"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Back to Old Forge: We ride the Adirondack Scenic Railroad from Utica to Thendara Station

by Jim Bessey  editor 
I promised pictures of the gorgeous Adirondack scenery. What better way to get them than to ride thirty miles of railway into the mountains?
Our Scenic Train arrives at Thendara Station, the Adirondacks
UTICA, NY October 2:  We knew we had to return to Old Forge after we discovered Thendara Station during our first driving tour of the central Adirondacks two weeks ago. This time, we knew the best way to come back was by train. A week ago, with the leaves barely turned and temps in the seventies, we booked our 30-mile excursion from Utica to Old Forge. Because he'd always wanted to take a fall train, we invited my dad, too.

Between then and now, the weather turned chilly and wet; and the leaves turned from green to yellows and reds, with many trees already baring their branches. We drove 120 miles from home to the stunning Utica Station under dripping pre-dawn gray skies. Our tickets and train were waiting there, along with over 200 other tour members!

All Aboard!
View from the train, as the conductor flips the switch
By accident, we chose our seats in the perfect car, located between the open-door baggage car behind the locomotive and the essential Club Car (hot coffee!). Our hosts, all volunteers, handled the large crowd with big smiles, jokes, and helpful advice. Not one of these dedicated railroad lovers grumbled or frowned when the trip began with minor problems and a departure delay.

"...found ourselves surrounded by wooded valleys and peaks covered in a splendid array of colors"

When our seven-car train was finally underway, the staff served up drinks and donuts to a very long line of sleepy-eyed travelers, handed out mile-point highlight sheets, and offered additional commentary in person and over the audio system. The excursion's tracks are old and maintained on a tight budget. More than once, our train slowed to a walking pace for safety. Once, we screeched to a gritty halt because a man and his dog were too close to the tracks!
View from a trestle, an Adirondack river (the Black?)
All the while, the view from our windows evolved from interesting to spectacular as we climbed more than 1200 feet into the Adirondack Park. We crossed the Thruway, Mohawk River, then the Black River and found ourselves surrounded by wooded valleys and peaks covered in a splendid array of colors. We snapped hasty pictures of creeks and ponds, and of the rivers we crossed by trestle. The on-and-off rain didn't bother us a bit.
Another beautiful Adirondack river scene along the way.
Destination: Thendara Station
The Inn at Thendara Station. Our buses lined up here.
We finally arrived at Thendara Station just a few minutes behind schedule. Lin and I had been there before, so it all felt warmly familiar. School buses lined up in front of the big white inn, ready to whisk over 100 of our group away to catch the lake cruise (sold out) that was part of their package. Dad, Lin and I stood in the cold drizzle by the station while the crowd sorted itself out, waiting for the buses to return for us.

The Station was big and warm, filled with railroad memorabilia and souvenirs -- and the nice, new restrooms that brought us here the first time, two weeks back. We took a few minutes to warm up, then trooped out to board the bus to Old Forge, just a mile down the road. We had thought about riding the chairlift for the amazing views, but the weather was too foul. Otherwise, food was on our minds, and we had two recommendations from the staff.
Our train enters Thendara to reload for the return trip
And now for our tour of Old Forge:

Old Forge was filled with rain-soaked tourists (too wet, in fact, for taking pictures by then). We headed down the sidewalk looking for either of the recommended places. One was closed; the other was packed. We walked some more, then went back to Walt's Diner, the one with the long line. Turns out the wait was worth it. After a great lunch, we did the tourist thing, starting with a wonderful candy shop nearby.

With time running out on our Old Forge layover, we dropped in on some of the other notable tourist spots -- the giant hardware store/emporium, a lovely interiors shop full of mountain furniture and "butler bears" (we want one!). We checked a couple of souvenir shops and found what we expected. We settled for delicious candy and our full bellies.

With time running out, we braved the rain and boarded our warm bus for the trip back to Thendara Station. We were chilled, tired, in need of fresh coffee, and thinking seriously about sleeping on the train during the trip back to Utica Station. Lin and I bought nice mementos of our trip from the station's gift shop (both Made in America!). We posed for family pictures in front of the tracks while we waited for the All Aboard signal. We chatted with other passengers who, it turns out, lived near our homes.
Lin and I in the rain at Thendara Station
I found the best picture-taking seat on the train!

When our train lined up properly, we all boarded and headed for our old seats. We got coffee in the Club Car on the way. Before I settled into my own seat, I grabbed the camera and headed back to the open car. There were shots of the Moose River and other scenic spots just south of the station that I really wanted to capture. With the order of our passenger cars now completely reversed, the baggage car was now the final car rather than the one directly behind the engine.
Looking back from a high trestle. This might be Moose River.
There was a wide-open window at the rear (formerly the front) of the open baggage car, and I claimed it as mine. I shot picture after picture, looking back up the tracks the way we had come. Had a fine conversation with a real railroad fanatic while I kept clicking. We descended 1200 feet back to the Black River, with the tracks rushing, almost blurry, behind us. I took more pictures than anyone could reasonably use.
Here's a view you can only get by riding the train along the tracks.
With darkness approaching, I stowed the camera, bought another coffee, and joined my family back in our seat section. We shared some of the Old Forge candy. Dad had candied popcorn, which still smelled wonderful. We all smiled and yawned. Eventually I slept for a bit with the seat tipped back. I could have slept for hours with the sway of the train and patter of the tracks beneath us. It was full dark when we arrived in Utica.
Marble columns and curved wooden benches fill Utica Station, built in 1914.
Have I mentioned how spectacular Utica Station is? Words aren't enough to do justice to this nearly 100-year-old Beaux-Arts-style hall. It's a serious classic. We passengers all took pictures there, before scattering to our vehicles. All told, we'd been gone for more than twelve hours on our rainy adventure. Good weather or bad, I highly recommend it. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad runs through Saturday, October 22.
IF YOU GO: Tickets are just under $40 per person. You can order online or by phone. The volunteer customer service is first-rate! Check the website for special packages and for lots of other short-excursion options leaving from stations at Thendara, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid. Keep in mind that the Adirondacks Region may be past-peak for fall colors by next weekend. Of course, the scenery is still breath-taking.
Fall foliage and an Adirondack river: here's 1000 words-worth.