My wife and I recently completed a vacation to the Durango, Colorado area in the four corners region of the US. This is a beautiful part of the country with almost unlimited recreational opportunities. As we had a short time, we decided to plan two major activities during our stay: first was another ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and the second was a hiking trip in Mesa Verde National Park. (The Mesa Verde a blog will follow as soon as I have had a chance to go through all of my photographs.)
Durango was first settled in 1880. The town was organized by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve the mining area in the San Juan Mountains. By 1882, the railroad line was completed between Durango and Silverton. In fact, the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad line is the longest continuously used narrow gauge railroad in the United States. It has been in continuous use since it was opened.
Durango sits on the Animas River at about 6500 feet elevation near the southern end of the San Juan Mountains in southeastern Colorado. It is a desert climate, but the high altitude makes for cool evenings in the summer and tolerable heat during the day. In the winter, Durango can be quite chilly, and it averages about 65 inches of snow per year.
The downtown area of the city still has many of its original historic buildings. The railroad depot and maintenance yard are all original from its founding in 1880. These days the city has become a recreation hub for southeastern Colorado with quick and easy access to the mountains for winter sports, hiking and backpacking, the high desert area with its rich history of native American settlements, and it is also popular with fly fisherman. Durango is a beautiful little town, and if you’re a beer lover, you might think you have died and gone to heaven. There are numerous local brew pubs in the area offering an incredible variety of fresh beers. Two of our favorites in town are Steamworks Brewery and Carvers Brewery on Main Street. You can’t go wrong with either one, and they both have wonderful food as well. Carvers is also open for breakfast, and has a very diverse menu.
If you really want to enjoy the historic train between Durango and the high mountain mining community of Silverton, I recommend reserving what is known as a parlor car. This is a restored first class passenger car which looks pretty much like it did in the later 1800s. (Please note that children are not allowed in the parlor car, so if you’re traveling with kids, I’ve got a couple of other ideas for you in a moment.) The seating in the parlor car is old-fashioned tables and chairs. You are free to turn your chair so that you have a great view out of the train. As this is an actual late 1800s passenger car, there is no air-conditioning. The windows open, and it is usually quite pleasant on the journey. In fact, if you take one of the early trains, it can be chilly in the early morning. The parlor car is an incredible experience as you have a host who is well-versed on the geography and history of the area, and who also can serve you pretty much anything you want including alcohol. (Alcoholic drinks are extra charge, however.) There are also numerous snacks that you can purchase on the train, and the car does have a bathroom.
Here’s a humorous note about the bathroom. Remember that this train car is old. For your own privacy when using the restroom, make sure that you turn the bolt lock all the way around completely in order to lock the door securely. If not, you may be surprised by someone walking in on you in an inopportune moment.
If you’re a railroad history buff, I can highly recommend scheduling a “yard tour” of the rail yard and maintenance facility. Check with the depot for scheduling information and costs. The maintenance facility at the railroad is a working operation, and you will be able to see all stages of train repair and locomotive maintenance. There is also a museum at the depot which presents an incredible amount of history and is free to tour while you’re there.
You’ll want to get to the train depot early, and you’ll have to pay for parking in the depot lot. This is a railroad, and the trains leave promptly on their scheduled times. As I mentioned previously the parlor cars do not allow children, so if you’re traveling with a family there are a couple of different options that you could take. If you want a more outdoor experience there are several cars which are open air and offer seating which faces outward on each side of the train. I’ve taken these cars, and they’re fun. But here are a couple of words of caution. This is an old-fashioned steam train which is powered by coal. You will get a lot of cinders and coal dust on you during the ride, so it might be better to wear darker colored clothing. As you will be in the sun most of the day, I would highly recommend good sunscreen. You may also want to take rain gear as afternoon showers in the mountains are a regular occurrence in the summers. If you want inside seating, there are also several cars which are authentic late 1800 passenger cars which have more traditional, bus type seating. There is also an open car with a glass roof which offers spectacular views of the canyon on the way to Silverton.
As you leave the depot, the train whistle is blowing and you can see the black smoke billowing from the steam locomotive. At this moment you have stepped back in time to the late 1800s. The rail line follows the Animas River out of Durango all the way to Silverton. As the train goes north out of Durango, you’ll go by several farms and recreational properties. Soon the train begins to climb gradually up out of the Valley as it hugs the hills at the beginning of the canyon. The track crosses the main highway to Silverton a couple of times near town, but after a few miles the road and the railroad track diverge and don’t meet again until Silverton.
The scenery and the geography are amazing! In Durango, there is a high desert geography, and you’ll see some cactus in places along the railroad line. As the train climbs the gorge, the terrain gradually changes from a desert environment to a drier forest type climate. As the ride continues, you reach the high mountain geography of Silverton with thick forests and rocky summits.
The train makes a couple of water stops along the way to refill the water tanks. Depending upon where you are in the train, you may be able get some pretty cool pictures of the locomotive filling its water tank as well as when the engine blows out the tank to remove sediment.
Also, the train provides the only means of entry and exit to a small resort as well as some popular backpacking trails that go up into the high mountains. So it makes a couple of stops to pick up people and let off other people at these locations. The ride up the mountain toward Silverton takes about three hours, possibly 3 1/2. As you enter the valley were Silverton is located, the railroad line is right next to the headwaters of the Animas River.
Silverton is a tiny mining community which also dates back to the late 1800s. Silverton is located at about 9300 feet elevation, which makes it one of the highest towns in the United States. There only two months of the year where the lows are above freezing on average. The population is around 600. There are still a couple of active mines in the area which primarily mine silver along with some other minerals. There is a mineral which is found only in the Silverton area known as astorite. This is a pinkish stone which was named after John Jacob Astor who owned the mines, and who of course also perished on the Titanic. The town thrives in the summer season from the tourists on the Durango Silverton railroad line. There are numerous shops and a lot of good restaurants along with a few good bars and brew pubs. You will be hungry when you get off the train, and you won’t be disappointed by the food in town. If you’re adventurous, there is also a hotel that you can stay in if you like. Silverton has only one paved road which is the main street and is the main highway going through town from Durango to the south and on to Ouray, Colorado to the north. The town is surrounded by high mountain peaks on all sides other than the Animas River Valley to the south.
If you’ve taken the train from Durango up to Silverton, there are two options for return to Durango. You may have booked a return trip on the parlor car, or you can book a return trip on a bus which takes the highway back to Durango. Having done both, I highly recommend the train for both directions.
As this is a real railroad which was constructed in the late 1800s, there can be some unexpected adventures along the way. July in the Intermountain West can be rainy in the mountains, and our trip was no exception. While we were eating lunch in Silverton, the skies opened, and it just poured. I wish I would’ve gotten a photograph of the floodwaters rushing down the main street. However, it was raining so hard I didn’t want to get my camera drenched. The floodwaters were pouring down the street from the north and were so deep we could not even cross the road. So our shopping got cut short a little bit while we waited in a coffee shop for the water to subside.
As we were finally able to make our way back toward our train, we had quite a surprise. Our train was not there! I asked the conductor of another train what had happened, and he told me that the last train coming up from Durango had derailed at the switch on the southeast side of town as it was attempting to make the turn into town. Evidently the locomotive had derailed at the switch and then completely flipped over one of the rails as it went off the track. So the railroad line was torn up and unusable at that point in time. The railroad crew was able to get the engine back on the track, and had uncoupled it from the passenger cars. They managed to back the engine up past the damaged section of the track. In 2 1/2 hours, the track was completely repaired, and we were off again on a return trip to Durango.
One of the stressful things for me was that I had left my backpack on the train car and inadvertently had left my phone in my pack is well. There’s no phone service for most of the ride, so I just turned off my phone and put it in my backpack. At one point, the railroad told us we may all be bussed back to town, so I had to make the hike out to our car to retrieve my backpack in case we didn’t get back on the train. But all ended well.
I put together a little photo tour of our journey to attempt to give you a feel of the trip. I really hope you enjoy the photos, and if you get the time, this is an experience worth taking. Even with some adventures along the way, the rail journey between Durango and Silverton is an incredible and worthwhile experience.