One of the best ways to experience Tennessee’s natural beauty is on a train ride. The state’s winding rails grant unique vantages for travelers – hills and valleys, cityscapes and farmlands. Plus, there’s the sense of traveling in time, back when trains connected people and carried them throughout the state of Tennessee.
Ready to embark on your own journey through time and place? Climb aboard and read about all of the scenic train rides in TN.
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TENNESSEE VALLEY RAILROAD MUSEUM
Chattanooga and trains go hand-in-hand. The city was a railroad hub in the 19th century, making trains a central part of its history.
Today, the Tennessee Valley Railroad aims to preserve the culture and intrigue of train travel by offering passenger rides along its scenic routes. Vintage cars and locomotives move along the former Southern Railway tracks, inspiring guests of all ages to appreciate this classic form of transportation.
The museum operates from two depots: The Chattanooga Grand Junction Station and the Delano Station near Etowah. They’re over an hour apart, so confirm that you’re booking at the right station when you reserve a ride with the TVRM.
The museum’s most frequent ride is the historic Missionary Ridge Local Ride. This excursion is about an hour long and takes riders over four bridges, through a tunnel, along a turntable, and seemingly back in time.
It has a cinematic feel – arriving at the station, the train rumbling into place, boarding at the behest of a focused conductor.
My favorite thing about the Missionary Ridge local ride is that it’s easy to do and kid-friendly. Available throughout most of the week with several departure times each day, you won’t have any trouble fitting this excursion into your Chattanooga vacation.
The Chattanooga Station also offers specialty rides, like a tea room, a dining tour, a Day Out with Thomas the Tank Engine, an eerie Halloween excursion, and Christmas Lights tours.
Want to learn about trains without hopping aboard an excursion? The onsite exhibit building sells all-day admission tickets for visitors. Access to the exhibits is included in train ride tickets.
For those wanting a more immersive train ride, book your seat on the Hiwassee Loop, a 50-mile trip that takes you through the wilderness, crossing over other tracks and winding up the mountain. Its views of the Hiwassee River Gorge are exceptional in the fall, but it’s still a great ride any time of year.
The dome car offers the best views thanks to its rounded glass ceiling. In my opinion, if you’re already splurging on this incredible trip, swing for the dome car.
The Hiwassee Loop train ride departs from the Delano Station, near Etowah. This trip lasts about five hours, so you’ll want to dedicate your day to the adventure.
The Delano Station also offers even longer excursions, including the 8-hour Copperhill Special and special Holiday trips.
Though the Delano station is more simplistic than its Chattanooga counterpart, it is near the Etowah L & N Depot & Railroad Museum, a Victorian train station and active freight train yard with great exhibits about the area’s train history.
Read More: YOUR CHATTANOOGA VACATION
TENNESSEE CENTRAL RAILWAY MUSEUM
Those wanting a unique way to travel around Middle Tennessee should head to the Tennessee Central Railway Museum, which offers excursions steeped with nostalgia and charm.
See Middle Tennessee adorned with reds and oranges during its Fall foliage trip. Or go wild on their Mardi Gras Excursion. They also offer a special Valentine’s Day tour with live music, Ole Smoky Moonshine, and lunch.
They also offer Murder Mystery train rides and train robbery excursions. My family went on the train robbery excursion several years ago and wasn’t too impressed. The ride itself seemed to go on too long, while the robbery performance was forgettable at best.
But we’ll be giving the Tennessee Central Railway Museum another go next spring when it’s yard sale season. Locals typically fill the cars during the museum’s Watertown Yard Sale trip. Bargain hunters can gather together, enjoy the great weather, and rummage through the annual mile-long yard sale.
No matter which trip you choose, you’re sure to ride in style. Each stainless steel passenger car has its own personality – classic dinner cars, dome cars, and slumber coaches, all of them inviting a unique experience.
The scenery to and from Watertown isn’t exceptionally breathtaking, and the trip can be a bit long for some passengers. But if you’re looking for a unique way to spend a day, book a trip and see where the journey takes you.
Tennessee Central Railway Museum’s primary mission is to provide rolling excursions through Middle Tennessee. However, they also have exhibits of locomotives, equipment, model trains, and other artifacts on display onsite. The Tennessee Central Railway Museum exhibits don’t have regular hours, but your best bet is midday on a Saturday.
LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN INCLINE RAILWAY
When I lived in Chattanooga, the Incline Railway seemed like a pretty kitschy activity. After all, you can drive up Lookout Mountain – why should you pay to take a train?
Now that I’ve moved away and visit with my family, I’ve found that it’s one of the most “worth-it” attractions in the city.
The unique excursion is a great value: a round-trip ride up and down Lookout Mountain with time to explore nearby scenery and shops.
And while the incline railway car technically isn’t a train, it will still captivate anyone interested in rail travel and its rich history.
Chattanooga has been a travel destination for a long time, and Lookout Mountain was home to several hotels that drew visitors from Tennessee and Georgia. The incline railroads gave these visitors a way to easily access these hotels and the fantastic vistas found on the mountaintop.
While today there are other ways to reach the peak of Lookout Mountain, the Incline Railway is a must-do activity. For over 100 years, the cable car has shuttled sight-seers to the top of the mountain, and today’s experience harkens to that vintage spirit.
Embarking on the incline railway is fun, but it’s not a thrill ride. The seats are positioned to keep everyone comfortable at a 72.7% grade (it’s one of the steepest passenger railways in the world). Plus, there is a glass ceiling for incredible views.
The Incline Railway is ADA-accessible and kid-friendly. It takes about 10 minutes to travel each way, and then you’ll spend some time exploring the mountaintop town. The adventure takes about an hour total, making it the perfect activity to do while on a Chattanooga family vacation.
Dollywood has undergone many changes through the years, but its train ride has endured as an icon of the park. Operating at the site under different names long before Dolly Parton took the reins, The Dollywood Express is an authentic, steam-powered locomotive.
Find your seat and travel through the park and into the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The excursion is just under a half hour and is included in each admission ticket. We’ve been known to drop Grandma and the baby off at the train and let them enjoy a relaxing time riding through nature while we chase thrill rides.
But the Dollywood Express is an excellent chance for anyone to slow down. The open-air passenger cars are classic theme park fare, but the World War II engines are truly remarkable. Plus, they lend such a strong sense of place to the park.
After all, there was a time when trains were the primary means of travel in and out of the mountains. And since the rails extend into the woods and wilderness, you can really feel immersed in the experience.
Considering the price tag that comes with many train rides in Tennessee, the Dollywood Express brings a great value to your Park Ticket. Ride it once, or hop on again and again to unwind, go back in time, and feel the power of the coal-fueled locomotives.
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TENNESSEE WINE TRAIN
Let’s get classy and find our seats in the dining car. Enjoy a 3-course meal with sommelier-selected wines, all while traveling along a scenic Chattanooga railroad. The Tennessee Wine Train is a monthly excursion that’s perfect for date night, an outing with friends, or an all-adult family dinner.
Wine and dinner are served in a 1924 dining car. Everything from your arrival to your service to your scenery feels distinctly nostalgic, presented with care and respect for the past.
The Wine Train is a partnership between Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and Golden Slope, a Chattanooga company focused on wine tastings, education, and collecting. You’ll depart from the Chattanooga Grand Junction Station and then sip, dine, and sightsee through town. The excursion lasts about two hours.
The Tennessee Wine Train is the best Tennessee train ride for couples.
THREE RIVERS RAMBLER
Knoxville’s Three Rivers Rambler has been conducting memorable excursions for over 20 years. And though they operate less frequently these days, that only makes the experience more special.
Their 90-minute trip takes passengers through Knoxville’s campuses, city streets, and farmlands, offering a rare glimpse of what life was like when trains brought people in and out of the city daily.
The steam engine is powerful – a sight to behold as it chugs through town. And the glistening depot is a welcoming site. Most passengers flock to the open-air train car – it’s a thrill to ride in any weather.
The Three Rivers Rambler operates seasonally, drawing merrymakers for a Holiday excursion, complete with gingerbread, hot chocolate, and a visit from Santa. Some years they also offer a Halloween ride, and you can also book private tours for field trips and special events.
I really like the length of this train ride: enough to feel like you’re getting a full experience but not so long that it seems to drag on. It’s open seating with the option to purchase snacks and drinks on board.
And though the interior of the train cars will catch your eye with their attention to detail and vintage aesthetic, you’ll want to keep a good look out the window to see how the scenery changes from mountainside college town to old-world farmland.
Three Rivers Rambler is named for the multiple waterways along the excursion: the French Broad, Holston, and Tennessee Rivers. Once you reach the fork in the riverways, you’re at the end of the line — time to return to the depot with another memorable Tennessee Train Ride in the books.
STEELE CREEK EXPRESS
I can’t talk about Tennessee train rides without mentioning Tennessee’s greatest small adventure: the Steele Creek Express. Located in Bristol’s Steele Creek Park and Nature Center, this train takes visitors of all ages through the quaint scenery of the green space.
This is a small train – a 24-gauge replica of a real steam engine. And it’s an old train – it’s been chugging through the park since 1964. A high school shop class built the depot, and an 80-foot-long tunnel houses it when not in use.
It’s $1 to ride the Steele Creek Express, and it’s open through most of Spring, Summer, and early Fall. Though the little ride doesn’t warrant a trip to Bristol, it’s a fun adventure for any train enthusiast who happens to be in town.
WATAUGA VALLEY RAILROAD HISTORICAL SOCIETY AND MUSEUM COACH YARD
The Watauga Valley holds some of Tennessee’s best scenery, and the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society brings passengers closer to nature and history with occasional excursions.
They typically host six trips a year, allowing guests to see spring blossoms or fall foliage. And though they’ll depart from the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Bryson City, N.C., depot, you can board their motorcoach from Johnson City to access it. So I’ll grant this scenic train ride a place on Tennessee’s top train rides list.
The Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society sponsors a Spring Blossom Train Excursion Through The Great Smoky Mountains on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad each year. It’s on my bucket list, especially since it’s on an open-air train car.
The Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society also manages a small yet impressive museum in Jonesboro, Tennessee. The renovated depot features rotating exhibits and offers free admission.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO TENNESSEE
- YOUR TENNESSEE VACATION
- CHATTANOOGA: 22 Amazing Things To Do In Chattanooga, Tennessee
- MEMPHIS: 34 Amazing Things To Do In Memphis You’ll Love
- GATLINBURG: 31+ Essential Things To Do In Gatlinburg TN For Family Fun
- ZOOS + AQUARIUMS: 13+ Awesome Zoos And Aquariums In TN Families Will Love
WHERE TO STAY IN TENNESEE
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