Many Atlanta folk have visited or taken rides with the Tennessee Valley Railroad in Chattanooga…but did you know there is another depot in Etowah that is spectacular?? They offer two rides (half-day or full-day) through the Hiwassee River Gorge and this adventure should be on your bucket list!
Pick From Two Ride Options
As I mention above, there are two rides you can take from the Etowah Depot. The first is the Hiwassee Loop. It runs 3.5 hours, following the Hiwassee River and then looping over Bald Mountain. The boys LOVED watching the train loop over the tracks in this uphill climb!
The second trip, the Copperhill Special, is a full-day adventure that takes you along the same route as above, but instead of returning after the corkscrew at the NC border, you take a hard right and follow the tracks through Turtletown and Ducktown to the former mining town of Copperhill, TN.
Now, if the name Copperhill rings a bell, that’s because we raved about it on a recent trip to Blue Ridge (see here.) Yes, I said Blue Ridge!
Copperhill and McCaysville are essentially the same city, the only difference is the Blue Line that runs smack through the town, determining that one side is Georgia and the other side – Copperhill – is Tennessee.
You know the line I’m talking about, right? It’s the one you MUST get your photo with after a ride on the BRSR from Blue Ridge.
Don’t you ever wonder what’s beyond that BRSR layover in McCaysville? Now you can check it out!
We also love that the layover on the Copperhill Special is two hours, so there is plenty of time for lunch, shopping and more in the double cities. Read our McCaysville/Copperhill post to learn more about our favorites!
There is also a Hiwassee Holiday Train near Christmas. We’ve not experienced this one, but you can see our Chattanooga Christmas Train Ride IG photos here and here. Photos from this experience made one of my favorite holiday cards to-date, and the Santa was awesome! I’m sure the Hiwassee Holiday Train is just as incredible!
Splurge on Dome Seats
The Hiwassee Loop and Copperhill Special tickets are very affordable at only $99 and $159 respectively for a family 4-pack of tickets (remember, the Copperhill is a full-day train ride, so it makes sense that it costs more.) The general admission seats are very very comfortable — they are soft, recline, and offer plenty of space. It’s nothing like Coach seats on an airplane. lol
If you can splurge (and we think you should) then opt for the VIP seats!
The Observation Car is the most affordable premium option. It’s the last train in the car, with windows that form a “C” along the back so that you get magnificent views both coming and going.
The best option – if you ask us – are the Dome Seats. There are two dome cars…kiddos 14 and under are only allowed in one of the cars, but they are both the same.
The Dome Car is what you see in the photo above. You’re elevated to the top of the car, with windows along the sides and up to the top. The views here are so amazing – I just can’t describe them! Wow!
BTW, this car above was the Family Dome (we brought the kiddos) and is a 1955 Great Northern Railroad car…which was then sold to Amtrak for a while, before serving TVR.
Three additional notes about seating:
- The premium seats afford you a wristband that allows access to a special section in the back with complementary snacks and drinks. Chips, M&Ms, cheese and crackers, water and sodas.
- You must be able to walk all the way to the back of the train, up and down a small set of stairs for the Observation car, and up and down an additional taller set of stairs for the Dome cars. These options are not recommended for people with mobility issues.
- In the general seats and in the Dome seats, you will switch sides with the people across from you in the aisle at the half-way point, so everyone can see all the views on the trip.
See Spectacular Sights
We’ve taken adventures on a train or two in our time, and this one offers the best views here in the Southeast, in our opinion. At the beginning of the adventure you are following the Hiwassee where it is open and wide…and there are multiple breaks in the trees that allow you to take it all in.
By the way, this is a great river to go tubing on. It’s one of the cleanest rivers around because, as it comes out of the mountains, it doesn’t go through any towns. It is COLD though – about 55 degrees! The TVR recommended getting tubes and a lift upriver from either Webb Brother’s Grocery (they’ve been in business over 50 years!) or Hiwassee Outfitters. Both offer campground options, too…and the float ride is about 5 miles.
Further along, as you gain altitude, the river narrows and you gain spectacular aerial views of the river gorge. Fact: there are no hiking trails or access points to this section of the river gorge so this train ride is the only way for people to see the natural beauty of this area!
Meet Amazing People
Everyone who works with the train – from the ticketing gentleman to the on-train staff – were so kind and wonderful!
I wish I would have gotten the name of the man who came through every car and played about 4-5 songs on his banjo. We all sang along and had a fantastic time!
The man pictured about is Harvey Blassingame. He’s a retired conductor now, but has been with the railway since 1966! For many years he worked the Flamingo Train. It was a night train operated by the L&N… a passenger car with sleeper service that started in 1925! See that hat? He wore that on the Flamingo Train…and he comes through the train while you’re traveling to let kids try it on and snap a picture with him!
As you are riding toward the mountain loop, you hear great stories and learn a wealth of historical information.
The conductor/narrator will give you the scoop about the river, a few ghost towns along the tracks, and point out several hidden gems.
He shared information about each of the five cars on the train, plus the Engine. Ours was a GP38-2 GM engine originally from Southern Railway and was 2000 hp!
Personally, my favorite story was about the mountain loop. I won’t give it all away, but the tracks here were not a loop to start with; they were switchbacks. And oh how painful, time consuming and costly it was for engineers!
The loop was done in 1897, which included a trestle (shown here). The train passed under here…and about 5 minutes later, it looped around and passed along the trestle. It’s what makes the “loop” and saved the day!
Follow Our Tips
Here are a few additional pieces of information we gleaned on our trip that we thought might be helpful to you.
When you arrive. There is not a lot of parking right in front of the Depot, so you’ll want to get there early for the best parking and for time to roam the small museum there.
You’ll go inside and get your tickets, then head across the street to board a school bus which takes you to the train. It will take a few buses to get everyone over, so if you miss one just wait and another one will be there shortly.
The bus ride is about 10-15 min, and takes you to Hiwassee Ocoee Scenic River State Park. If you want to make an overnight of it, this is where I would recommend camping, doing some whitewater rafting, or tubing. It’s right on the river.
Also, if you are with someone with mobility issues, you can get your ticket at the Depot and then drive them here and park so that they don’t have to ride the bus…but that’s only with special permission so talk with the Depot.
Seating. We recommend that you try and grab a seat on the left side of the train (stare toward the engine, hold out your left arm…that’s the left of the train.) As we mention above, you will all switch sides at the half-way point…but the “narration” about what you are seeing happens on the first half of the trip, so I think that’s the optimal time to be by the river.
Also, take note that in the general seating area you can open windows on the LEFT side of the train, but the right side is too close to the mountain. You cannot open windows in the Dome…but you can head down to the area where the two Dome cars connect…and the window is open for getting some nice photos without glass.
Another tip about the Dome car…if you’re taking photos with your phone, I recommend using the HDR setting. I found that the shadows, window reflections, and fast moving train combined to make it more difficult to capture the moment…but my HDR setting seemed to really fix this issue. I use the HDR setting on the Adobe Lightroom Mobile App. This isn’t an ad for them, it just worked so much better that I wanted to share my secret.
Don’t speed. Finally, one more tip that I might not have shared except that it was reiterated by the train crew. You’ll probably be taking 75N to HWY 411 to get to the depot like we did (thank you Waze.) There are a TON of traffic police in the small towns that you’ll be going through – and they like to keep their record clean for traffic incidents. Don’t speed or they will get you…especially in Benton, TN.
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Disclosure: Thank you to the TVR for hosting us on this trip, and to our friends at Blue Ridge for telling us about it and arranging it. Opinions here are all our own, always!
After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking in the mountains or checking out Atlanta’s culinary scene, whiskey in hand.
Lesli has two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- plus two bonus kids currently at UGA, and she’s happily married to her soul mate.