The Scenic Route

Morristown & Erie Railway Polar Express Ride | Photo Courtesy of Rail Events Productions

Please note: this article has been updated to focus on Polar Express and other winter train trips.

The Polar Express
Excursion Railroads—offering dinner trains, fall foliage events, rail bikes, and yes—The Polar Express and Santa Trains—bring the magic of train travel and the holidays to tourists everywhere.

when the Adirondack Railroad took its inaugural trip north to Tupper Lake in September 2022, “people were just flat out excited,” says Frank Kobliski, the railroad’s general manager and president of the board of directors. The expansion project had been years in the works.

Bill Moll Conductor and Volunteer
Bill Moll, Conductor and Volunteer

Previously, the popular tourist railroad had run from Utica 63 miles north to Big Moose, with a stop in Thendara. But by extending the tracks 45 miles to Tupper Lake—with more than 90,000 new cross ties—the 108-mile route becomes the longest excursion railroad east of the Mississippi River. 

The September VIP excursion was followed by another train in October that was open to the public. “These were the first trains to go to Tupper Lake since 1980,” says Kobliski. “Overall, about 400 people took the roundtrip ride. There was lots of laughing, oohing and aaahing and even applause. It was wonderful.”

Tupper Lake, a small village located in the Adirondack Park west of Lake Placid, caters to outdoor enthusiasts. The Wild Center, the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, has a 54,000-square-foot indoor space, full of live and interactive exhibits, including a popular otter show. It’s also home to the Adirondack Sky Center and Observatory, as well as several restaurants and retro cabins and motels.

Tracks were originally laid to Tupper Lake in the late 1800s so that Adirondack forest products and ice could be shipped south to New York City. Passenger train service started in 1892, bringing tourists to the mountains. But decades later, the increase in cars and a decrease in logging put a halt to both passenger and freight trains by 1972. The rail line was brought back to life for the 1980 Winter Olympics. But after that, according to Kobliski, “The tracks went back to nature.” 

But in 1992, a local group formed and opened up a line from Old Forge to a small town called Minnehaha. “It caught on and each year they’d open up a little more track and run a few more trains,” says Kobliski. “Eventually, the line was opened all the way from Utica to Big Moose.”

Coming out of COVID-19, the Railroad continues to run their most popular excursions. The Dinner Train Rides travel from Utica’s Union Station to the Remsen Station and back—a three-hour roundtrip. Passengers enjoy a hand-crafted, catered meal. The weekend fall foliage trips “always sell out,” says Kobliski. “The Adirondacks have legendary foliage and the best way to see it is from a train.”  

The Easter Bunny Express and the Polar Express are also popular. “Tickets for the Polar Express go on sale in April and many trains sell out in a day or two,” says Kobliski. “We’ll have 600 people on a train; it is flat out magical. We had people flying from Colorado last year to ride our Polar Express.”

Whichever train you are on, a huge part of the appeal is being able to access remote areas of the Adirondack Park. “We’re opening up new vistas for people,” says Kobliski. “The Adirondack Mountains are one of the most beautiful—but most remote—pieces of scenery anywhere in the U.S. These are vistas that cannot be experienced by car, or in many cases, even by foot. The train is the best way to view this raw beauty.” 

The railroad uses vintage cars, including a 1948 dining car donated by Amtrak, and a 1955 Union Pacific Railroad dome car. “We also have an open air car where there are no windows. People can sit and feel the breeze on their face,” Kobliski says. 

The Railroad also runs “rail bike” excursions from the Thendara station. These custom-made, four-wheel vehicles use pedals and disc brakes to move along the tracks. “The rail bikes have been wildly popular,” says Kobliski. “Maybe some people are not interested in taking a three- or four-hour train ride, but they want to get out and pedal with the family.”

Kobliski marvels at how far the railroad has come in the last three decades. “We have so much variety here,” he says. “It’s all about giving people an experience from which they can make memories.”

More Winter Railroad Events

THE ADIRONDACK RAILROAD IN WINTER 2023/2024:

Through December 18, depart from Utica’s Union Station and take a magical two-hour train ride on the Polar Express. You’ll be served hot chocolate and cookies and when you arrive at the North Pole, Santa will board the train. Travelers are urged to come in their pajamas!

Tickets range in price from $39-$68; buy them here.

On select weekends in January—March 2014, book the Cabin Fever Unlimited: a three-hour ride from Utica to the Remsen Depot where you can enjoy a warm fire, hot chocolate, and s’mores before returning to Utica. All passengers will receive an Adirondack Railroad campfire mug, as well as all the items needed to make two s’mores. Adult ticket prices range from $35-$75.  Check out the schedule and purchase tickets here. 

Starting in May 2024, look out for

The Adirondack Dinner Train: Enjoy dinner on a train ride from Utica’s Union Station to Remsen.
The Beer & Wine Train: Enjoy a selection of wine & beer on your 2.5-hour train journey from Union Station to Remsen.
The Fall Foliage Gateway Train: A 5.5-hour scenic journey from Utica to Old Forge. Trains leave on select days in September and October.
The Adirondack Mountaineer:  Take this all-new 8.5-hour train trip that takes you through beautiful forests and lets you spend a full afternoon in the town of Tupper Lake before returning.
The High Peaks Limited: Take a 10-11 hour roundtrip from Utica all the way to Tupper Lake. (There are also shorter versions of this train ride.) Trains leave on Sept. 20 and Oct. 7 & 14.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad

Kingston, NY 
catskillmountainrailroad.com

Since 1982, this heritage railroad has run tourist trains from Kingston, New York, to Hurley Mountain in Highmount. Special train rides include the Easter Bunny Express, Ice Cream Sundays, Twilight Limited, Fall Foliage, and Polar Express.

THIS DECEMBER:
Take a magical trip to the North Pole on the POLAR EXPRESS. Once on board, the Conductor will work their way through the coach and punch your golden ticket as you’re served hot chocolate and a delicious cookie by our dancing chefs! Passengers will read along with the classic children’s book, The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. Once at The North Pole, Santa and his Elves board the train to greet passengers and each guest is given the first gift of Christmas – a silver sleigh bell. During the trip, characters on each car lead passengers in caroling and on board entertainment – just like in the film! Each guest will take home a keepsake sleigh bell in addition to the wonderful memories made on this unforgettable adventure.

Off Peak Adult – $44 | Off Peak Child – $34; Peak Adult – $53 | Peak Child – $43. Book tickets here:

The Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum

Rush, NY 
rgvrrm.org

Over the last 50 years, this group has preserved more than 40 pieces of historic railroad equipment and turned an abandoned depot into a museum. They operate train rides every month from April through December, including: Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Real Steam rides, Rails & Ales; Pumpkin Patch, and Santa trains.

THIS WINTER: ALL SANTA TRAINS ARE SOLD OUT!

In Fall 2024, look for:
Rails & Ales Train Ride. 
Pumpkin Patch Train Rides:
Halloween Pumpkin Patch Train Rides:
 (Every child takes home a free pumpkin!) Oct. 28 at 10:00 am and Oct. 29 at 3:00 pm.

 

Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad

Milford, NY 
lrhs.com

Rides on the 19th-century vintage train cars depart from a restored depot in Milford, NY, just south of Cooperstown. Special trains include the Easter Bunny Express, Dinosaur Express, Train Robbery, Fall Foliage, and Santa Claus Express. The railroad also offers a guest engineer program.

THIS WINTER: The Santa Claus Express: Dec., 2, 3, 9, 10, 16 & 17 at 1:00 pm.
The North Pole Express: Dec. 2, 9, and 16 at 6:00 pm

Medina Railroad Museum

Medina, NY 
medinarailroadmuseum.org

The Museum’s vintage locomotive and train cars from 1947 to 1957 features five passenger cars and two first class cars that ride out on the tracks to Lockport and back several times a year for events, including the Easter Express, A Day Out with Thomas (the Tank Engine!), and autumn adventures.

THIS FALL:
Take a two-hour Autumn Adventure Train Ride through the wooded scenery and along the Erie Canal. The $42 tickets includes a continental breakfast, a Medina Railroad Mug and admission to the Medina Railroad Museum. Trains leave at 10:00 am on the following days: Oct. 7 & 8; Oct. 14 &15; Oct. 19; Oct. 21 & 22.

 

The Champlain Valley Dinner Train

Burlington, VT
rails-vt.com
Leaving from Burlington for a three-hour ride, the Champlain Valley Dinner Train starts at $99 per person, from
July 2 to October 23.

Hudson River Rail Excursions

New York City
hudsonriverrail.com

Favored by celebrities like Walt Disney and Marilyn Monroe, the 20th Century Limited—which ran from New York City to Chicago— was the train to ride in the mid-1900s. Today, you can travel back in time and experience what was called “The Most Famous Train in the World’’ for yourself. Running regularly from September through November, these day-long vintage excursions take visitors on a round-trip journey on Amtrak rail lines, from New York City to Albany. For $149 on weekdays and $179 on weekends, passengers can ride in the Tavern Lounge No. 43, complete with buffet-style food options. For a more exclusive option, starting at $349, the luxury Hickory Creek car offers a four-course meal and oversized windows to take in the surrounding views of the Hudson River Valley.  *All 2023 train rides are sold out, but you can put yourself on a waiting list.