The big Victorian rail station is a stand-out in the center of North Conway, in northern New Hampshire, and the starting point for the Conway Scenic Railroad.
Scenic it certainly is: The route travels through the heart of the White Mountains, alongside a river whose banks are arched with brilliant maples and birches.
In Your Bucket Because…
- This train ride combines mountain scenery, fall foliage and railroad history all in one experience.
- The Mount Washington Valley offers plenty of other fall activities, from hiking and climbing to non-stop shopping.
- Good for drivers, who can enjoy the scenery full time, without having to watch the road.
The Saco River meanders along a wide, flat valley floor, framed by the steep Cathedral and White Horse ledges to the west and Cranmore Mountain to the east. To the north spreads the Presidential Range, with Mount Washington rising above the rest. The day we rode this line, its summit was already capped with snow.
Three Scenic White Mountain Train Rides
For our fall foliage tour we chose the longest of the Conway Scenic Railroad’s three routes. The shortest is the 55-minute ride south to Conway and back, past valley farms and across three rivers, with wide-open views of the mountains for the entire route. As an added treat for rail buffs, from mid-September through mid-October, steam locomotive #7470 is scheduled to replace the electric diesel engines on this run.
About twice as long is the trip north to Bartlett, also with three river crossings and wide valley views, but traveling into the mountains as they begin to close in at Crawford Notch. The scenery is more varied, with more woodland segments. Both trips include the “run-around” as the engine moves to the other end of the train for the return trip.
Fall Foliage in Crawford Notch
But we chose Conway Scenic Railroad’s premier run, the trip through Crawford Notch and almost to the foot of Mount Washington. It is, we discovered, two trips in one, since the first part of our route was the segment between North Conway and Bartlett. The wide valley views of the ledges and the sweeping scapes of the Presidential Range as we traveled north were just the appetizer for Crawford Notch, where the train climbs under sheer cliffs and bluffs, and crosses plunging ravines and cascading brooks.
We were glad we’d chosen the Premium seating option to get one of the 24 seats in the dome of the Dorthea Mae, a car, built in 1955 for use on the Great Northern Railroad’s flagship, the Empire Builder, out of Chicago. From its elevated dome we had a 360-degree view and could look straight up to see the ledges overhead, too.
Crossing the Frankenstein Trestle
This rail line was built in the 1870s as part of Maine Central Railroad’s Mountain Division line, and for much of its way it clings to a narrow shelf that was blasted and carved into the almost vertical ledge-faced mountainside. The highlight for me was the heart-stopping ride over the Frankenstein Trestle, which I’d seen many times from the road that winds far below in the floor of the notch. From the windows it appeared that there was absolutely nothing below us to support the train as it crossed the ravine.
As the train climbed farther north, a changing series of views opened up, looking ahead to the gateway of the notch and south along the steep slopes of the narrow defile. Crawford is New Hampshire’s definitive notch, and there is no better vantage point for its craggy, rugged landscape than the train tracks that cling to its steep west side.
Saco Lake and Beecher’s Cascades
Clearing the top of the notch, the train slowed and stopped at the restored Crawford Notch Station, across the road from small Saco Lake. Having seen the size of the Saco River by the time it flows into the Atlantic in southern Maine, it’s hard for me to believe its headwaters are this benign little pond that we could stroll around in 20 minutes.
We made sure that the train would be here for a full hour, then crossed the tracks and headed up the Avalon Trail to Beecher’s Cascades, a pretty little waterfall less than half a mile from the station.
The trip back down through the notch was just as scenic, and the light had changed so that the reds and golds of the foliage were deeper and richer than when we headed north. On our way south we passed just a few yards behind the Notchland Inn, where we were staying for the weekend, and I thought of the children who used to live in the stone house that’s now the inn. They rode to school each day on the train, which slowed down enough so they could jump aboard the southbound train in the morning and jump off the afternoon northbound.
Even though the Conway Scenic Railroad was not traveling very fast, I decided I’d rather ride it back to North Conway instead of jumping off.
- During fall foliage season, be sure to reserve in advance to ride the Conway Scenic Railroad: www.conwayscenic.com, 800-232-5251 or 603-356-5251.
- To learn when the color is likely to peak in the White Mountains, consult http://foliage.visitnh.gov for a map of the state keyed to a calendar with the latest foliage forecast.
- The Mount Washington Valley is filled with inns and B&Bs, but be sure to reserve a room early, especially for weekends. The Notchland Inn is a few miles north of North Conway, at the beginning of scenic Crawford Notch, and has an outstanding restaurant (www.notchland.com), or contact the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce (www.mtwashingtonvalley.org) for lodging information.
- For more information on the entire White Mountain region, visit the White Mountains Attractions website www.visitwhitemountains.com, or call 800-346-3687.