Ask anyone who’s done it, and they’ll tell you: There is something almost magical about traveling by train. Aboard the Amtrak Adirondack, that magic is palpable as you wind through the scenic Hudson Valley, skirt beautiful Lake Champlain, and cross an international border, all in a day’s time.
The Magic of Train Travel
What comes to mind when someone mentions train travel? The scenic and popular Eurail system, or Japan’s modern high-speed miracles are probably the first you think of. Perhaps it’s Pullman cars, the Orient Express, and the Golden Age of Travel. But the American passenger service Amtrak has some legendary trains and routes itself, with evocative names like the Pacific Surfliner, the Empire Builder, and the venerable City of New Orleans.
While we have yet to ride every inch of Amtrak’s rails, one of our favorite routes is the Adirondack, shuttling travelers daily between Manhattan and Montreal. Traveling through some of Upstate New York’s most picturesque regions, it’s no wonder the Adirondack routinely appears on lists of the world’s most scenic train trips. It’s particularly popular during the autumn and winter, when leaf peepers and skiers head to the mountain resorts of northern New York and Vermont.
We were recently in the former category, taking the train from New York to take advantage of the famous New England fall colors.
The Amtrak Adirondack travels through some of New York’s most beautiful regions, earning it a spot on the world’s most scenic train trips.
The Adirondack Route
In 1971, when Amtrak service debuted in New York, the Adirondack line went as far as Albany. The Delaware and Hudson railroad had operated service between Albany and Montreal, but the route closed until Amtrak leased the tracks in 1974. Today, more than 300 people ride the Adirondack daily, either as part of their daily commute, for business across the region or, like us, on holiday.
Those tracks cover 318 miles in about 10 hours, with 20-some stops along the way. The train makes it easy and affordable to get away from New York City for a day or a weekend, or from Montreal in the opposite direction. You can visit the famed Locust Grove Estate in Poughkeepsie. Once the home of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, today it’s a world class museum, park, and nature preserve. In Albany, you can visit the New York State House, and the State University of New York. You can tour historic Fort Ticonderoga, or the Saratoga National Historic Park, one of several Revolutionary War battlefields along the route.
Boarding at Penn Station
Train #69, the Amtrak Adirondack, leaves New York’s Penn Station every morning at 8:15. (Train #68 leaves Montreal at 10:20am daily; the two Adirondack trains pass each other somewhere near Westport, NY.) If you’re unfamiliar with New York, that’s the train station beneath Madison Square Garden. It’s the busiest train station in the western hemisphere (serving about 650,000 people daily!), so getting there early is a good idea. We arrived at 6:30 so we could explore the station a bit, and grab breakfast before the trip. The line to board the Amtrak Adirondack starts forming around 7:30.
Something for Everyone! Coffee options at NY Penn Station.
Did we say line? Yes, we did. You see, your reserved coach ticket (all that’s available on the Amtrak Adirondack) is simply for A seat on the train, not a specific seat. That means there is no boarding early and going right to your seat. Instead, a line forms in a designated area on the Upper Level, about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time. You’ll see a sign to the left of the check-in stand for people going to Canada (as you face the stand), near the escalator to Tracks 7/8. (See this map of the main level.) Conveniently, we entered from 31st Street, and found ourselves in the right place…but way before the line was forming. If you get there early also, wait in the lounge so you can see when the line starts.
Note: If you are taking the Amtrak Adirondack all the way to Montreal, you do need to check in at that desk (it says “Canada” on it) before getting in line.
When the train finally starts boarding, a conductor at the bottom of the escalator will ask which town you’ll be getting off at, and direct you to a specific car. It pays to get in line early so you can grab a seat on the left side of the train (facing forward) for the best views of the Hudson River Valley. (Later, you’ll want to switch to the right side.) Despite getting to the station early, we were late(ish) to the line. By the time we boarded our designated car, most left-side seats were taken.
Pro Tip: We learned later that you can get a Red Cap in the Amtrak Lounge to assist with luggage, if needed. Red Caps are also helpful for the elderly and mobility-impaired. As a bonus, they can reportedly get you down to the train ahead of people waiting in line. You’ll see why that’s a bonus in just a little bit.
The Hudson River Valley
There are very few areas in New York and New Jersey that compete with the Hudson River Valley for scenery, particularly on a crisp October morning when the fall foliage is out. Or so we’ve been told. This part of the trip is just a foggy memory for us. Literally. A rain storm moved in, and we emerged from the tunnels of New York in rain and fog.
Showers continued for most of the trip, but the fog had lifted by the time we reached Poughkeepsie. Lost in the fog were glimpses of the Mid-Hudson Bridge, the forested Hudson Highlands, Bear Mountain, and the Lyndhurst and Rockefeller mansions.
Albany and the Great Dome Car
Ed.Note: At the end of August 2019, Amtrak finally retired the Great Dome Car, the last of her kind. The Adirondack route is exceptionally scenic, and always worthy of traveling, but the rolling landmark will be missed. Amtrak is reportedly investigating alternate new carriages to take her place. You can read more at the Albany Times Union.
The tracks continue alongside the Hudson River all the way to Albany, where there’s a service stop. You have a few minutes as the crew adds the Great Dome Car to the train. (If you’re going south from Montreal, the stop in Albany is to remove the Great Dome Car.)
This passenger car is unique in Amtrak’s rolling stock: The upper deck offers true 360-dgree views, with huge curved windows that extend from table height into the ceiling. There are seats, and several tables, all around the cabin, often filled with passengers oohing and aahing at the scenery. One of the best vantage points, though, is standing on a small platform just to the right as you come up the stairs. You’ll have views back over the train is it snakes its way along forests, lakes, and mountains. If you’re looking for that one-of-a-kind Instagramable view on this trip, that’s where you’ll find it.
The historic carriage is the last dome car in Amtrak service. It was built in 1955 for the Great Northern Railway, and later worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad. Amtrak acquired the car at its founding in 1971. It has undergone several renovations, the latest in 1999, and operates seasonally on different Amtrak routes.
Sadly, at the young age of about 65, the Great Dome Car may be facing retirement. Staff on the train told us she was taken out of service for repairs after a tree branch broke a window in 2018, and that may be the last time she gets fixed up. If another major repair is needed, she will likely be retired instead.
There has been talk of her retirement for several years, but the carriage is a favorite among crew and passengers. It’s humbling to think we may have been aboard for her last season. We sincerely hope that Amtrak will ensure this historic gem is maintained for passengers to enjoy for many more years.
As the train leaves the Albany-Rensselaer station, people start migrating toward the front of the train, waiting for the announcement that the Great Dome Car is open. There is no additional charge for seats in the carriage, but it is first come – first served.
The historic Great Dome Car is an unforgettable way to experience fall colors in Upstate New York’s Lake Champlain Valley.
Trails & Rails
Along with the Great Dome Car, a volunteer from the National Park Service joins the train in Albany as part of the Trails & Rails program. As the train makes its way upstate and around Lake Champlain, the volunteer will point out natural, cultural, and historical sites along the way.
The Trails & Rails program is free of charge, thanks to Amtrak’s partnership with the National Park Service. Along with history lessons and information about area events, our docent had maps and handouts available, and good advice about places to go in Upstate New York and neighboring Vermont.
Lake Champlain Area
This may be the best section of track in the country for a Trails & Rails program! The Lake Champlain area is as rich in Revolutionary-era history as it is in natural beauty. When the train is snaking between the Adirondack Mountains and the shore of Lake Champlain – an area known as the Adirondack Coast – there is no better place to be than upstairs in the Great Dome Car!
As the train traveled almost the entire 120-mile western coast of Lake Champlain, our docent filled us in on the native wildlife, which includes the American Bald Eagle. (True to form, we didn’t spot a single one.) She also pointed out sites like Fort Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and Valcour Island, and told us of their roles in history.
If the Great Dome Car is not on your trip, you’ll want to switch to the right side of the train at Albany (when traveling north) for the best views. The Rails & Trails volunteers will be in the Café Car.
Crossing into Canada
The last stop in the U.S. (or first, if traveling southward), is Rouses Point. Here, the train is subject to an US Customs and Border Protection, which can cause delays. You are crossing an international border, even if it is on a train, so be sure to have your passport or passport card with you, and not stuffed in your luggage! (That obviously should include your Visa, if needed.)
We disembarked in Plattsburgh, so did not go through the border crossing. We asked a few “regulars” on the train, who said it’s similar to arriving in Canada by air. The customs officials will ask you the same sort of questions: Where you’re going, where you’re from, why you’re entering Canada, etcetera. Going south, it’s a similar scenario when you enter the United States. If you’re a passport stamp collector, you may have to ask to get stamped.
Shortly after you’ve cleared customs, the train crosses the 45th Parallel, which marks the border between the U.S. and Canada in New York. Leaving Lake Champlain behind, you’ll cross mile after mile of Canadian farmland en route to St. Lambert, QC. Trains here connect to Niagara Falls and Toronto, but the Amtrak Adirondack ends its run at Montreal’s Gare Centrale. Barring any delays, you should arrive at about 7pm.
The Leaf Peeping Train
Although it’s not designated as such, one of the main attractions of the Amtrak Adirondack is the prime leaf peeping opportunity!
The route travels through some of the best areas in New England for fall foliage: The Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, the Hudson River Valley, and the Lake Champlain area. With so much natural beauty in every direction, adding the Great Dome Car to the route is icing on the cake.
The big question, of course, is when to go. If you’re lucky enough to live in New England, you can easily catch the train when you spot the leaves changing. For everyone else, there’s a bit of luck involved. We chose the second week of October, because that’s when the forecast looked best when we booked tickets in August. We were rewarded with some great color, but heard that peak was the following week. Ironically, we were in Vermont the following week, and heard peak was the week before. Moral of the story: Mother Nature doesn’t listen to the forecast.
It can be hard to catch prime color. Predicting in advance when leaves will change is as hard as predicting the weather a month or more ahead of time. To help, there is a great interactive Fall Foliage Prediction Map, and a great primer on the art and science of leaf peeping, at SmokeyMountains.com.
Essential Amtrak Adirondack Information
As a daily service running year-round between Manhattan and Montreal, the train serves commuters and travelers alike. The locals know the routine by heart but, for travelers, some things aren’t apparent. Here are a few pieces of essential information for your trip on the Amtrak Adirondack.
Tickets & Where to Buy Them
While trains have been around for more than a century, ticketing is a thoroughly modern affair. If you’d like, you can still buy a ticket at the train station, but we prefer purchasing in advance. Our advice is to download the Amtrak app for your smartphone to manage your train travel. Hopefully, this won’t be your only train trip, so the app will be handy to have.
You can purchase fares either on-line or in the app. For a round-trip fare, enter your starting point (NYP – New York Penn Station) and destination (Montreal, QC – MTR), the date you’re leaving, and your return date. You can also book one-way tickets, multi-city itineraries, or tickets to any stop along the way. Prices vary according to the day and season, but a one-way Value Ticket (NYP-MTR) should be less than $80US for adults, and under $50 for children 2 to 12. Refundable Flexible Ticket will be more.
Note: If you are traveling across the U.S./Canada border, you will need to provide your date of birth and country of citizenship on your reservation, and indicate the form of ID you will carry with you on your trip. You’ll need to make sure you have the proper documentation for international travel, and that they are up to date.
You and Your Baggage
As with all short-distance Amtrak trains, there is no checked baggage service on the Amtrak Adirondack. This means you keep your luggage with you; you take it onto the train, and you take it off.
If you’re going for a day or weekend trip, that’s no big deal. You’re probably only taking a carry-on suitcase, or a backpack, both of which will fit on the overhead luggage rack. There is room up there for your other belongings, as well. If fact, there’s room up there to take a nap! For some reason, it seems so much more spacious than airline overhead bins. (Sort of a recurring theme on Amtrak trains.)
If you’re taking a longer trip, as we were, you might have a larger suitcase, and that’s alright, too. At the end of each passenger car is a storage compartment. Here again, boarding as early as you can pays dividends: That small compartment fills up fast! In fact, we’ve never been on a train trip where it wasn’t overflowing.
The good news is that, so long as you’re mindful of other passengers, there is usually some space at either end of each carriage. If you have nobody sitting next to you, you can likely use that space, too.
Although there is no checked baggage service, there is baggage assistance at both Penn Station and Montreal’s Central Station. You can take advantage of Amtrak’s Red Cap service to handle your bags and get you to your train. Be sure to let staff on the train know if you’ll need assistance getting off the train, as well.
Aboard the Amtrak Adirondack
There is no First or Business Class on the Amtrak Adirondack. Every seat is coach, so you can sit where you like. You will need to show your ticket (or app) when boarding. Sometime during the trip, a conductor will visit, ask where you’re departing, and place a small card at your seat. If you move, be sure to take that card with you. Likewise, when changing seats, that card will tell you if a seat is taken.
Speaking of changing seats, you are generally free to move about the train. If the car you’re in is too loud, feel free to move to another. When the best side for scenery changes, you may want to switch sides, at least. And when they announce that the Great Dome Car is open, you’ll definitely want to change cars!
The Café Car
Taking the Amtrak Adirondack is generally a full day of travel. Even if you don’t go the whole way between Manhattan and Montreal, you’re likely to be there long enough to get a little hungry. There is no Dining Car on the train, but there is a Café Car. If you’re familiar with Amtrak service, it’s the same menu you’ll see on trains across the country. There are plenty of pre-packaged snack foods, along with pizza and sandwiches. Beverages include coffee and tea, soda and juices, and even wine, beer, and liquor. Unlike trains with a dining car, your ticket does not include food. You’ll have to pay by cash, credit, or debit card.
There is seating in the Café Car, but you can take your selections back to your seat if you’d like. You can even take food and drinks into the Great Dome Car. Interestingly, there are café facilities and seating on the lower level of the Dome Car, but it no longer operates as a café car.
Note: We did not see Vegan options in the Café Car, though there were limited Kosher selections. Also, Amtrak does not guarantee a nut- (or other allergen) free environment.
Passengers are allowed to bring food aboard the train, and we’ve seen many people taking advantage of that, whether homemade or take-out.
When to Find the Great Dome Car
There are two trains that run the Adirondack route daily, but there’s only one Great Dome Car! You’ll find it going north (New York to Montreal) on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Then south on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
The car is on the Adirondack route only in the fall, usually from September through November. As always, schedules can change without warning. You can check Amtrak’s page for the Great Dome Car for availability, but service changes could mean that the car is out of service during your travel dates.
The Great Dome Car is also featured on the Downeaster Route, from Brunswick to Portland in Maine, from August to September.
Fun Amtrak Adirondack Facts
- The Adirondack is one of the more popular routes for private train cars. (Yes, it’s a thing!) We didn’t have any on our train, but frequently these luxury private cars are attached at the end of the train. They are usually chartered for tour groups, with tour prices in the thousands (compared to our $72 tickets).
- The Great Dome Car has a name: “Ocean View.” Ironic, on the Adirondack run, as there is no ocean to be seen.
- The Amtrak Adirondack isn’t the only route with stunning fall foliage! The Amtrak Vermonter, the Downeaster, the Ethan Allen, and the Capitol Limited all enjoy New England fall scenery. See all Amtrak routes here.
- Sometimes, the Great Dome Car gets to ride on other routes. For example, it was on the Downeaster during the summers of 2016 and 2017. Checking Amtrak’s blog is the best way to find out if this historic carriage is making a special appearance.
- The Amtrak station in Port Henry, New York, was built in 1888, making it one of Amtrak’s oldest stations!
Final Thoughts on the Amtrak Adirondack & the Great Dome Car
Regular readers will know that we love visiting New England in the autumn, and one of our favorite fall activities is Leaf-Peeping! From the Hudson Valley and up through the Adirondacks, the cooler weather brings a riot of color, and the Amtrak Adirondack is a great way to see it. The trip is beautiful year-round though; one reason it’s routinely named as one of the most scenic train trips in the world. We highly recommend it any time of year, but especially in the autumn.
The Great Dome Car is obviously the best way to see all of the fall color and beauty of the Lake Champlain area. The 360-degree views are truly breathtaking, but we will admit that she could use a little sprucing up. Her last refurbishment, as of this writing, was 20 years ago. Though it’s still sturdy and comfortable, the downstairs is unused, and the upstairs seating could be updated. With persistent rumors of her retirement, renovation is probably not in the plans.
We would love to see Amtrak invest in the Great Dome Car and keep this moving national treasure available for passengers to come. It would be fantastic to see her restored as a fully-functioning lounge car, with the café downstairs and amazing views up top. Perhaps the carriage could be used on more routes, also. We can think of no better was to experience the unforgettable views of the Pacific Northwest, across the Empire Builder route, and through the Desert Southwest.
We doubt that will happen, but we are fairly certain that retirement from Amtrak won’t be the end of the line for old “Ocean View.” If Amtrak doesn’t keep her rolling, one of America’s private rail car companies probably will. Of course, that comes with a price tag, and it will be substantially more than the 70-or-so dollars it will cost you today. So, if you have an opportunity to ride in the Great Dome Car, take it! We did, and we’ll never forget it.
Your turn! Have you taken the Amtrak Adirondack through New York? Have you had a chance to ride in the Great Dome Car? And how do you like train travel? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget, you can see more photos from the Amtrak Adirondack in the photo companion to this guide!