The southwest has a few historic railroads that train buffs love. Steve and I are both big train fans. We’ve ridden the Grand Canyon Railway in Arizona, the defunct Santa Fe Southern, the Cumbres and Toltec, connecting New Mexico and Colorado and the Royal Gorge Route Railroad out of Canyon City, Colorado. Last month we crossed another of these historic train off our bucket list when we got to ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The nearly 3,000 foot climb at a two percent grade through the Animas River canyon is spectacular.
History of the Durango and Silverton Railroad
Silverton, Colorado started life in 1873 as Baker Park. It was a rough and ready mining town. There was some gold, but most of the mines primarily yielded silver. One day a miner exclaimed “We do not have much gold but we have silver by the ton,” and the town got a new name.
At 9.308 feet above sea level, Silverton was remote and hard to get to. Freight was moved by pack trains and wagons. It was a long, arduous and expensive journey to get ore down the mountain for processing. A toll road was built in 1877 and stagecoach service began. It was a three-day stagecoach ride from Animas City (which predated Durango). The coming of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad made the trip easier and the transport of ore and other freight much more reasonable. Because of tight curves, standard gauge tracks weren’t feasible and so narrow gauge had to be used. In winter during heavy snows Silverton was sometimes unreachable.
There was mining in Silverton until 1991. Today, the train, now named the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, carries people taking an excursion to Silverton as well as outdoor lovers wanting to access the remote canyon on the west side of the river for ziplining, camping and river rafting.
We ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Travel blogging has its perks. We got to ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in exchange for writing about it. Another benefit: our assigned seat (all seats on the train are reserved) was in the Narration Car. A narrator shares local and railroad history as well as the interesting sites along the way. Each narrator assumes the persona of a historic local figure and stays in character for the entire journey. Robert Dwyer, and Irishman who relocated to Colorado and served as the La Plata County Sheriff and later the first Marshall of Durango was our host. His story is fascinating! Marshall Dwyer (he never shared his real name) kept us intrigued during our 3½ hour, 45-mile train ride. The train’s top speed is 18 miles per hour. We loved hearing the history as well. I brought a book along to read but never opened it. Our car, the San Juan built in 1880, is pretty much the way it was then except for new upholstery and removal of the woodstove that heated the car. About 45-minutes into the trip the train begins to climb out of the Animas Valley.
The scenery, with steep drop-offs to the Animas River below is stunning. At times the train is actually over the river. The train makes a stop to take on water each way and as it crosses the river the engineer does a “blows down,” releasing steam from the engine as the train crosses a trestle bridge. If the sun is out you may see a rainbow. At both the beginning and end of the journey, when the train isn’t in the canyon there are mountain vistas to enjoy. On some trips you can spot wildlife. The canyon is home to bears, elk, big horn sheep and beaver. Car attendants, many whose families have lived in the area for generations, provide information throughout the journey.
Our time in Silverton
We arrived in Silverton at 12:15pm and our return train was at 2:30pm leaving us two hours for lunch and exploring the quaint former mining town. A friend’s mother owns the Canyon View Motel there so I asked for a dining recommendation; her answer: the Brown Bear. We met some Silverton folks later in the week and they said that’s where the locals eat. Other lunch options includr Mattie and Maude’s and The Grand Restaurant and Saloon in the historic Grand Imperial Hotel. After lunch we had time to explore the historic town. You can also check out the Silverton Freight Yard Museum located at the Silverton Depot. It’s open daily from May through October when train operates. Admission is free.
If you want you can return to Durango via bus for an additional charge. If you do, your stay in Silverton will be a half-hour longer but you’ll get back to Durango 90 minutes before the train does. It’s up to you. We enjoyed the return train ride; Marshall Dwyer had us in thrall retelling some of his exploits. In a regular car it might not be as interesting, but you can bring a book in case and of course, there are great views out the window.
Interesting facts about the Durango and Silverton Railroad
If you ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad here are some facts that may interest you and they’re interesting even if you don’t.
- The train’s seven coal-fired locomotives that are in use were built in 1923 and 1925. The No. 42, built in 1887, is on display at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum at the Durango Depot.
- It takes five tons of coal to fuel a roundtrip.
- The railroad owns diesel locomotives which they use for emergencies and as fire prevention vehicles. They also use them for switching in the train yard and track maintenance.
- The train has been used in a number of movies including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We passed the spot where Butch and Sundance jump off the cliff at the end of the movie as well as Etta Place’s house.
- The train passes Soaring™ Tree Top Adventures which offers 27 zip lines and is accessible only via the train.
- The train also offers the only Upper Animas River access for whitewater rafting.
- The train runs to Silverton from May through October. From November to May they run trains as far as Cascade Canyon, a 26 mile journey each way. They also run holiday trains including the POLAR EXPRESS™ and the Christmas Tree Train which allows passengers to cut their own tree in the San Juan National Forest.
Helpful tips for a successful trip
There are a few things that are important to know before you board the train:
- Bring safety or sunglasses as the coal-fired engine throws cinders and they can get in your eyes.
- Closed-toe, closed-heel shoes are recommended for safely navigating between cars.
- Bring a hat and sunscreen for walking around Silverton. At that altitude the air is thinner and you’ll burn faster.
- Check the weather. It can be 10 degrees cooler in Silverton than in Durango. You may want to bring a sweater or jacket. In cooler weather, layering is a great approach to dress.
- If you want to ride outside, book the gondola (open air) car and dress appropriately.
- At high elevations you can get altitude sickness. Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol and caffeine until you’re acclimated. If you have a medical condition check with your doctor before traveling to high altitudes.
If you decide to ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and you love history, book a seat in the Narration Car. If that exceeds your budget, buy a copy America’s Railroad Official Guidebook, sold in the depot’s gift shop as well as on the train. It’s rich in the railroad’s history, has great photos and lists each significant milestone along the route. We highly recommend you ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, we had a great time and think you will too. All aboard!