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Destination: Pennsylvania

Best Routes to See the Leaves

September 07, 1997|KARL ZIMMERMANN

When Americans go in search of fall colors, they pile into cars and head for the hills, lured by the dazzling red, yellow and orange of sumac, oak, birch, sycamore, maple and, in the West, aspen.

But in the most popular leaf-peeping spots, particularly New England, they often encounter snarled traffic and sold-out lodgings. There is an alternative to this lemming-like highway madness, however: Take the train.

Amtrak offers truly car-less fall foliage viewing, while many of the short-haul tourist railroads around the country showcase the fiery colors as well, though you'll need an automobile to get to the trains.

Below, a sampling of the best routes:

Amtrak trains

* The Adirondack: "The most interesting, picturesque and scenic one-day trip in America" is how the Delaware & Hudson Railroad touted its New York City to Montreal route in a 1950s brochure. Today, Amtrak sends its Adirondack over this line, and D&H's hyperbolic claim holds up pretty well--especially in early to mid-October, when the foliage along the Hudson River and Lake Champlain is generally at its peak. (Throughout the Northeast, October is the prime month for color, with peak brilliance moving south as the month progresses.) Just over a year ago, Amtrak refurbished some of its veteran "Heritage Fleet" coaches for this run; with their big windows, these spruced-up cars are a boon.

* The Vermonter: The St. Albans, Vt., to Washington, D.C., Vermonter is another good bet, but travel southbound since the northbound run encounters the best scenery after dark. Like most day trains in the East, the Vermonter uses the ubiquitous Amfleet coaches with regrettably slim windows--hardly the ideal frame for nature's colorful portraits. With this caveat in mind, however, consider any of Amtrak's Northeast Direct trains on the New Haven-Boston route or, even better, the Empire Service trains up the Hudson from New York City to Albany. Some of these trains continue west from Albany to Buffalo (and in one case, the Maple Leaf, to Toronto), running along the Mohawk River.

* East Coast overnighters: A number of Eastern overnight trains provide excellent leaf-peeping, and their sleeping cars eliminate the need to worry about finding scarce fall lodging. One fine choice is the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited (eastbound only; westbound the good scenery is after dark), which covers the Mohawk and Hudson routes. (The Boston section of this train is good as well, adding the Berkshire Mountains into the mix.) Another is the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, which crosses the Allegheny Mountains, then follows the Potomac River.

An alternate Chicago-Washington, D.C., run, the triweekly Cardinal, offers fine color through the spectacular New River Gorge in West Virginia. Both the Capitol and the Cardinal are double-deck Superliner-equipped trains, so they carry tall-windowed "Sightseer Lounges." (Eastbound is the direction of choice for these trains as well.)

Another Superliner train is the San Francisco-Chicago California Zephyr. The golden aspens (which typically peak in mid-September) on its daylight Salt Lake-Denver traverse make this the best of the Western trains for color, though the Seattle/Portland-Chicago Empire Builder can be good in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Amtrak (telephone [800] USA-RAIL, or see your travel agent) has specially priced Explore America fares available for the fall (book by Nov. 15 and travel by Dec. 18) that can reduce the cost of longer fall foliage rambles. These fares slice the country into four regions: East, Central, West and Florida. Thirty days worth of travel within any one of the regions costs $168, with up to three stopovers; within any two regions, the fare is $218; throughout the country, $278. These fares, good for round-trip travel in coaches, can be upgraded for sleepers.

Excursion Trains

While Amtrak is basically the only game in town for long-haul trains, dozens of excursion railroads across the country run through areas where fiery foliage becomes an extra incentive to take a train ride. (The "Steam Passenger Service Directory," which lists all tourist railroads, is available from Kalmbach Books; tel. [800] 533-6644; $14.95 plus shipping.)

* Colorado: For seeing the aspens, an alternative to the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (but do both if you have time) is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge, offering all-day, 90-mile round trips that follow the Animas River into southwestern Colorado's San JuanMountains. Trains are steam-powered, the route is spectacular and there are multiple departures daily.

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