoe and grab a paddle!

Santa Fe to Flagstaff

The Southwest region may be best known for deserts and canyons, but the grandeur of the American West also includes some surprising leaf-peeping options. Catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, and get off in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cool mornings and warm sunshine are accompanied by the changing colors of the cottonwood and willow trees that cut through the city center and line the Rio Grande. Known to locals as the “magical season,” fall in Albuquerque not only offers travelers peak fall foliage, but it’s also when the city hosts the largest hot air balloon festival in the world.

Albuquerque’s Amtrak station is located in the eastern part of downtown, which is about a 30-minute walk or 10-minute bike ride to the city's riverside parks. As the city has an extensive network of bike lanes, consider bringing your wheels on board (or renting some when you get there) to explore the fall foliage along the river. If you plan to cycle in Albuquerque, be sure to check out the 16-mile Paseo del Bosque Trail.

The Rio Grande in Albuquerque | Photo courtesy of Marble Street Studio

San Francisco to Napa Valley

For leaf-peepers who prefer to enjoy the view while sipping a smooth glass of wine, consider catching the train to California’s Napa Valley. Though Amtrak doesn't run quite all the way to Napa, you can catch their San Joaquins line from Sacramento, San Francisco, or Bakersfield, and then hop on Amtrak’s Thruway bus connection. Catch the #7 Thruway bus in Martinez (which has several departures each day) and you’re just 45 minutes from Napa. The bus drops you off right downtown, where you’ll be walking distance from several hotels, wineries, and hiking and biking trails.

In Wine Country, autumn color isn’t limited to just the trees—summer’s leafy green grape leaves transform into crisp coppers and ruby reds that underscore any grapes that might still be left on the vine. For even more leaf-peeping by train, hop aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, which is a fun attraction any time of year but especially stunning in the fall. 

New York City to Poughkeepsie 

While Amtrak may be the largest and best-known form of rail transit in the country, it’s not the only rail-based way to get around. Metro–North Railroad connects New York City with Connecticut and some not quite “upstate” parts of New York that Big Apple dwellers insist on referring to as “upstate.” The town of Poughkeepsie is easily reachable from the five boroughs, and getting there means taking a gorgeous ride along the Hudson River, which is flanked on both sides by colorful trees. Once you arrive in Poughkeepsie, the Amtrak station is right in the city center—so you can stroll to your pick of hotels, restaurants, parks, and attractions. Since Poughkeepsie is also on the river, you’ll have an incredible view of the trees right from town, and there's great access to pedestrian and cyclist waterfront trails, which are also great for leaf-peeping. 

Poughkeepsie-bound trains leave Penn Station, in the heart of Manhattan, several times per hour, and the ride is only about an hour and 20 minutes. Since Penn Station is literally across the street from Amtrak’s Moynihan Trail Hall, you could easily catch the Amtrak to New York from other destinations and then hop on Metro–North for the final stretch.