Michigan has several picturesque routes that you can drive. But it also has several that you can only see on authentic train rides. Through countrysides and historic towns, taking a scenic train ride in Michigan is a fun way to tour the Mitten.
Many of the trains are historic themselves and have been restored to give you the chance to experience a piece of the past. In fact, the state has a rich history in the railroad industry. The next time you want a one-of-a-kind day trip, check out the below train rides in Michigan.
Michigan’s Railroad History
The railroad system in Michigan started in 1833 when the first tracks were laid between Adrian and Toledo on the Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad. Surprisingly, it was a state newspaper — The Western Immigrant — that suggested building a transcontinental railroad the year before.
However, it took three years for horse-powered rail services to start on the line. That’s right! The first rail services were powered with horses, not trains. It wasn’t until 1837 that the first steam locomotive was placed into service on the Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad.
Rail Expansion Across the State
In the meantime, other parts of Michigan started building railways. Construction began on the Michigan Central Railroad in 1836. It connected Detroit with Ypsilanti in 1838, Ann Arbor in 1839, and Jackson in 1841. By this point, the Michigan rail system had grown to more than 104 miles.
By the end of the decade, more rail construction connected Detroit with Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and New Buffalo, making it the first line to cross the state. This gave Michigan 380 miles of rail line as of 1850. After that, the tracks expanded across state lines, allowing service into Chicago for the first time in 1852. Four years later, a line connecting Detroit to Toledo was completed.
In 1855, the Iron Mountain Railroad was the first common carrier line to be chartered in the Upper Peninsula. Then, the Negaunee-Marquette line was finished in 1857. Michigan had 770 miles of railroad by 1860 and 1,739 miles by 1870. In 1871, the state built 559 miles of mainline track, the most in a single year.
Railroad expansion continued at a significant pace, reaching 3,823 miles by 1880, 6,957 miles by 1890, and 7,946 miles by 1900. Michigan had more than 9,000 miles of track by 1910. Meanwhile, the road system was improving, so more people were using cars and trucks to get around. As a result, the miles of railroad track began to shrink. As of 2010, the length of Michigan’s railroads had dropped to a collective 3,634 miles.
Contribution to Economy
The rail boom had a very important role in Michigan’s economic development. Freight railroads gave shippers a cost-effective means to transport bulk and heavy commodities. The automotive industry still depends on the rails to transport materials between their plants and to move finished vehicles to their markets. Also, the agricultural industry relies on freight rails to ship grains to the marketplace.
Over recent years, freight lines and the trucking industry have collaborated to transport goods via containers. Along with being cost effective, it’s an energy-efficient alternative to trucking because it generates less air pollution. Furthermore, railroads are critical to the country’s defense in terms of transporting heavy weaponry.
Intercity Passenger Services
Intercity passenger service between Kalamazoo and Detroit started in 1846 and was provided by the private railroads until 1971. Then, Amtrak was established to operate a passenger service. This era began with two daily round trips between Detroit and Chicago.
In 1974, the frequency was increased to three daily round trips, and one of them went to Toledo. The Chicago-Port Huron service started the same year, and the Chicago-Grand Rapids service started in 1984. In 1994, the two services that ended in Detroit were extended to Pontiac. The following year, the third service that ended in Toledo was rerouted to Pontiac.
The passenger business remained relatively steady for several years before a major increase during the beginning of the 21st century. Statewide intercity passenger numbers achieved a record high in 2013 and decreased slightly in 2014. The 2013 high may have been influenced by Amtrak launching services that operate at up to 110 mph, the first in the United States outside of the Northeast corridor.
Amtrak and private railroads continue to offer passenger train rides in Michigan, contributing to the state’s economic well-being. The services connect people to educational and career opportunities, increase productivity, encourage tourism, raise property values around the stations, and enhance environmental efficiency.
Train Rides in Michigan Upper Peninsula
Lake Linden and Torch Lake Railroad
On the west side of the Upper Peninsula in Lake Linden, the Houghton County Historical Society runs a museum complex with a wide selection of exhibits, including large machines that are displayed outdoors. The Keweenaw Peninsula village used to be home to the biggest copper milling operation on the continent, and the society showcases its importance. The museum building has three floors with artifacts and other items regarding local mining, logging, and cultural history.
Among these exhibits is a working Calumet & Hecla Mining Co. train, which you can ride on the Lake Linden and Torch Lake Railroad. These historic train rides in Michigan are available during the summer and part of October for Halloween-themed adventures. The train travels a ⅖-mile loop around the museum campus, and the cheap ticket fees pay for track and car maintenance. If you live in the area, annual family passes are available.
Tahquamenon Falls Riverboat Tour & the Famous Toonerville Trolley
Tahquamenon Falls Riverboat Tours has been offering riverboat and scenic train rides in Michigan since 1927. The tours are located on a logging site that was once operated by Robert Hunter. He purchased the 15,000 acres in the early 1900s and had a small rail line — the Hunter and Love Line — built to aid the work.
At the time, lumberjacks would stack harvested trees on the river bank in the winter. When spring came, the river would thaw, swell from the melting snow, and carry the logs downstream and over Upper Tahquamenon Falls (the Niagara of Michigan) to Lake Superior. In the process, though, many of the trees would absorb too much water and sink, or they would sustain damage going over the falls.
The Duluth South Shore and Atlantic Railroad built the Hunter and Love Line, which spurred from Soo Junction, Michigan, to the sawmill about 5.5 miles away. The 24-inch gauge railroad was completed in 1910, aiding the transport of the harvested trees.
Hunter completed his logging operation in 1925, at which time the sawmill and railroad spur were shut down. Eventually, the rail was reopened to shorten Joe Beach’s daily river patrol as a conservation officer at the McNearney Farm along the river. Then, he got the idea to start a waterfall tour business using the rail line and a riverboat.
You can experience the 6.5-hour tour for yourself. It begins at Soo Junction with a 35-minute ride on the Toonerville Trolley — a narrow gauge train — and is followed with a 2-hour narrated cruise on a riverboat. Once you reach the rapids above Upper Tahquamenon Falls, you can disembark and hike the ⅝-mile trail to see the falls. You get about 1 hour and 15 minutes to explore the area before returning to Soo Junction.
Southwest Michigan Train Rides
Coopersville & Marne Railway
Offering historic train rides in Michigan, the Coopersville & Marne Railway is an all-volunteer railway that operates vintage locomotives and passenger cars from the 1920s. First laid in 1858, the tracks run for about 14 miles from Coopersville to Grand Rapids. However, the passenger service only travels 7 miles between Coopersville and Marne. The rest of the line between Marne and Grand Rapids is reserved for hauling freight cars.
The passenger services run between spring and winter, preserving a part of Michigan’s railroad history and educating you along the way. During the ride, the train crosses over an open deck girder bridge, a road bridge, and four creeks. Part of the way, the track runs alongside Interstate 96. Upon arrival in Marne, the vintage locomotive detaches from the cars, moves onto the passing tracks, and reattaches to the other end of the train to pull it back to Coopersville — all within about 90 minutes.
On Saturdays during the summer, the railway operates EnterTRAINment Excursions. These rides feature a variety of musicians and the Singing Trainman, who performs railroad and other acoustic songs. You even learn about the railroad history and equipment from the conductor. In addition, the Coopersville & Marne Railway offers specialty train rides throughout the year:
- The Bunny Train operates in the spring and features the Easter Bunny with a cast of musical, wacky characters who perform and pass out toys.
- The Veterans Free Troop Train operates around Memorial Day weekend, offering free rides to veterans.
- The Great Train Robbery is an event that takes you back to 1858, giving you the thrill of the Wild Old West with a shootout between recognizable characters.
- The Murder Mystery Train involves solving a simple robbery that turns into a murder mystery.
- The Famous Pumpkin Train is a fall train rides Michigan tradition featuring the Scarecrow, Little Crow, and Grand Pumpkin.
- The Santa Train in the winter gives kids a chance to meet Santa and his friends and listen to Christmas-themed stories told by a Princess.
Little River Railroad
Using an authentic steam engine train that’s more than 100 years old, the Little River Railroad offers scenic train rides in Michigan. The ride runs from Coldwater to Quincy or Hillsdale before returning to Coldwater. When the train gets to Quincy or Hillsdale, it takes about 30 minutes for the locomotive to detach and reattach for the return journey. During this time, you’re allowed to get out of the passenger car and watch the process.
The price and length of the train rides depend on the theme that Little River Railroad has planned. Here’s an overview:
- The Lazy Days summer rides and Holiday Express with Santa last for about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- The Easter Bunny Express with an Easter Egg Hunt, Father’s Day ride, Quincy Flyer, and Fall Pumpkin Train last about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
- The Hillsdale Flyer is about 4 hours because the city is farther away than Quincy.
Additionally, you can rent a passenger car or the entire train. It’s a unique way to celebrate a birthday, family reunion, company event, or other gathering.
Train Rides in Southeast Michigan
Steam Railroading Institute
Operating the famous Pere Marquette No. 1225, the Steam Railroading Institute offers some of the most popular train rides in Michigan. The institute manages a museum complex where the former Ann Arbor Railroad roundhouse and steam shops were located in Owosso. Through the summer, the complex is open for tours.
When you first arrive, go to the Welcome Center to see a model railroad layout, a collection of archival materials and artifacts, and other exhibits. A volunteer guide can take you through the museum and give you a behind-the-scenes peek at the collection and equipment. The highlight of the tour is visiting the back shop where the Pere Marquette rests when it’s not in operation. Make sure that you visit the gift shop for fun railroad toys, souvenirs, and specialty gifts before leaving.
Throughout the year, you can ride the Pere Marquette 1225, one of the biggest operating steam locomotives in Michigan. It’s famous for being the muse for the 2004 animated film “The Polar Express.” The animated train was created based on its blueprints and sounds. Although weekend trips and sporadic all-day excursions are available during the year, the 1-hour The Polar Express train ride in Michigan attracts a lot of people in December.
In addition, the SRI complex features a 7.5-gauge miniature railroad. The little train operates between the rails and parallel with the Shiawassee River Trail. It’s a fun ride for all ages and is only available on Fridays and Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Huckleberry Railroad at Crossroads Village
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, you have the chance for scenic train rides in Michigan on the Huckleberry Railroad. The railroad was part of Flint Pere Marquette Railroad Company when it was put into operation in 1857. The line got its name from the trains running so slow that a person could jump off, pick some huckleberries, and jump back on without much effort.
You can ride this historic line on a 40-minute journey from Crossroads Village. The railroad operates three locomotives — one diesel, one coal-fired, and one steam — on a rotation to accommodate repairs and improvements. The locomotives pull original and replica wooden coaches along Mott Lake and down the historic Pere Marquette roadbed before turning back to Crossroads Village.
For a couple of weekends during the summer, you have the chance to spend the day with Thomas the Tank Engine. The event features a ride on Thomas, meeting with Sir Topham Hatt, lawn games, and more. It’s an exciting event for young kids who love watching Thomas at home.
Also, Crossroads Village has more than 34 historic structures to explore. You can’t visit for a train ride without catching a show at the opera house, learning about craftsman trades, or hopping on amusement rides. Your ride on the Huckleberry Railroad is only one small part of an all-day adventure.
Michigan Transit Museum
In Mt. Clemens, the Michigan Transit Museum is located in the old Mount Clemens Train Station, which was built in 1859 and operated until 1980. The building is on the National Registry of Historic Places and houses a range of exhibits that keep alive Michigan’s railroad history. During its operation, the depot was part of a 60-mile line that ran between Detroit and Port Huron.
A harrowing story at the depot — Thomas Edison saved the son of the station agent in 1862. The boy was on the tracks and in the path of a boxcar. As thanks, the station agent taught Edison telegraphy, which started his short railroading career and some of his earliest inventions.
Aside from exhibits, the Michigan Transit Museum offers train rides on its continuously restored equipment. The coaches are pulled by a former United States Air Force Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton RS4TC diesel switcher. Only the military owned this specific model, and the museum is one of several places across the country that has one to preserve. All of the train rides are about 45 minutes and feature a different theme throughout the year:
- Summer trains run mid-June to mid-September
- Fall Harvest trains run from mid-September to mid-October
- Trick-or-Treat trains run at the end of October
- Holiday Express trains run in December
Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford Museum
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn is an internationally recognized destination that immerses visitors in the innovation and resourcefulness that helped make the United States what it is today. It’s a historic landmark with an exceptional collection of artifacts that spans 300 years of history and continues to grow.
Greenfield Village is part of the experience, offering historic train rides in Michigan. The operating steam-powered locomotive is one of the oldest in the country. It runs on the Weiser Railroad from an 1800s train depot. During the ride, you learn about the history of railroading in the area. Afterward, you can explore the working late 19th-century roundhouse. This area of the museum complex features other modes of transport as well — Model T and horse-drawn carriage rides.
For a couple of weekends, Thomas the Tank Engine visits the Weiser Railroad. Along with riding the special character train, the all-day celebration includes meeting Sir Topham Hatt, magic shows, live music, storytelling, and more.
Southern Michigan Railroad
Managed by the Southern Michigan Railroad Society, the Southern Michigan Railroad is a line that stretches for 13.5 miles. This Jackson Branch began in Palmyra in 1836 and was expanded to Tecumseh in 1837 and again to Clinton in 1853. What makes it different from the other railroads is that it’s completely owned by the organization and only used to preserve the line’s history. This makes it a living museum that operates historic train rides in Michigan.
While you learn about the historic railroad, the trains take you on a scenic journey through forests, countrysides, and small towns. During the year, the organization offers various themes. The 2-hour Spring Wildflower Trains run between Clinton and Tecumseh, giving you layover options to explore. The Summer Tours run from Clinton to Tecumseh, and the Fall Colors Tours in October run from Tecumseh to Clinton. In December, Santa Tours are available. You have the chance to attend popular events in the towns during some of these train rides.
The Old Road Dinner Train
For a Michigan train tour with dinner, hop aboard The Old Road Dinner Train operated by the Adrian & Blissfield Rail Road Company. The trains operate from Blissfield and Charlotte.
The Blissfield Train runs on part of the original Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad through rich farmland in Southeastern Michigan that is thought to have been the bottom of Lake Erie at one time. The ride takes you to Lenawee Junction where more than 40 trains used to exchange passengers and goods every day. You can book three-course lunches or five-course dinners — both with an optional murder mystery. Weekday evening charters are also available.
The Charlotte Train runs on part of the Grand Valley Rail Road, which was built in 1870 and connects Jackson and Grand Rapids. During the leisure, 2-hour round trip, you pass through historic Charlotte and some countryside to the east. On the other hand, you can book a five-course dinner with or without a murder mystery.
Along with fine dining, the Murder Mystery Trains feature a humorous tableside mystery with an acting troupe. The group rotates the shows during the year and selects some of the riders to participate. The murder mystery and dinner take about 3 hours.
Moreover, the Adrian & Blissfield Rail Road Company offers several specialty train rides in December. You can have lunch with Santa, experience the Santa Express, or solve the New Year’s Eve murder mystery. In any case, you can expect a spectacular show and delicious food.
Alternative — A Southern Michigan Train Tour on Amtrak
For the most part, the above train rides in Michigan only allow you to explore a town or two. Did you know that Amtrak makes it easy to visit multiple cities in Southern Michigan? The center of the company’s cross-country rail system is in Chicago, and the trains make frequent daily trips to key cities in Michigan — Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, East Lansing, Battle Creek, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Port Huron.
In fact, there are 22 depots from which you can start a Michigan train tour on Amtrak. It’s possible to plan an entire vacation out of riding the rails. Although you don’t get a history lesson with your ride, you can look out the window for a scenic view of the state’s beautiful landscape.
Have you experienced any of these Michigan train rides? Do you have a scenic train ride on your bucket list?