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Amtrak's Cardinal provides all the scenery without the driving or navigating. The downside? Be prepared for a leisurely trip turning into a behind-schedule arrival.
If you want to see fall foliage in the Appalachians, there’s no better way than by train. You don’t have to worry about traffic and all you do is sit back in a comfortable seat and drink in all the scenery. Luckily, Amtrak gives us the Cardinal train with a Chicago-New York City route that passes through the Alleghany and Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Cardinal stops in the mountain communities of Charlottesville, Virginia and Charleston, West Virginia, a perfect mid-October round-trip between two popular destinations to see colorful changing foliage. The towns have several features in common: Both are regional commercial and cultural hubs with vibrant downtown malls, and both are “college towns.” But, if you spend time exploring their city centers, easily accessible from their Amtrak stations, you’ll soon discover many unique features.
Charlottesville, where I boarded the Cardinal, has a bustling downtown that features an eight-block pedestrian-only mall with a half-dozen art galleries and plenty of shops and unique restaurants. It’s the focus of a busy farmer’s market, colorful street musicians and art exhibits throughout the year.
Buildings around the mall were erected from the 1880s to the 1930s and have been meticulously maintained as architectural treasures. This tree-lined business district is now considered a “community living room,” where you can stroll in the footsteps of Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.
Directly west of downtown a short distance, you’ll find the University of Virginia campus which was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its famous Rotunda is a half-scale interpretation of the Pantheon in Rome and is the signature landmark of the university.
While you can get around easily on foot, a trolley weaves through the historic downtown and connects to the university campus.
When I boarded Amtrak’s Cardinal for Charleston on a Friday afternoon, it was nearly two hours behind schedule. Fellow passengers told me that delays were routine since CSX trains have the right-of-way and Amtrak trains are often shunted to sidetracks so that freighters could rumble past unimpeded.
Not far from the station we slowly climbed onto the Blue Ridge. The foliage colors were muted along the uphill route and throughout the Shenandoah Valley, but the climb into the Alleghenies was more impressive. Our occasional side-rail stops brought opportunities to glimpse life in small communities that once flourished, but now languish, beside the tracks.The Cardinal arrived in Charleston well after dark, so the city would have to await discovery until the following day. As we disembarked, the remaining passengers settled in for the night on their way to destinations farther west.