Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad: An American Treasure

Durango train

The Durango Train in Southwestern Colorado

Spring has sprung here in southwestern Colorado, although there has been snow on the Peaks these past couple of nights and frost on the ground this morning. These dustings just make for prettier panoramas, something we’re not lacking here in Colorado. The leaves have popped within the past week and the tourists are beginning to arrive from nearby and far flung destinations.

If you’re looking to maximize your sightseeing and experience something real old timey in the process, I recommend you book a trip on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, one of the most exciting train rides in the world. The train rattles and chuffs along tracks as narrow as 36 inches wide (along the mountain passes) from May through October, offering breathtaking views to visitors from all over the world.

The first train arrived in Durango, Colorado during the summer of 1881. Within less than a year, workers managed to lay track all the way to Silverton, an almost unfathomable feat accomplished largely by the quest for gold and silver up in the mountains. Yes, these were the boomtown days of mining and during that time this narrow gauge railroad between Durango and Silverton played a pivotal role.

Once you’re on one of the classic rail cars peering out at towering views over the Animas River Canyon, it feels as though not much has changed since the old days. If you’re in one of the open-air coaches (probably the most fun), you still get covered in soot and can feel the brisk mountain air sweep your face. The train still has to stop to have its water tank filled, a pleasant delay that gives you more time to take in the surrounding nature, much of it punctuated by the mineral-rich waters of the Animas.
A Classic Open-Air Railcar

A Classic Open-Air Railcar

Each day-long excursion is broken up with a stop in Silverton, an old mining town of a population of about two hundred people in the winter that swells considerably more once the Durango & Silverton Train pulls into the station just before noon. Happily the town still appears locked in time even with all the tourists and tourist-type shops. Silverton served as the supply town to about one hundred working mines between the boomtown years of 1860 and 1913, a storied history that can be embraced today through the town’s Victorian architecture and frontier-town spirit. Fortunately you’ll have just the right amount of time to poke around its storehouse of shops, restaurants and saloons. Grumpy’s Bar at the Grand Imperial Hotel is one of my favorite watering holes and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to listen to some good old ragtime piano playing by the lovely Lacey Black.

Silverton, Colorado

Silverton, Colorado

Jaw-Dropping Views

Jaw-Dropping Views

Once back in Durango, be sure to save time for the Durango & Silverton Train Museum. (There’s also one in Silverton that you can check out.) The Durango Museum opens early and closes late to accommodate travelers from these full-day excursions. Boasting a fifteen-stall roundhouse and a freight of memorabilia and artifacts, this museum is a must-see for young and old.

The whole train experience in Durango and Silverton rates so high that you might want to allocate a day and a half to do it properly. Thankfully Durango is such a fantastic town that it’s a joy to spend extra time there. All aboard!

My Tip for You

Most of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad excursions offer the possibility of taking the bus one way and the train the other. I highly recommend this—especially if you take the bus up and the train back. I find spending the better part of a day on an historic train to be mind numbing and you also get pretty dirty from the grit and ash. Plus, the bus ride up the San Juan Skyway, one of the ten most scenic routes in America, is spectacular and complete with a knowledgeable guide that provides historical tidbits about the train and the region throughout the climate-controlled ride. And weaving along what is known as the million dollar highway on primarily guardrail-less curves is a thrill on its own. Yes, unless you’re a super-duper train buff, that’s the way to go. You get plenty of train riding in on the way back from Silverton to Durango on the narrow gauge railroad.

For more on Durango, the San Juan Skyway and The Rochester Hotel & Bar one of my favorite properties in Durango, read Durango, the San Juan Skyway and the Western Movie Culture of the Four Corners Region According to Fred Wildfang. You can also learn more about The Rochester at Sultry Summer Evenings at Durango’s Rochester Hotel and On the Trail of Western Movie-Making in Utah and Colorado. I also like the Strater Hotel which I feature in my story Strater Hotel:  the Grande Dame of Durango, Colorado.

Locomotive Power

Locomotive Power

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