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Text by Jack M. Turner

Photos by John C. Turner

    Climbing aboard Amtrak’s Crescent in New York in mid-afternoon, the hustle and bustle of commuters is evident on adjacent platforms beneath Penn Station.  The train ducks beneath the Hudson River and emerges into New Jersey where it shortly grinds to a halt in Newark.  Five more intermediate stops ensue in the Northeast Corridor before you head to dinner in the dining car.  While you enjoy dinner, the train stops in Washington, DC where a waiting throng boards and the electric engine is replaced by a pair of diesel locomotives.  You linger over dessert long enough to witness glimpses of several of the landmarks in the nation’s capital as the Crescent storms across the Potomac River.  Retiring to your sleeping car, you settle in for the evening passage through the Virginia countryside before nodding off near Lynchburg.
    Morning comes all too quickly as it is time to detrain at about 8:00am in Atlanta.  A phone call summons a driver from the Avis car rental office on Courtland Avenue and soon you are on your way for a week of relaxation, sightseeing, and summer fun.  The first day is spent taking in the sights of Atlanta, the crossroads of the South.  To get a jump on the next day’s fun, you decide to spend the night in Buford, GA, to the northeast of Atlanta.  Here you find the Courtyard Marriott - Mall of Georgia to be the perfect stopover as it offers convenient access to a huge shopping mall, a variety of restaurants, and the Gwinnett Braves baseball stadium which is located just a couple miles away.  The Gwinnett Braves are a Class AAA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves and the ball game provides a chance to watch the stars of tomorrow.  The locals go home happy as the Braves top the Syracuse Chiefs on this pleasant Georgia evening.

The northbound Crescent stops in Atlanta

The Gwinnett Braves, AAA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, play home games in Buford, GA

Gwinnett centerfielder Todd Cunningham bats

Gwinnett Braves vs. Syracuse Chiefs at Coolray Field in Buford, GA

Courtyard Marriott - Buford, GA

    The next day’s scenic drive is very brief as you head north on I-985 into the northern Georgia foothills and arrive in the village of Helen about an hour later.  The first glimpse of the town delights the senses as its buildings reflect Bavarian architecture that evokes images of alpine Germany.  The shops in the town center look like something one would see in that country but so do the hotels, stores, and fast food restaurants located on the fringe of town.  The Hampton Inn is set along the bank of the Chattahoochee River which is flowing fast after a wet spring.  You partake in a favorite Helen pastime and go tubing down the river, an exhilarating 90 minute venture that alternates between lazily floating along the river’s wooded course and hanging on as your inner tube negotiates rocky rapids every so often.  A game of putt-putt golf at Helen Alpine Mini-Golf is a relaxing way to spend the evening as you challenge the beautifully landscaped course.

Shops in Helen, GA reflect the village’s Bavarian theme

Hofbrauhaus Restaurant in Helen

Hampton Inn – Helen resembles a German inn

Visitors float down the Chattahoochee River behind the Hampton Inn

Tubing on the Chattahoochee traverses several rapids such as these in downtown Helen

The Chattahoochee River is quiet at dusk

    After a day away from the rails, you head northward in search of some railroad action.  The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City, North Carolina is a good option and you make note to plan a visit later in your trip.  You will have a choice of two routes out of Bryson City, NC, east to Dillsboro or west to the Nantahala Gorge.  Today, however, will offer a chance to experience the surviving segment of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railway which is operated by the Doe River Gorge Ministries outside of Hampton, Tennessee.  On select Saturdays during the summer, the popular Christian youth camp opens up its facilities to the public as part of its Day Quest program.  For a modest fee, visitors can swim in a scenic mountain lake, take an invigorating zip line that ends in a splash, and view the beautiful Doe River Gorge from a narrow gauge train.   The train ride passes through a couple of tunnels and skirts the edge of the gorge where the whitewater Doe River cascades far below.

Doe River Gorge Ministries narrow gauge train prepares for another run

Entering a tunnel at the start of our journey

The Doe River vistas are outstanding near Pardee Point

The engine is painted to match the ET&WNC paint scheme

TrainWeb photographer John Turner enjoys a motorcar ride after the day’s last Day Quest train

    Retracing your steps to Asheville, NC, just over an hour south of the Doe River Gorge, you pause in Erwin, TN to watch a couple of CSX coal trains en route between Kentucky coalfields and points south.  Along the way the former Clinchfield Railroad mainline negotiates the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, passes through Kingsport, TN, and travels over The Loops, a twisting route across the Blue Ridge.  There is an opportunity to view Norfolk Southern freight trains in Asheville before checking in at the Courtyard Marriott hotel.  Your room offers a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains but the sports fan part of you leads to McCormack Field, home of the Class A Asheville Tourists.  The ball park is bustling with activity as it is an enjoyable, yet inexpensive, way to spend an evening.  The home crowd is enthusiastic as the Tourists bounce the visiting Lexington Legends on this night.

The Asheville Tourists host the Lexington Legends

McCormack Field, home of the Asheville Tourists, is a popular place on summer nights

Asheville’s Courtyard Marriott offers convenient lodging with a nice view

    Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway consumes much of the next day and you are rewarded with a clear, cool summer day.  The drive between Asheville and Boone, NC is arguably the Parkway’s most scenic stretch and you take time to pull off at many overlooks to take in the mountain vista.  By mid-afternoon you roll into Boone where you will hang out for several days with no particular schedule.  A picnic along a mountain stream, hikes through the woodlands to roaring waterfalls, and browsing at local antique shops are among your favorite activities.  There is one essential activity during your week, a visit to Tweetsie Railroad, a popular attraction dating back to the late 1950s.  There are enough things to entertain the typical family for several hours yet the star of the show remains the narrow gauge steam train that makes a three mile loop around a mountain.  On most summer days former White Pass & Yukon # 190 will power the train though the park’s original engine, ex-ET&WNC # 12 still pulls the train on many dates.  Your home away from home is the Holiday Inn Express in Boone, a highly rated hotel that offers exceptional accommodations and a very convenient location.

Rhododendron along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains are around every curve on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Craggy Gardens Visitors Center is one of the windiest, coolest spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway

One of several tunnels along the Parkway

Flame azalea bushes thrive in the cool mountain climate

Mountain laurel bloom in early summer in North Carolina’s higher elevations

Tweetsie Railroad’s train sets out on another run around the mountain

# 190 pulls the train along the curved narrow gauge tracks

Former ET&WNC # 12 is used on select dates each year

Former White Pass # 190, the “Yukon Queen” is cared for between runs

Another set of passengers embark on a ride behind the 190

The rear of this train is the author’s favorite car to ride

The upper portion of The Cascades, a towering waterfall off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Looking down The Cascades which is known as a “slide” for its length

Glen Burney Falls, Blowing Rock, NC


Holiday Inn Express - Boone, NC

    Back in Atlanta you climb aboard the Crescent again for a short day trip to Birmingham, AL.  Once again a rental car will connect you to surrounding communities where you will enjoy great sights and some more railroading experiences.  A short trip north from Birmingham takes you to Huntsville, AL where the Historic Huntsville Depot and the nearby North Alabama Railroad Museum offer nicely restored railroad displays.  The US Space & Rocket Center is another “must see” in Huntsville which is known as the birthplace of America’s space program.

The southbound Crescent arrives in Birmingham

The Historic Huntsville Depot

Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL

    South of Birmingham one finds the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum off I-65 in Calera, AL.  This museum houses a nice collection of vintage passenger equipment and offers a short train ride on select dates.  Continuing south past Montgomery you stop in Troy, AL where the Pioneer Museum is home of a classic steam locomotive used for logging operations in a bygone era.  A walk around the museum grounds provides insight to life in rural Alabama with a preserved farmstead, covered bridge, schoolhouse, and numerous buildings dating back many decades.  Several railroad artifacts are among the interesting displays inside the main museum building.  Back outside, a train horn can be clearly heard reminding you that the CSX line linking Montgomery with Dothan, AL passes through Troy, offering occasional railfanning opportunities.  On a return visit to Troy you attend a Division 1 college football game between Troy University and the US Naval Academy.  The Trojans put on a good show on a glorious autumn afternoon and it is evident that college football is indeed king in the Deep South, even in smaller outposts like Troy.

Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum excursion train in Calera, AL

Poole’s Bridge at the Pioneer Museum near Troy, AL

A railroad exhibit in the Pioneer Museum

Logging engine from the W.T. Smith Lumber Company, Chapman, AL now housed at the Pioneer Museum outside Troy, AL

Navy kicks off to the Troy University Trojans in a Division 1 football game in Troy, AL

The crowd at the Navy vs. Troy game enjoys the pageantry of college football

    The northbound Crescent boards in Birmingham in mid-afternoon and you enjoy the smooth overnight passage over Norfolk Southern rails along the piedmont region of the Carolinas.  Morning finds the train stopping in Charlottesville, VA then continuing through Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia until it reaches its destination, New York, a few minutes before 2:00pm. 
    A tour of the south is easy to arrange as the Amtrak stops noted herein are scheduled at convenient hours.  Each of the locations visited within this story is an easy drive from the closest stop of Amtrak’s Crescent as well as from other sights mentioned.  It is advisable to check in advance before visiting some of these attractions to confirm hours and dates of operation.

Related Reports by Jack Turner

Doe River rails, see for more details.  

See for more information about Tweetsie Railroad.

A visit to Huntsville is detailed at


Tweetsie Railroad

Holiday Inn Express, Boone, NC

Doe River Gorge Ministries (ex-ET&WNC rail line)

Asheville Tourists

Courtyard Marriott, Asheville, NC

Alpine Mini Golf, Helen, GA

Gwinnett Braves

Courtyard Marriott, Buford, GA

Pioneer Museum of Alabama

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