Scenic drives are great, but for a more unique and historic way to see Wisconsin landscapes, there's an old kid on the block: a scenic train ride.
It's ironic how popular they've become, considering Americans left passenger railroads in favor of personal automobiles in the 1950s. Outside of commuter and select Amtrak routes, personal train travel is a fraction of what it was during its heyday in the 19th and early 20th century.
But tourist trains are mostly thriving, drawing families and railroad enthusiasts for scenic rides aboard historic, restored cars that trigger a nostalgia for older riders and fascination with an uncommon, unique mode of transportation for kids.
"I think they're popular because they're kind of like reliving history. The kids get excited about being on a train, because most kids haven't been on a real train," said Steve Thomas, a volunteer and officer with the East Troy Electric Railroad. He noted that the railroad saw 24,000 riders in 2017, about double the number of riders in 2012.
The East Troy Electric Railroad runs on the last 7 miles of interurban rail line left in Wisconsin. There were once 300 miles of the electric, streetcar-like railways running between cities in the state.
"Before cars, it took a day and a half to get from Milwaukee to East Troy in a buggy or carriage," Thomas said. "Once the train was there, it took less than an hour and a half."
Some of those visitors came for lake cottages, Thomas said. Others came for the "quite magnificent" Hotel Beulah, a 500-room luxury hotel on Lake Beulah built in 1887. The hotel burned in 1895, was rebuilt, then burned again in 1911.
Today tourists come for a dose of that early 20th-century past. The East Troy Electric Railroad — run entirely by volunteers — has 25 electric railroad cars, trolleys and locomotives, some dating to the 1920s. Among the collection are two of the five remaining Milwaukee streetcars. One has been refurbished and is popular with riders.
"It's a way to experience history that has been lost, and something a little different," Thomas said, noting that autumn is one of the most popular times to ride, when fall colors dot the rolling Wisconsin countryside.
Here are eight places to experience the thrill of a scenic and historic train ride in Wisconsin.
East Troy Electric Railroad
This kid-friendly train follows the last remaining segment of the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light interurban rail system that once stretched for 130 miles in southeastern Wisconsin. A 7.5-mile ride takes passengers from a depot in East Troy to the Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago. Passengers can board at either depot, and tickets are good for unlimited rides between the two (pickups are also available at Indianhead Park in Mukwonago). Special events throughout the year include dinner and pizza trains, bunny and Christmas trains, and a beer-tasting train.
Trains run Saturdays and Sundays, April 7 to Nov. 4 with Friday rides June 1 to Oct. 26. Tickets are $12.50 for adults, $10.50 for seniors 65 and older, $8 for kids 3-14 and free for kids 2 and under. Special trains cost more; reservations are required for those trains, which often sell out. Call 262-642-3263 or see easttroyrr.org.
Tiffany Bottoms Train, Durand
Bird-watchers will enjoy this 8.5-mile open-car ride through the 13,000-acre Tiffany Wildlife Area. Without any major roads or developed trails through the area, the train is one of the few ways to get into a wildlife area that sees hundreds of bird species pass through every year. Volunteers operate the rail cars, which can carry 60 to 70 people. The remote ride is only offered a handful of times every year, during prime birding season (and outside of prime bug season) in May and September.
Advance registration is required for all rides. The first ride of the season is during Wings Over Alma, 7 a.m. to noon May 5. Public rides will also be offered May 9 and 12 and June 3. The Western Wisconsin Land Trust will offer rides for members only on May 5, and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin will offer a members-only ride on May 19. For registration information, see chippewavalleymotorcarassociation.ellawisc.com.
Mid-Continent Railway Museum, North Freedom
This 7-mile ride might be the most scenic of the bunch, taking riders through the beautiful Baraboo Hills. It's especially gorgeous in the fall, when the hardwood hills glow in a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and yellows. The railcars, dating back more than a century, and the restored 1894 depot add to the experience.
Train rides are offered weekends May 12-28 and Sept. 8-Oct. 21 and daily June 2-Sept. 3. Special rides include pizza and dinner trains, a Mother's Day brunch train and fall colors rides. Tickets start at $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 62 and older, $15 for kids 13-17, $10 for kids 3-12 and free for kids 2 and under. See midcontinent.org.
Lumberjack Steam Train, Laona
The 19th-century lumber camps of Wisconsin's Northwoods are mostly gone, but this train offers a glimpse into the remains of one. A 1916 4-spot steam locomotive pulls passengers from an 1880s depot in Laona to Camp 5, an old logging camp and site of the Lumber Company Farm. Buildings from the farm remain, including a hog barn that is now a petting zoo and a blacksmith shop that's part of a museum. In July, cowboys re-enact a robbery of the train for a one-day special event.
Rides are offered Thursday through Monday, June 21-Aug. 18, with special fall rides Sept. 1, 22 and 29. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 65 and older, $8 for kids 4-16 and free for kids 3 and under and active duty military and their families; families (two adults and three or more children ages 4-16) are $60. Call 715-674-3414 or see camp5museum.org.
National Railroad Museum, Green Bay
This museum is a wonderland for adults and kids, with dozens of historical rail cars and engines, including a Big Boy, the world's largest steam locomotive, and an exhibit honoring Pullman porters. The museum offers 25-minute rides around the complex aboard vintage, full-size cars. The ride circles the museum grounds and includes information on hobo culture and the museum's rolling stock. Popular events throughout the year include a special appearance by Thomas the Tank Engine during Day Out With Thomas in June, a pumpkin train in October and the Polar Express in December.
Rides depart at 10 a.m. (except Sunday), noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., daily May 1-Sept. 30 and on weekends Oct. 1-31. Museum admission and a train ticket cost $12 for adults, $11 for seniors, $9.50 for kids 2-12 and are free for kids under 2. Call 920-437-7623 or see nationalrrmuseum.org.
Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway
Ride through the scenic St. Croix River Valley aboard an Empire Builder. Rides depart from a 1916 depot, with options of a 90-minute ride through the valley's bluffs or a shorter 50-minute trip to Dresser and back. Special trains include brunch, dinner and pizza trains on the longer route. The concession car has a spot for wheelchairs, and lifts are available.
Trains run on Saturdays and Sundays, July through October. Tickets for the longer ride are $20 for adults, $10 for kids 3-15 and free for kids under 3. Reservations are recommended. Call 651-228-0263 or see transportationmuseum.org.
Riverside & Great Northern Railroad, Wisconsin Dells
The train is mini but mighty, offering visitors a chance to ride on a 15-inch gauge light railroad (the same as the train at the Milwaukee County Zoo) on a 3-mile track along the beautiful Dells of the Wisconsin River. The museum grounds are accessible, and the train can accommodate one wheelchair on a special car.
The train operates on Saturdays and Sundays April through mid-May and September and October and daily Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Tickets are $12 for adults, $9 for seniors 62 and older, $8 for kids and free for kids 3 and under and active duty military and their families. Call 608-254-6367 or see dellstrain.com.
Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad, Spooner
Spend a night in a traditional Pullman car on a Bed and Breakfast ride with this rail line. The ride includes dinner as the train travels through the Northwoods and along the Namekagon River. It then returns to the station where guests spend the night onboard, followed by breakfast in the dining car. The railroad also offers dinner, pizza and sightseeing trains.
Prices vary, but the Bed and Breakfast Train starts at $329 for a couple. Check Groupon or other coupon sites for deals, which are offered frequently. Call 715-635-3200 or see spoonertrainride.com.