5 Scenic Train Rides in America’s Southeast with Kids

Most kids love anything to do with trains. They love playing with train sets, watching Thomas the Tank Engine on television, and looking for trains at railroad crossings. I couldn’t think of a better family activity than a train ride. Thankfully, there are several great options for families who want to ride the rails. Let’s explore five fun and scenic train rides with kids in America’s Southeast.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in Georgia
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in Georgia (Photo credit: Karon Warren)

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Blue Ridge Scenic Railway Train Rides with Kids

Blue Ridge, Georgia

Based in downtown Blue Ridge amid the Chattahoochee National Forest, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway takes guests on a 26-mile roundtrip excursion through the area’s countryside and along the Toccoa River. The four-hour trip includes a stopover in the neighboring border towns of McCaysville, Georgia and Copperhill, Tennessee. During the stop, you can grab lunch or poke around the many shops in town.

Guests can choose to ride in open-air passenger cars or climate-controlled cars. In my opinion, kids will love the open-air cars because they can stand at the windows and feel the wind on their faces. The train fumes can be strong at times, though. If your child has allergies, asthma or other breathing sensitivities, the climate-controlled cars may be a better choice.

The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway runs March through December, with many special events for Easter, July Fourth, fall foliage and Christmas.

Riders on the SAM Shortline will travel through and visit several towns in South Georgia
Riders on the SAM Shortline will travel through and visit several towns in South Georgia (Photo by Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

SAM Shortline Train Rides with Kids

Cordele, Georgia

Down in South Georgia, the SAM Shortline generally travels from Cordele to Plains, home of former President Jimmy Carter. Throughout the year, the climate-controlled 1949 vintage trains feature stops in various Georgia towns. In addition to special holiday trains, the SAM Shortline also hosts the Thomas & Friends Day Out With Thomas rail tour. This event includes a 25-minute ride with a full-size Thomas the Tank Engine, storytelling, live music and more. If your child is a Thomas fan, this event should be on your “not to miss” list.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad ~ Train rides with kids
Choose from a number of regular routes through the Great Smoky Mountains on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (Photo by Bill Russ/VisitNC.com)  

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Train Rides with Kids

Bryson City, North Carolina

As its name states, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad runs through the Smokies in Western North Carolina. It offers a variety of excursions ranging from a few hours to full-day trips. In addition, there are a number of seating options that run from open-air cars to family first class. But what really sets this train excursion company apart are its special event trains. The first is the PEANUTS™ Pumpkin Patch Express, which includes a narration of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown plus many fun activities during a layover at the Great Pumpkin Patch. The second is the Polar Express, which brings this recent classic to life through a narration of the book and a stopover at the North Pole. I can’t imagine two more fun and unique holiday events for families.

Tennessee Valley Railroad Chattanoga ~ Train Rides with Kids
Explore the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park and lower Hiwassee River gorge while riding the Tennessee Valley Railroad (Photo by Steve Freer)

Tennessee Valley Railroad Train Rides with Kids

Chattanooga and Etowah, Tennessee

With two train stations and a large collection of vintage engines and passenger cars, the Tennessee Valley Railroad offers an extensive schedule of rail excursions. Choose a historic trip through Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. Or, opt for a scenic ride through the lower Hiwassee River Gorge. There are even special holiday special train rides. The Tennessee Valley Railroad also is a host site of the Thomas & Friends Day Out With Thomas rail tour.

Big Fork Scenic Railway Kentucky ~ Train Rides with Kids
Enjoy a journey through the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area with the Big South Fork Scenic Railway (Photo courtesy of Kentuckytourism.com)

Big South Fork Scenic Railway Train Rides with Kids

Stearns, Kentucky

Located in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky’s McCreary County, the Big South Fork Scenic Railway runs diesel trains into the gorge of the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area. Its main excursion is the K&T Special, which takes passengers on a 16-mile roundtrip ride with a stop at the Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp interpretive site. Families also can choose from several theme trains including the Redbud Bunny Express, the Blue Heron Ghost Train, and the Trick or Treat Train for Tots.

Which of these fun scenic train rides in the Southeast with kids would work best for your family? Know of any other family train rides in the U.S.? Let us know in the comments below!

Karon Warren has always loved to travel, and she was thrilled when her journalism career took a turn into travel writing. That joy grew when she was able to include her husband and children in her travels. Today, she writes for such outlets as Sunday News in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and FamilyVacationCritic.com. When she’s not on the road, you can find Karon at her home amid the quiet beauty of the North Georgia mountains. 

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  1. Wow what a great idea! I think my kids would love one of these train rides! We want to do more train traveling in Europe and Asia when we go back and this would be a great way to practice! Thanks for putting these together. I’ll check them out when we do our road trip this fall. – Linzey @thefamilyfuntour

  2. Here’s a tip for traveling with kids. Audiobooks and lots of them! You can fill up your iPod at lots of sites, but we found one where you an download original children’s stories for free. Original is the key word here. How many times can I possible listen to Little Red Riding Hood?! Also, chewing gum! Hope this helps.

  3. This blog opened my eyes to short train rides that can provide an easy, entertaining way to see remote areas. I plan to look into more of these train options when I travel. Fun.

  4. I love train rides almost as much as my kids and I would love to ride the Pumpkin Patch Express or the Polar Express! Our family’s most memorable train excursion was probably on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway from the Yukon territory back to Skagway, Alaska. I thought the scenery was spectacular – the kids just liked the train!

  5. These are so awesome! We missed the DOWT in NC, but were able to hit it in Flint, MI while visiting the grandparents in August. I was so impressed with the train- it completely exceeded my expectations.