ABOARD THE GREEN MOUNTAIN FLYER – Outside the window of car No. 551, the New England countryside passes by in flashes of color, like photographs in a tourism brochure – blue streams and yellowing trees, white church steeples and red barns, timeworn covered bridges and freshly wrapped bales of hay.
Inside the 93-year-old coach car, leaf peepers keep their cameras at the ready as uniformed conductor Brian McGregor narrates the high points on the meandering 13-mile train trip from Chester, Vt., to Bellows Falls, Vt., and back again.
If fall foliage is your destination, the Green Mountain Flyer is one way to get there. And the train, which runs only one month a year, isn’t the only vehicle for car-free tours of autumn’s colors in northern New England.
Want to see the leaves from 3,936-foot Stratton Mountain? Hop on a $10 gondola ride at the southern Vermont ski area, where the peak offers a panoramic view of the changing Green Mountains.
If that’s not high enough, a glider should be. For $89 per person, you can spy the foliage from 5,000 feet up aboard a three-person glider flying from Morrisville-Stowe State Airport, near Stowe ski resort.
“All aboar-r-r-r-d!” McGregor calls out, picking up a step stool and throwing it onto the Green Mountain Flyer on a sun-dappled recent Friday, gearing up for the daily 12:10 p.m. departure from Chester’s restored 19th-century depot.
Soon, the kelly green and yellow diesel locomotive and its three passenger coaches pull away, with engineer Bruce Cloutier blowing the whistle as it picks up speed, lurching and clicking along the tracks.
The Flyer is Green Mountain Railroad’s annual “foliage train,” a low-key but high visibility train trip that runs Sept. 16 to Oct. 15. Cost: $17 for adults.
It’s a big draw for senior citizens, some of whom arrive 70 or 100 strong in coach buses to ride it.
“It’s just a great opportunity for train buffs and leaf peepers,” said bed-and-breakfast owner Jo-Ann Jurgensen, whose Park Light Inn – just down the road from the Chester depot – runs package deals that include the trip. “This is just a totally unique experience,” she said.
The train reaches speeds of 30 mph as it hugs the Williams River, passing farms, rivers and homes, the trees close enough for riders to touch, even though it’s discouraged. On this trip, the Green Mountains were still primarily green, with an occasional burst of red and yellow.
The best view comes as it rounds a turn and the Williams empties into the Connecticut River just north of Bellows Falls. There, the river valley opens to provide a dramatic vista of the water, the town and the New Hampshire hills on the other side.
To some passengers, the appeal is in the trees. To others, it’s in the rails.
“It’s got that originality to it,” said Steve Shephard, 48, of Foxboro, Mass., who rode with his wife, Meredith, and their 2-year-old son, Timothy. “The modern trains are quieter and faster, but this has got the character of the past. We timed it just right. We’re seeing some spectacular sights.”
“It’s nostalgic,” said Ann Chico, 57, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who rode with her husband, John. “I haven’t been on a train in years. It’s pretty. It’s great with the foliage.”
At Stratton Mountain, the gondola rides – $10 for adults – represent the resort’s bid to drum up ski business by bringing in visitors well before the snow falls. They are big draws on weekends.
The gondolas, which transport skiers to the peak during winter, slide along cables like glassy beads on a mountain necklace as they ascend 2,100 feet to the top of the mountain.
The ride takes about three minutes each way, and the view is spectacular, taking in peaks in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York and a rainbow of yellows, reds, greens and browns.
Once there, the hearty can hike trails, including one that leads to the 55-foot Stratton Mountain Fire Tower, which offers the best view of the area.
“This is fabulous up here,” said Roberta Green, 66, of Greenfield, Mass., a hiker who took the gondola up the mountain Thursday. “It’s all orange and red with autumn splendor.”
Unlike in winter, there are no lines. And it doesn’t take great physical strength.
“In the fall, for those who can’t hike or don’t want to hike, it’s the easiest way to get to the top of a mountain,” said Jeremiah Greco, a spokesman for Stratton.
At Stowe Soaring, all it takes to get a bird’s-eye view of Vermont’s fall foliage is $89 – and a strong stomach.
Leave the rest to Ann Kerbs, 45, a nurse who works part time as one of its glider pilots at the two-room Morrisville-Stowe State Airport, just north of Stowe.
The gliding operation, which is open from April through October, does brisk business when the leaves start turning, thanks to adventuresome tree watchers.
“That’s our busiest time of the year,” said manager Dave Whitcomb. “Summer is steady, but things really roll in foliage season.”
What gets the gliders rolling is a 1968 Piper Pawne, a former crop duster that uses a 200-foot tow rope to tug the 900-pound aluminum glider across the runway and up into the sky. Once up to 3,500 feet, Kerbs maneuvers her tethered ship above the crop duster and pulls a release lever.
The rope drops off the nose of the three-seat glider, casting it adrift amid gusting thermals and crosswinds as the crop duster breaks left and flies back to the airport.
“There’s some nice colors,” she says to her passenger, nodding towards the ground as the glider passes over Mount Elmore.
On this clear, windy fall day, the foliage is mainly green, brown and dull yellow, with a handful of red patches that come into view.
From up here, it is the mountains, the sky and the breathtaking vistas that command the attention, giving views of peaks in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Quebec.
Still, it’s a one-of-a-kind vantage point.
“That’s the only way to see fall foliage,” said Karen Hughes, 50, of Middlesex after her glide Tuesday afternoon. “It’s more unique. You’re seeing it from a different perspective.”