When I was 17 years old, I took a trip with my parents to Colorado. During our two week vacation we visited Estes Park, Colorado Springs, and Durango. I remember seeing many beautiful sights there, including Pikes Peak (Dad drove to the top), Trail Ridge Road, and the Garden of the Gods. But perhaps my favorite part of that whole trip was riding the steam engine train from Durango to Silverton. This year, my wife and I went to Durango and took that very same train ride. And I have to say I enjoyed it even more the second time around!
The narrow gauge rail line from Durango to Silverton was completed back in 1882, and has been in operation ever since. It was constructed primarily to haul precious metal ores like gold and silver which were mined in the nearby San Juan mountains, though it was also a scenic route for passengers from the start. Back in 1970, I remember the thrill of riding a coal-fired, cinder-spitting train over the mountains. It was my first real train ride, and it left a lasting impression on a 17 year old kid from Indiana.
This time around we flew into Albuquerque and drove up to Durango in a rental car, after spending a few days in Sante Fe first. Durango is much like I remembered it, a small western town that is heavily into tourism. We stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast there, the Leland House, with a room that was barely big enough to turn around in. But that is a story for another day and place (like TripAdvisor). For me, going to Durango was all about riding the train.
The train ride itself is an all day affair, though there are options to ride half the way on the train and half on a bus. We opted for taking the train all the way in both directions. The train travels 45.4 miles from downtown Durango to Silverton and climbs over 2800 feet in the process. The trip takes three and a half hours one way. After a lunch break of a little over two hours in Silverton, the train turns around and heads back to Durango over the same route. The full day trip takes a little over 9 hours, and during the summer months there are two trains leaving every day. The are several different seating options, from standard to deluxe, but we chose the standard class open-air gondola car, just like I had ridden in 1970.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad follows the Animas river for much of the way up to Silverton, actually crossing the river five times during the journey. The scenery along the way is gorgeous. We passed groves of aspen trees and conifers, bucolic farmland, the remote Tacoma Power Plant, and deserted mining camps.
Silverton itself has even more of an old west feel to it than Durango. At times, walking down the wide dirt streets I almost felt like I was on the set of an old western movie or TV show. Back in the old days, Silverton had its share of saloons and brothels. These days it’s mostly filled with eateries and gift shops. To be sure, this trip is not really about the destination, it’s about the journey.
Everyone I saw on the train seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the ride. The gentleman in the photo below even wore his own engineer’s cap. It was definitely not his first train ride!
At times the train passed through rock cuts so narrow you could reach out and touch the passing rocks. Some passengers did; I didn’t. In those tight places the smoke from the engine would billow back over the train, sending down a shower of cinders.
I did take a lot of photos that day, plus a few videos I shot on my Canon digital SLR. I tried to pick a few of the best photos that I think captured the feel and spirit of this wonderful train ride. The views from the train were breathtaking at times, as the engine rounded a bend or crossed a narrow bridge. We spent much of our time standing, leaning out the window of our car.
As the train came back into Durango at the end of the day, dozens of people came out to wave and greet it, many with their cameras.
Lots of folks at the RV park came out to look at the train and get some photos. It is safe to say the train is really quite a sight to see!
It was a long day for us, but it was well worth it. Though we were tired and covered in cinders, I couldn’t help but be a bit sad as the train rolled back to the station. I guess I didn’t really want the ride to end.
The next morning, we went downtown to see the 8:30am train take off from the station. Below is a short video I made. The train was identical to the one we rode on, except that our train was pulled by the #482 locomotive.
If ever you find yourself in the Durango area, I would recommend you check out this timeless attraction. Or better yet, do like we did and plan a vacation around it! I hope you have enjoyed this little peek at our train ride.