10 Great Train Rides in North Carolina

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If you want to explore the state the way travelers did before the advent of automobiles and airplanes, nothing beats taking one of the many train rides in North Carolina.

The U.S. railroad system dates back to the 1820s, with its “Golden Age” in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Many of the great fortunes in modern America were linked to trains, including that of the Vanderbilts (who owned the Biltmore Estate in Asheville).

It was train lines that tied the United States together, from New York to Los Angeles, and the business tycoons of transportation were happy to make the most of it.

After cars took over domestic travel, the tales of Jack Kerouac, songs of Johnny Cash, and depictions in Western films kept the railroads alive, even through near-collapses for most major railways during the 1970s.

Nowadays trains are coming back ‘round the bend, and North Carolina railways and North Carolina train rides rank high among our favorites.

Read on for our in-depth guide to locomotive history in the state of North Carolina, as well as the NC railway museums and train rides in the NC mountains that bring that history to life.

READ MORE: 7 Covered Bridges in North Carolina You Can Visit in 1 Day

Train Rides in North Carolina Guide

  1. The Carolina Moonshine Experience (Great Smoky Mountain Railroad)
  2. Craggy Mountain Line 
  3. Lynx Blue Line
  4. Nantahala Gorge Excursion (GSMR)
  5. New Hope Valley Railway
  6. North Carolina Transportation Museum
  7. The Polar Express (GSMR)
  8. The Smoky Mountain Beer Run (GSMR)
  9. Tuckasegee River Excursion (GSMR)
  10. Tweetsie Railroad
Historic Train at Cradle of Forestry courtesy Recreationdotgov
Historic Train at the Cradle of Forestry, photo courtesy Recreation.gov

North Carolina Railroad History

The first big push for a railroad in NC dates back to the 1830s, when there was a legislative shift to represent the growing population in Western North Carolina.

There was great enthusiasm for passenger trains at the time, but the difficulty of moving through the rugged terrain of the Blue Ridge Mountains was a huge motivator.

Some of the first trains in North Carolina were the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad from Goldsboro to Moorehead City, and the Western North Carolina Railroad.

In 1849 the North Carolina Railroad was chartered, and by 1850 freight trains were proving to be a massive boon for the local economy.

NC trains were instrumental in moving cargo before the Civil War, moving passengers during the war, and reviving the southern economy in the 1880s.

By the 1920s, automobiles had taken over as the most convenient mode of passenger transportation. Though the rails still played a big role in freight transport, passenger lines began to decline as a means of commuting.

At its peak, North Carolina railways combined for over 5,500 miles of track, with around 30 short lines and three major companies criss-crossing the state.

Today, many of the old rail lines are being revitalized for urban transportation and unique train excursions through the North Carolina Mountains.

READ MORE: 20 Best Things to Do in Bryson City NC & Swain County

NC Train Rides - Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience
Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience via gsmr.com

1. Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC • (800) 872-4681 Official Website

Also known as the “Shine and Dine” ride, the Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience is part of a fleet of cool experiences the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers in Bryson City.

This excursion is aboard an adults-only First Class car, with a sampling of triple-distilled, locally crafted moonshine served during one of our favorite  fun train rides in NC.

The ride is offered as part of the Nantahala Gorge Excursion (details below), but the Moonshine Experience focuses on the proud Appalachian history of mountain spirits.

Passengers can sample several flavors of moonshine, as well as special cocktails created with them. Cajun-seasoned pulled pork barbecue is served for dinner.

The Moonshine Experience train rides start in late May and go daily until October.

READ MORE: The 10 Best North Carolina Distilleries to Visit

Craggy Mountain Line Trolley in Asheville NC
Photo courtesy of Craggy Mountain Line

2. Craggy Mountain Line

111 North Woodfin Ave, Asheville NC • (828) 808-4877 Official Website

Based in Asheville, the Craggy Mountain Line is mainly available for chartered rides.

But they also host special public events such as Dinosaur Day, fall hayrides, and Jingle Bell Trolley Christmas train rides as well.

This non-profit organization was formed in 2001 to preserve a 3.45-mile stretch of historic rail line known as the Asheville to Craggy Branch. It was formerly part of the Southern Railroad.

CML has restored (and continues to restore) historic railroad equipment to display on the tracks, and the line is regularly maintained to be operable.

Visitors can take a ticketed train ride on Saturdays at 4 PM, with tickets costing $15 per person. Small groups of up to 25 people can also rent the tracks for two hours.

READ MORE: Fall in North Carolina: 25 Great Places to See Fall Colors in NC

train ride charlotte nc - Lynx Blue Line
Lynx Blue Line, photo via charlottenc.gov

3. Lynx Blue Line

Charlotte Area Transit Systems

9025 Cameron Blvd, Charlotte NC • (866) 779-2287 Official Website

Opened in 2007, the Lynx Blue Line is a light rail line, the first in the Charlotte Area Transit System. It was also the first major rapid rail service in North Carolina.

The Blue Line has 26 stations and covers 19.3 miles, connecting the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (the northern terminus) to Pineville City limits at I-485 (the southern terminus).

Blue Line ridership has far exceeded early expectations, with routes passing through major Charlotte landmarks like NoDa, Uptown, and South End. 

This line opens between 5 and 6 AM in most stations, and shuts down after midnight.

Tickets for the Lynx Blue Line are $2.20 one-way for adults, and half-price for senior citizens, ADA-disabled, and K-12 passengers.

READ MORE: Christmas Town USA: 10 Ways to Celebrate in McAdenville NC

Riding the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City NC- Lake Fontana Train Trestle
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad at Lake Fontana Train Trestle, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

4. Nantahala Gorge Excursion

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC • (800) 872-4681 Official Website

One of our favorite Smoky Mountain train rides, the Nantahala Gorge Excursion starts in Bryson City, follows the Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers, crosses over Fontana Lake, and loops into the Nantahala Gorge.

The entire trip takes about 4.5 hours (including a one-hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center), and travels about 44 miles, departing from and returning to Bryson City.

Options for the ride include Adult First Class seats, a premium open-air gondola with dinner service, Coach Plus and Crown seats in climate-controlled cars, as well as Coach class and open-air gondolas.

This route starts running in April, departing just about every day at 10:30 AM, and continues through October.

Ticketed passengers should plan to arrive at the station an hour early.

READ MORE: 20 Best Things to Do in Bryson City NC & Swain County

Scenic train rides in NC - Triangle's Train: New Hope Valley Railway
The New Hope Valley Railway, photo via Facebook

5. New Hope Valley Railway

North Carolina Railway Museum

3900 Bonsai Rd, New Hill NC • (919) 396-5833 Official Website

Operated by the North Carolina Railway Museum, the New Hope Valley Railway is a historic railroad (and volunteer non-profit organization) that locals call “the Triangle’s Train.” 

The New Hope Valley Railway travels over four miles of track, from Bonsal to New Hill and back. The hour-long excursion runs through pine forest and crosses a train trestle.

This train runs several days a month from April through December, often with multiple rides scheduled per day. Tickets for this NC train ride are in the $11 to $17 range.

When it is open, you can also see a number of exhibit railroad cars, a museum gift shop car, and a garden railroad with over 1000 ft of track.

Some of their specialty rides include the craft beer-themed Brew ‘n’ Choo Train Ride, the family-friendly Track or Treat Halloween Train, and Santa’s Reindeer Roundup Christmas Train Ride.

READ MORE: The 10 Best North Carolina Mountain Resorts to Visit

Dinner Train Rides in NC - N.C. Transportation Museum
Wine ‘n’ Dine on the Rails, photo via Facebook

6. North Carolina Transportation Museum

1 Samuel Spencer Dr, Spencer NC • (704) 636-2899 Official Website

The North Carolina Transportation Museum is located 35 miles south of Winston-Salem NC. Its visitor center is an authentic North Carolina C train station, which was built as the Barber Junction Depot circa 1898.

The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday in January and February, and Tuesday to Sunday from March through December.

Train trips at the NC Transportation Museum are available on Saturdays only in January/ February; Friday to Sunday (and select Thursdays) from March through May; and Thursday to Sunday from June to Labor Day. 

Most of their train rides take about 25 minutes and circle the museum‘s 60-acre site, the former home to Southern Railway’s largest steam locomotive repair center.

NCTM also has a Wine & Dine ride (one of the few dinner train rides in NC), as well as Day Out With Thomas and The Polar Express train rides.

Visitors can also take a spin on the Bob Julian Roundhouse, which is the largest remaining railroad roundhouse in the USA today. 

READ MORE: The 15 Best Romantic Getaways in NC (Cabins, Inns & Resorts)

Mary Gabbett with Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Polar Express Train Ticket in Bryson City NC
Polar Express Train Ticket, photo by Bret Love

7. The Polar Express

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC • (800) 872-4681 Official Website

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has the Polar Express, Bryson City’s most magical ode to the yuletide spirit and one of the must-do NC Christmas events.

In short, this is the premier spot for Christmas train rides in North Carolina.

The Polar Express NC goes all-out for the kids by issuing golden tickets, serving hot cocoa and cookies, and singing songs from the Tom Hanks film, with Santa greeting everyone and gifting silver bells along the way.

This Bryson City train ride gets rolling in early November, and has multiple daily trips all the way into the New Year.

It’s a VERY popular holiday activity, so be sure to make Polar Express reservations in advance. You’ll want to do the same if you plan to dine at any of the best Bryson City restaurants.

As with most GSMR train excursions in NC, there are several classes of seats to choose from, with prices ranging from about $40 to $70 for Coach and $70 to $100 for First Class.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Cabin Rentals in Bryson City NC

Beer Train - The Smoky Mountain Beer Run
The Smoky Mountain Beer Run, photo via Facebook

8. The Smoky Mountain Beer Run

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC • (800) 872-4681 Official Website

A once-a-year occurrence, the Smoky Mountains Beer Run happens on St. Patrick’s Day. This Bryson City-to- Dillsboro train ride celebrates North Carolina’s excellent craft beers.

The Dillsboro NC train ride includes two samples from Innovation Brewing, plus a third sample at the brewery in Dillsboro, where passengers can belly up to the bar during a 1-hour layover.

Each party also gets a sampler tray of snacks to enjoy along the ride, such as spinach artichoke dip, breaded cauliflower, stuffed tater tots, and smoked sausages.

It takes about 1.25 hours to get to Dillsboro, with an hour layover there before the return trip to Bryson City. All in all, it’s nearly four hours of entertainment and libations.

Smoky Mountains Beer Run tickets are $109 for the diesel train, and $119 for the steam train.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Riding the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Nantahala Gorge Excursion in Bryson City NC
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

9. Tuckasegee River Excursion

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC • (800) 872-4681 Official Website

One of our favorite scenic train rides in NC, the GSMR’s Tuckasegee River Excursion is 32 miles round-trip from the Bryson City Depot to Dillsboro and back.

This amazing train ride in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina includes a bridge crossing, passes through a tunnel, and passes a movie set from The Fugitive (the Harrison Ford version).

The train trip includes a 1-hour layover in the charming North Carolina mountain town of Dillsboro, which has great shops, cafes, and restaurants.

First Class, Premium Air Gondola, and Family First Class tickets all have a meal included, while Crown Class, Coach Class, and the Open-Air Gondola have lunch available for purchase.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Sylva NC & Dillsboro NC

Tweetsie Railroad
The train at Tweetsie Railroad, photo by Dawson Tozier

10. Tweetsie Railroad

300 Tweetsie Railroad Ln, Blowing Rock NC • (800) 526-5740 Official Website

If you’re looking for a Boone NC train ride to take, the closest option is Tweetsie Railroad, which is on the way to Blowing Rock.

Tweetsie Railroad has two narrow-gauge steam engines. 

One is the last surviving steam locomotive– the No. 12 from the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad. It ran from Boone to Johnson City, Tennessee.

The other is No. 190, the “Yukon Queen”, which came down from Alaska. It was formerly part of Alaska’s White Pass and Yukon Railway.

Another of the great scenic train rides in North Carolina, Tweetsie is all about family fun.

It’s part of a Wild West theme park that also has live music, amusement rides, and the Deer Park Zoo.  –by Jonathon Engels; featured image of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad provided by Bryson City/Swain County Chamber of Commerce.


Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

After visiting North Carolina for the first time, Senior Writer Jonathon Engels and wife Emma spent 2 years exploring Western NC in search of a homestead property. They first lived in Brevard, where Jonathon taught writing at Blue Ridge Community College and extensively explored the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest. For the last several years they have lived just off the BRP near Elkin, Southwest Virginia, and the NC High Country. The couple also volunteers with the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention, the Elkin Valley Trail Association, and Reeves Downtown School of Music.