Rail fun: Through the countryside and under the mountain on the passenger train

From Charlottesville to Staunton, Amtrak’s Cardinal provides a beautiful one-hour ride through the countryside. Photo: Ben Schumin From Charlottesville to Staunton, Amtrak’s Cardinal provides a beautiful one-hour ride through the countryside. Photo: Ben Schumin

Three days a week, an Amtrak train called the Cardinal rolls through Charlottesville on its way from New York to Chicago. Unless you’re planning a long trip to a city along the route (Indianapolis, anyone? Cincinnati?), you may not look twice at the train. But it’s more than a means of transport. For a family, the train can be an outing in itself.

I have a longstanding romance with trains, from the battered freight cars I saw snaking along the Pittsburgh rivers of my childhood, to the coaches I rode through Switzerland and Greece as a college student, to the BART light-rail cars that carried me to work in San Francisco. I love them all, and I consider a train journey to be a special window in time, when one’s only job is to gaze at the fascinating world crawling past.

Wanting to give my two girls a taste of that magic, I had eyed the Cardinal for a while. They’re still rather young, so I didn’t feel they were ready for a more ambitious trip, for instance, to Washington, D.C., (which would entail staying overnight, in any case). But I noticed that we could ride from Charlottesville to Staunton in the mid-afternoon, giving us about one hour on the train. All we’d need would be a driver willing to pick us up on the other side of the mountain.

I told my kids I had a surprise for them and didn’t reveal a thing until we pulled into the parking lot at the Amtrak station on West Main Street. It was a Friday afternoon. When they realized what was happening, they bounced around joyfully, just as I’d hoped they would. We waited on the platform in a state of high anticipation, gazing east down the tracks, and when the Amtrak engine finally slipped into view, the girls’ eyes grew wide. The three of us squeezed into two seats, and soon the train lurched into motion and the city started rolling past us.

One of my favorite things about train travel is that it can reveal a new side of places you thought you knew well. We drive between Charlottesville and Crozet all the time, but to see that part of Albemarle from the tracks offered a totally different perspective. It was exciting to shoot through downtown Crozet at high speed. I felt as if we were strangers in these parts again, wending our way past the unknown fields of Greenwood and beginning the long climb up the Blue Ridge. And once the train dove into the tunnel that carries it under Rockfish Gap, we entered a new realm. I felt a bit disoriented, and the girls fell silent, as we descended toward Waynesboro.

Though I’d brought along things to do—books, sketchbooks, snacks—we really didn’t need them. The girls were enchanted to be able to ride without seat belts, to feel the motion of the cars, to hear about how far these tracks could take us if we were to keep on riding. My older daughter pulled out a little notebook and wrote me a note: “Dear Mom, Thank you for this.”

When we pulled into the Staunton station, we were by no means tired of the train. But we had a new adventure before us—to explore Staunton, sans car. A block from the train station, we caught the trolley and rode it to Gypsy Hill Park, Staunton’s large (big enough to have its own golf course) and pleasantly old-fashioned greenspace.

Named for the nomadic people who frequented it in the 1800s, Gypsy Hill is highly programmed. It reminded me a little of New York City’s Central Park, with amusements from horseshoes to skate ramps and ball fields around every turn. After sprawling under a beautiful tree to nosh some snacks, the girls and I were drawn first to the large pond, where you can buy pellets to toss to the ducks and swans. Later we drifted toward the big playgrounds at the park’s other end, passing along the way another train, the Gypsy Express—this one a child-size railroad that tootles around the park on weekends.

After a while, my husband heroically appeared to drive us back to Charlottesville in an ordinary car. It was the end of a legendary day, one we’ll talk about for a long time to come.

If you go

Amtrak’s Cardinal route runs between New York and Chicago and passes through Charlottesville, heading west, on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday at 1:52pm. Tickets to Staunton cost $12 for adults, and for each adult, one child gets a half-price fare (Amtrak.com). Gypsy Hill Park is located at the intersection of Churchville and Thornrose avenues.

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