Once upon a time, the best, easiest, most convenient way to travel to the Adirondacks for a vacation or family adventure was by train. Steel tracks wound through forest, along rivers, past lumber camps, stopped at private railroad stations, transported goods back and forth to the cities downstate, and so much more. Families could start out in New York City and, thanks to the Adirondack Division of the New York Central Railroad, make their way to places like Big Moose, Raquette Lake (via a spur line), Piercefield (which was a bustling place to be), Tupper Lake, and beyond. One could take the train all over the Adirondacks if they wanted, and many did, whether for work or play. As automobiles became increasingly available and popular, train travel declined, to the point that no trains ran through the Adirondacks. Until now.
The historic sweet spot of Tupper Lake once again resonates with the sound of a whistling locomotive, the clickety-clack of steel wheels, and the "ooh"s and "aah"s of passengers delighting over unique scenic views. All of this is thanks to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which operates a variety of tourist trains out of Utica. The first passenger train to arrive in Tupper Lake rolled in to the historic station in 2022, and 2023 saw the start of the first season of rides to and from Tupper Lake.
Riders have three options to select from, including two trains that travel to Tupper Lake, perfect for downstaters looking to experience the Adirondacks. All three travel over this historic route, which is full of beautiful landscapes, a relaxed adventure, and the charm of taking the train. We recently climbed aboard the two-hour Tupper Lake Explorer, a two-hour adventure that travels south to Sabattis and back. Whether you're a life-long train fan or have never even thought of riding a train for fun, the Explorer is a delightful ride for all. Ready to ride? We are, so sit back, relax, and enjoy our ride through the Adirondacks!
Your ticket to history!
The adventure of the Tupper Lake Explorer begins — and ends — at the historic railroad station, in the neighborhood known around town as "the junction." Tupper Lakers are proud of their history, and even when it seemed like passenger trains might never run through town again, the charming station was preserved and even restored.
The station isn't just historic itself, it's filled with history, too! Historic artifacts and railroad memorabilia are located throughout the station, which also hosts local vendors on days the railroad is in operation. It's a great idea to arrive a bit early, explore the station, and learn a bit about Tupper Lake's fascinating history and the big role that the railroads had in making it a success.
The depot is also where you can buy tickets, or pick up tickets you purchased online. It is highly recommended that you purchase online, as this is a popular excursion and can sell out. Speaking of the tickets, the charming, old-fashioned design makes for a great souvenir and yes, the conductors, in their classic railroad caps, do come around and punch your ticket!
When it's time to board, a smiling conductor really will yell "all aboard," much to the delight of children and adventurers of all ages. This is isn't just a ride, it's an experience, and everything about the Tupper Lake Explorer supports that, from the old-fashioned uniforms of the conductors and engineer, to the rail cars you ride in. The locomotive and various passenger cars that make up the Adirondack Scenic Railroad all had former lives on other rail lines and have been carefully restored and refreshed to give them new life, while offering passengers a truly vintage experience.
Seats on the Explorer are not assigned, so riders get to wander through several different passenger cars to find the one they like best. You'll find comfy seats in all, some cars with dimmer, more relaxed lighting, while others are brightly lit and good for families. You'll even find seating in groups of four, ideal for traveling with friends or family.
Once you've settled in and found your ideal spot, all that remains is to relax and enjoy watching the gorgeous Adirondack scenery glide by. You'll travel over Piercefield Flow, where you may see boaters enjoying the weekend, past scenic camps, along Lake Arab, Horseshoe Lake, and many other quiet, remote spots you might never see otherwise. There are views of forest, rivers, marshes, and clearings perfect for wildlife viewing.
The railroad provides a handy brochure, explaining some of the territory you'll be covering, including local history, but there's nothing wrong with simply savoring the view.
It's not a train ride without a snack
In the 1930s, long-distance trains in the United States were famous for their food and attempts to create unique dining experiences. The Santa Fe Railroad, for example, advertised their "Turquoise Room" dining car, with elegant Southwestern-inspired decor. Nowadays, I'm a fan of the hot dogs found on Amtrak trains and I'm known to tell anyone who will listen to try it.
The Tupper Lake Explorer, like many other trains from the Golden Age of rail travel, features a cafe car and the offerings for sale include a nice variety of hot and cold meals and snacks. The day we rode the train, diners could purchase hot dogs or meatball subs, while other treats included freshly-baked donuts, croissants and muffins, along with candy, chips, soft drinks, and a small but excellent selection of New York craft beer.
For the record, you can absolutely bring your own snacks. We packed a little bag with sandwiches, bottles of water, Coca-Cola, and granola bars. We saw other travelers with deli sandwiches, chips, and so on. You can eat at your seat, enjoying your view, or make use of the tables in the cafe car.
The cafe car is also a great spot to spend a few moments — or longer — chatting with the amazing volunteers who work on the train. They're happy to tell you all about the cars you're riding in, what the railroad offers, and frankly, how much fun they have on the job. They're dedicated staff, many of whom live in Utica and happily ride to Tupper Lake regularly to share the excitement of the railroad and the amazing Adirondacks with passengers like us!
Fresh, Adirondack air
One of the highlights of the Tupper Lake Explorer is the open-air observation car, which features outward-facing seats — perfect for watching the Adirondack landscape roll by — and allows the sweet fresh air to blow through. The rear door is open too, although it has a gate for safety and provides the unique view of the tracks flying away behind you.
Connect and discover more rail adventures
The Tupper Lake Explorer, which runs through October 15 this season, is a delightful way to enjoy local scenery and the rails, whether you live in the area or are visiting. Those wanting to see Tupper Lake from downstate have two excellent options: the Adirondack Mountaineer and The High Peaks Limited (bonus train nerd fact: New York Central had a line known as the Lake Shore Limited, which ran from New York City to Chicago, starting in the 1890s).
The High Peaks Limited is an 11-hour round-trip excursion from Utica, with a brief stop in Thendara. Travelers arrive in Tupper Lake in time for lunch or sightseeing, with a one and a half-hour layover. This train includes plush First Class seating and dining, as well as a dome car with 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.
The Adirondack Mountaineer is a round-trip experience from Thendara, which allows the rider a much more leisurely experience in Tupper Lake: the layover is four and a half hours long, and the railroad provides transportation to local sites of interest, including The Wild Center, Park Street, and Raquette River Brewing.
Both excursions will take you past more fascinating scenery, including the former stop at Nehasane, by the shores of Lake Lila, formerly a Great Camp belonging to railroad executive William Seward Webb.
Your train awaits
However you choose to ride the rails this fall, know that you'll ride in style, comfort, and with a big smile on your face. The journey itself is the destination, but we're pretty partial to Tupper Lake, too. As you plan your trip, explore the town's great restaurants, overnight accommodations, and special events to make your rail journey extra special.