These 7 near-forgotten modes of transportation will whisk you away on a wondrous journey
While many old rail lines in West Virginia have been re-purposed into rail trails, a few of the vintage cars are still steaming down the tracks.
Each train and each rail line are a little different, but they’ll all whisk you through the scenic mountains for a peek at the untouched wilderness, and leave you with a new appreciation for this quaint mode of travel.
1. Navigate hairpin curves in this steam-powered locomotive
Travel back in time on the winding rails of the Cass Scenic Railroad. Hop aboard an old-timey steam-powered locomotive in the small town of Cass, which remains relatively unchanged since its days as a turn-of-the-century logging town. Guests ride in a refurbished Shay logging locomotive, which was designed to carry extremely heavy loads, climb steep grades, swing around hairpin curves and traverse frail, temporary tracks.
On your journey, the train will gain 11 feet in altitude for each 100 feet of track— in railroad terms, that’s insanely steep. The train will stop at Whittaker Station, 4 miles from Cass, where adventurers will be able to leave the train to eat lunch, tour a logging camp and take in a breathtaking ridgetop view before returning back to Cass.
2. A classic children’s book comes to life on this holiday train ride
All aboard! Just make sure you’re sporting your best pajamas.
Imagine the sparkle in your little one’s eyes as they are whisked away on a magical ride to the North Pole. The Polar Express brings the popular children’s-book-turned-movie to life for children— and big kids— of all ages. A professional touring theatre from Elkins, Old Brick Playhouse, entertains riders with a musical and a reading of the “The Polar Express” book as the train bolts through the night toward Santa’s headquarters. Once there, Santa will hop aboard to say hi to all the wide-eyed passengers who truly believe. The magic lasts about 1 hour, and you should make your reservations early.
3.This train will kick your caboose to the curb… in the middle of the woods.
The Durbin Rocket, an early 1900s 55-ton steam locomotive in Durbin, pulls refurbished Wabash Railroad cabooses along the Greenbrier River to Hevener Station. A conductor will pull you, your caboose and up to five companions to a remote site (sans cell phone service) nestled along the Greenbrier River. Once there, he’ll unhook the car and leave you with it.
The caboose will serve as your own private riverside home, complete with refrigerator, range, heat, linens, towels, utensils, a DVD player, full-size shower and restroom. You won’t see or hear from the outside world until the conductor rolls up the next day (or later if you choose) to pull your caboose back into reality.
4. This scenic dinner train will take you to the 1950s
For those lucky enough to remember a time when train travel was common, a ride on the Mountain Explorer Dinner Train is sure to evoke fond memories. The 4-hour train ride departs from Elkins and glides through the Monongahela National Forest to its final destination at the scenic High Falls of the Cheat River. As passengers roar past mountain towns, campgrounds and frolicking wildlife, they are served nostalgic menu items from mid-century cross-country train rides. Guests face one another at traditional tables of 4, just like in the movies. When it’s time for the 2-hour ride back to Elkins, redefine relaxation as you descend through an impenetrable forest with dessert and a glass of wine in hand.
5. Pass through terrain very few have the opportunity to see
Cheat Mountain is known as one of the most rugged, remote regions in Appalachia. An atypical 300 inches of snow have fallen there in a single winter. It’s steep peaks rise above 4,800 feet and support the most expansive spruce forests south of the Adirondacks. Many view this area as impassable— but not the Cheat Mountain Salamander, a 1920s vintage train that powerfully charges through the untouched mountain wilderness.
This 128-mile, 9-hour ride transports guests from Elkins through areas that few have seen, including the short-lived logging town of Spruce, once the highest and coldest incorporated towns east of the Mississippi. Due to the uncompromising terrain, this town was only accessible by train. Most days, the possibility of coming across a bear or bald eagle is higher than seeing a person.
6. Journey into the sacred home of the American Bald Eagle
The Potomac Eagle’s 4-hour narrated train ride is your best bet for spotting a bald eagle, or 2, or 3, or 4. The company’s website boasts that guests spot eagles more than 90% of the time. That’s because the journey snakes through what is known as “The Trough,” a 6-mile-long wooded gorge carved by the South Branch Potomac River. The sacred and narrow mountain valley is also widely known as the eastern home of the American Bald Eagle.
Enjoy your pick of an open air car or comfier seating (and snacks!) on an air-conditioned coach as you are whisked past centuries-old farms and wildflower pastures. Though the trip only runs from Romney on Saturdays, May through September, it is open every day in October to capitalize on the area’s stunning fall foliage.
7. See peak fall foliage with a variety of city & backcountry backdrops
The fall New River Train Excursion offers something for every leaf peeper as it winds from Huntington and St Albans through urban and rural landscapes along the New River. Landmarks and scenic locations en route to Hinton include downtown Charleston, Kanawha Falls, Hawks Nest Dam and bridge, the New River Gorge National Park, Sandstone Falls, and abandoned towns from the area’s rich coal mining era.
Once the train reaches Hinton, passengers are encouraged to disembark and enjoy the Railroad Days Festival for a couple of hours (time varies due to railroad traffic). The Dome Car, a glass dome on the second floor of the train, gives guests unobstructed views of the brilliant red, orange and yellow foliage above. But if you want to catch these views, you have to book quickly. This train only runs 4 days in October each year.
Which rail car will you be boarding?