All abord the Conway Scenic Railroad’s Notch Train! The Mountaineer journey through Crawford Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains boasts incredible views you won’t get anywhere else. Here’s everything you need for a wonderful journey!

Ride the Conway Scenic Railroad

When’s the last time you boarded a classic train for a scenic journey through the mountains? I stepped onto the Conway Scenic Railroad’s Mountaineer train to Crawford Notch in the fall to take in the foliage from a new vantage point and had a wonderful time on this ~55 mile (86km) journey, with some real “WOW” moments through the Notch. My trip gave me a new appreciation for New Hampshire’s stunning natural beauty, and I grew up here. If you haven’t visited New Hampshire’s White Mountains before, you are in for a treat.

This post gives you everything you need to plan for a wonderful ride on the Conway Scenic Railroad and shares with you my experience riding on the “Notch train,” the railroad’s most scenic route.

Conway Scenic Railroad

Blue sign reading Conway Scenic Railroad Train Rides in front of the depot. The depot is yellow with white gingerbread trim
Waiting for the train

An early wake up to ride the Conway Scenic Railroad

My alarm went off before my dog Ollie woke up, meaning it went off early. I didn’t mind, though, because it woke me up to go and ride the Conway Scenic Railroad on the Mountaineer train up to Crawford Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I had a few things to do first, so I did them, got Ollie situated to leave with two of his favorite people, and drove up on a clear October day to North Conway.

Unseasonably hot

Alas, we hadn’t yet hit peak autumn—it’s always a bit of a guess—but the day promised plenty of color and bright sunshine. The day was hot, too, unseasonably so, so instead of the sweater I’d envisioned for the trip, I wore a summery dress. One thing about New England—it’s never a good idea to put away the previous season’s clothes until the next season is nearly over.

About the Conway Scenic Railroad & the Mountaineer Journey

A beautiful depot

I arrived at the depot in downtown North Conway, one of those classic nineteenth-century Victorian-Russian train stations, painted yellow with ornate white trim and red accents. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and you won’t miss it across the Green in North Conway. Even if you don’t ride the train, stopping into the little museum and shop is worthwhile.

Taking a spin through the museum

I followed the signs to park, heading down a rather steep hill to a parking lot below and then headed to the depot to pick up my ticket. They time ticket pickup, and I was a bit early, so I took advantage of the time to take a little spin through the museum inside the depot and to get in the rather long line for the loo. People chatted about how excited they were to see the foliage and mountains.

Tip!

Purchase the souvenir map ($1 USD), as it will give you a lot of context for your journey, including the narration

Picking up my ticket

By the time I got through the line, it was time to pick up my ticket, so I headed to the window in front of the depot, and picked up my paper ticket before getting in line to board the train. In line were tourists form all over, many talking about their northern New England road trips to see the foliage. A few were from Europe and Asia.

All aboard!

It was time to board, and we showed our tickets to the conductor. I had booked a first-class ticket on the Hattie Evans train, a classic dining car named for the matriarch of a family who fed and housed railroad workers on the line.

The original seating had been replaced by a table and cushioned benches, a cute little lamp on the table. We had large windows. My seatmates soon joined me, a woman with her sister and daughter visiting from Texas and Florida, respectively.

A few minutes later, with a whistle, we were off!

Our journey on the Conway Scenic Railroad begins

I love the clickety clack sway of an old-time train and smiled as we made our way out of Conway. My seat mates were chatty, so we got to talking, while looking out the window. Our narrator called our attention to Mountain Junction, which was where two historic lines, including the Boston & Maine joined. We then passed the site of an Abenaki Encampment that was established in the late nineteenth century by Joseph Laurent, who had been born in Quebec (most of the indigenous people in this part of New Hampshire had either died from disease brought by colonial settlers, intermarried, or had left for Canada).

A narrated journey

This journey to Crawford Notch is narrated, in order to call your attention to historic or scenic highlights of the trip. We would see an elevation gain of approximately 1,620 feet (495 meters) from North Conway to Fabyan station.

It can get a little maudlin

Given the history of white settlement in this area, which was fraught with peril, especially in the early years, the tale can get a bit dreary at times. Let’s just say there is a lot of death. Our route largely follows NH Route 302, and you’ll hear a lot about that, too.

Provides context and highlights key sites

They may wish to work on their script a bit, but, I appreciated knowing when to look for points of interest, and the story of the poor Willey family, the Maine Central 505 explosion, and the fate of Nancy Barton who died of exposure while chasing her thieving financé have stuck with me.

Vistas, rivers, and forest

On the other side, the first scenic vista opened up (I’d see it on the way back, as riders switch sides), before we came up alongside the Saco River, a river which runs from Saco Lake, which we would see on this trip, in New Hampshire to Saco Bay, just south of Portland, Maine. Most of the track here is forested and not particularly scenic, but pleasant, especially as the leaves were turning. We crossed a river, catching a glimpse of a covered bridge crossing another span.

Lunch

It got to be about lunch time, and I could hear the rustle of people opening their boxed lunches. Rules stipulate that you cannot bring outside food or drink on board, so, like most passengers, I opted for the box lunch add-on to my ticket. The lunch consisted of a sandwich (I got turkey), chips, an apple, and a cookie, along with a bottle of water. It was about what you’d expect for a boxed lunch, fine, but not great. There are other food and drink options, including beer, available at the snack bar in the Dome Car. My seatmates and I ate and chatted as we looked out the window.

It got a bit warm

As we ate, we noticed that the train car felt a bit warm. The thermostat was just above a seatmate’s head, and asked the conductor to check it. Alas, it was the first of several times that poor thermostat would be checked, and it didn’t do much good. The unseasonably hot day was too much for it. I was relieved that I’d worn a summer dress, but it was still pretty hot. I would definitely advise wearing light layers in warm weather.

The coach car had functioning air conditioning, and people would tarry there en route to the snack bar.

Tip!

The Hattie Evans and Dom train cars have air conditioning issues,. Wear layers. If traveling in high summer, you might want a window seat in coach

Crossing streams and more vistas

As we continued our journey, we began to cross streams and the Sawyer River, traveling over what are known as the Irons.

The poor Willey family

As you’ll learn from the narration, the early European experience in New Hampshire’s White Mountains proved trecherous. The fate of the Willey family is the most well-known story. In 1826, while trying to flee a rockslide, the entire family was killed. Tragically, the rockslide missed their house entirely, and they would have been saved had they not tried to flee. Mount Willey is named for the family and their tragedy.

Crawford Notch is the highlight of the Mountaineer journey on the Conway Scenic Railroad

About Crawford Notch

Heading toward the Notch

As we headed past Carrigian, the site of an old logging village, vistas start opening up more, and the scenery gets grander. New Hampshire’s White Mountains are old mountains, worn down with time.  While not yet peak autumn, the color definitely inspired wonder.

We passed Mount Willard, and that’s when it really begins.

Willey Brook Trestle

Named for the poor Willey family, this trestle is 94 feet high (28m) and 240 feet (73m) long, spanning the Willey Brook between Mount Willey and Mount Willard. It leads us to the Notch, and the crew will ask you to remain seated as we pass through the Notch.

Crossing the Notch

Wow, Dear Reader. Just WOW. Passing through Crawford Notch is why you take this ride on the Conway Scenic Railroad. It’s absolutely stunning. While you get a good view through the notch driving on I-93, it’s not this view, and I will take this Mountaineer journey again to see it.

The open vistas continued, and the oohs and ahs from the passengers continued.

Crawford Depot

Following our venture through Crawford Notch, we had a rest stop at Crawford Depot. This cute Queen Anne train station form 1891, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it’s run by the Appalachian Mountain Club and has a gift shop, snack bar, and, importantly, rest rooms. The station is across the highway from Saco Lake, a little scenic lake that looked especially pretty on a sunny autumn day, and that is the source of the Saco River.

A good spot to stretch your legs

We had a few minutes to stretch our legs at the station and get some pictures of the train and the lake. It’s a great spot for photos of the train, but it’s important to not wander down the tracks or to stand in them.

After I took some snaps of the train, I ventured over to the lake for a couple of minutes, before heading back to board the train.

Tip!

Set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes before you’re due back to make sure that you are on time!

Reversing direction, switching seats

About thirty minutes later, we passed Mount Washington and the Mount Washington Cog Railway before reaching Breton Woods station.  We also passed the stunning Mount Washington Hotel, one of New Hampshire’s Grand Hotels, where the World Bank was formed in 1944 (IMHO, not a great claim to fame, but a claim nonetheless).

At the station, the engine switched direction (not us), before we would head back toward North Conway. Passengers were encouraged to switch seats with those on the other side in order to ensure that everyone could see all the sights. We did so, and I sat facing forward for the journey back.

Frankenstein Trestle

Laying railroad track in this part of the White Mountains was no easy feat. Frankenstein Trestle, which dates from 1875, is both an aesthetic and engineering achievement and a popular spot to hike to see. The Mountaineer train crosses it twice on the journey. At 80 feet (24 meters) and more than 500 feet (152 meters) long, crossing it is a trip highlight. I got a much clearer look at it on the return trip.

In case you’re curious, as I certainly was, the Frankenstein Trestle is not a reference to Mary Shelley’s novel, but rather named after an artist, Godrfrey Nicholas Frankenstein.

Winding our way back

I very much enjoyed the scenery from this side of the train, perfect in the late afternoon light. My seatmates and I chatted, and we also got to know the couples sitting across from us. I learned about artists in Texas and what it’s like to work for cruise lines (the retired couple had traveled all over the world aboard ships).

We sighed as the narrator the story of poor Nancy Barton, who had frozen to death as she chased her betrothed after he’d absconded with her funds (we also giggled a little, because, there really is a lot of death in the narration. Apologies, Nancy). Nancy Brook and Mount Nancy are named in memory of this poor young woman.

Journey’s end

We arrived back in North Conway and disembarked. I took a little spin through the giftshop. I’d planned on eating at Horsefeathers, but it was closed that day. So I went to Zeb’s General Store instead before heading back to the Lakes Region.

Plan your ride on the Conway Scenic Railroad!

Here’s what you need to plan for a wonderful journey on the Conway Scenic Railroad!

Booking your tickets on the Conway Scenic Railroad

Book ahead

Especially in autumn and peak summer, this is a popular activity. If you have specific dates in mind, book sooner rather than later.

Select the right trip for you on the Conway Scenic Railroad

I booked the Mountaineer train, which takes you through Crawford Notch. This is a roughly five-hour, ~55-mile (86km) trip, and I very much enjoyed it. If a shorter ride appeals to you, you can select different routes.

Select the right train car and class for you

You have a choice classes of train cars to choose from. I sat in a first-class seat on the Hattie Evans dining car, which was a historic train car. My understanding is that the premium dome seats in the Dorethea Mae car experience some glare, which would make photos challenging. However, the seats look lovely. The Carol P Reed car is the standard seating (it did seem to have reliable air conditioning).

Where to sit for good photos

Book a window seat on the train in order to get the best views. I would go so far as to say that if you can’t get one, book another train. Riders are encouraged to switch sides (keeping the same seating arrangement) on the return trip to get the alternate view. I sat on the right-hand side of the train, facing forward, going to the Notch, which allowed me to get the best views of the Notch on the way there.

Food & drink on the Conway Scenic Railroad

You cannot bring outside food and drink onto the train, and you are encouraged to book a boxed lunch before you board. I’ll be honest, the boxed lunch is fine, but not great, and it’s overpriced. It is, however, delivered to your seat if you’re in first class. There is additional food and alcohol available for purchase on the train. I got the boxed lunch and additional water while I was on board for the Mountaineer train and, if not wowed, was also not hungry on my trip.

Refunds

If your plans change, or if it looks like bad weather, you can cancel your reservation up to 24 hours prior to your scheduled departure for a refund. There is a $10 USD fee associated with this. Your ticket is non-refundable within 24 hours, but you can change your date. Please confirm on the website, as policies can change.

Rescheduling your trip on the Conway Scenic Railroad

You can reschedule your trip, including within 24 hours of departure. Please confirm on the website, as policies can change.

Parking and picking up tickets

Be on time

This goes without saying, but trains run on schedules. My advice is to arrive at least 45 minutes before your departure time to allow for picking up your tickets and using the restroom.

Parking

There’s free parking available to the right of the train depot. Follow the signs to go through to the lots.

Picking up your tickets

Even if you booked online, you still need to pick up a physical paper ticket (it makes a nice souvenir). You do this at the window in front of the train station (follow the signs, as things can change). Do note that you might not be able to pick up your ticket until an hour or so before your train departs. You should have your ID and card that you used to book the ticket available, though I wasn’t asked for it.

Get in line

Once you’ve picked up your tickets, you’ll get in line. It will be obvious, if a bit chaotic. Make sure that you are in the correct line for your train, as there are a few different excursions.

Restrooms at the depot

There are restrooms available in the train station. There are restrooms on board the trains as well. There’s usually quite a line for the women’s room.

Souvenir map

If you arrive early enough, stop in the gift shop and purchase the souvenir map (mine was $1 USD) for your route, as it will help to provide context.

General considerations when riding the Conway Scenic Railroad

Manage your expectations

These are not Belmond trains, and first class means a more comfortable seat in a more historic car, not a luxury train travel experience. While I found some of the narration useful, it did get a little maudlin (there’s a fair amount death) and really seemed to focus on NH Route 302.  You’ll hit the great scenery later in the trip and you’ll know why you took the train.

Air conditioning and what to wear

My autumn trip fell on an unusually hot day in October, and the air conditioning struggled to keep up. In summer, I advise wearing light clothing, as it can get hot. I was OK, but there were some complaints. I would expect that it you hit a cool day, you might need have layers, as it could get cool.

Follow the safety rules

This goes without saying, but make sure to follow the safety rules on board the train and any instructions from crew members.

Limited cell reception

There’s no wifi on the train, and cell service is spotty at best, especially when you’re going through the Notch. Consider this your opportunity to unplug and enjoy the ride.

Bring cash

If you want to buy anything at the snack bar on board, you will need cash to do so, as there is no connectivity for credit cards.

Restrooms

There are restrooms on the train, but I didn’t use them. When you stop at Crawford House, there’s restrooms there as well.

The depots are cute

The museum and shop at the historic train depots are worth a little spin. I bought a souvenir map at the main depot and got a little treat at the Crawford Depot

Solo travel

Riding the Conway Scenic Railroad is a great solo travel experience, as booking single tickets might be easier than trying to get groups to be able to sit together. You’ll sit with other people (I sat with three women, and we follow each other now on Instagram!).

Accessibility

These trains, sadly, do not meet ADA requirements for passengers with mobility issues, but they do have accommodations available. There is a mobile lift available for passengers using wheelchairs or who have other mobility issues, and they will try to accommodate you. They advise contacting them directly before booking travel.

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