All Aboard! Hop on a coal-fired, steam-powered train that still uses the 3-foot narrow gauge tracks that were constructed to haul silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado! This trip is truly a thrill! You HAVE to take this ride!
Frommers lists the 3-foot narrow gauge Durango-Silverton, Colorado Railroad one of America’s 10 most fun and this train trip has been called, “one of the best in the world.” The views are jaw dropping along the route of this “Old West” steam train! This train line is a designated National Historic Landmark.
The 45-mile route takes approximately 10 hours roundtrip. We chose, instead, to take a van from Durango to Silverton with stops along the way and were very lucky to get Bob as our van driver. We met up with Bob at the Durango Train Station. Bob is a great narrator plus history buff and drove us along the Animas River over Baker’s Bridge and up the hair-raising Million Dollar Road to Molas Pass.
Once in Silverton, Bob took time to drive us around. Even in late May, snow was still very deep at the higher elevations. Bob took us up the mountain to check out recently closed roads due to avalanches. The Old Hundred Mine and its abandoned gondola cars hanging precariously over the gorge were highlights of that drive!
Following lunch in Silverton, we took the train from Silverton back to Durango. We left Silverton at 1 p.m. on the train and arrived in Durango about 5:15 p.m. It was a stunning, fun ride every minute of that time.
You may choose to take the train both directions or add on tours to Mesa Verde or other Colorado treasures. Your older grandchildren, history-loving and naturalist family members will love this trip! See schedules and fares here.
FOLLOWING THE ANIMAS RIVER IN A VAN
We joined a group of 6 others in the van and set out following the Animas River.
A tributary of the San Juan River, the Animas runs 126 miles through Colorado and New Mexico. This river is called “river of lost souls.” There are different stories about how the Animas River was named but the Spanish named it in the 16th century. Our driver explained that there were no padres in the area in the 1500s. A group of conquistadors was killed on the river banks and were not able to be given last rites by a priest, becoming “lost souls.”
This century, a million gallons of wastewater from an abandoned mine leeched into the river in 2015. Low flow levels had also stressed fish and other aquatic life in the river when ash runoff rolled down the mountain from the 416 Fire burn. An additional raw sewage spill also added to the damage to the river. As a result, the river from Silverton to Baker’s Bridge (about 15 miles north of Durango) is a dead zone. Since 2015, a temporary water-treatment plan has improved the quality of the water in the Animas.
Happily, the river is making a comeback. Kayakers love the Animas River. You’ll see kayakers from the train since the Durango-Silverton line follows the Animas River.
DRIVING THE MILLION DOLLAR HIGHWAY FROM DURANGO TO SILVERTON
Whoa, Nellie! Are you ready for the hair on your neck to stand up straight?
Colorado Route 550 is the 2-lane Million Dollar Highway (built in the late 1880s) and is one of the most spectacular drives in the United States! (the Ouray to Silverton stretch is incredible and traverses the 11,000 + elevation Red Mountain Pass) The Million Dollar Highway is a part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. We can ONLY imagine how breathtaking the drive is in the fall when the Aspen are at their golden best.
The portion of the highway from Durango to Silverton is only about 25 miles long but takes hours to drive. This trip is not for sissys! There are few or no guardrails and lots of extreme switchback curves. Bob explained that some of the drop offs are over 1,000 feet down! The speed limit is from 10-15 mph.
There can be snow and ice any time of year. After all, you drive among 4 of “The Fourteeners.” Avalanches, heavy snowfall and landslides can happen at any time. In fact, Bob told us that every year snow plows (and their drivers) are lost over the sides of the highway. Be certain to check the weather forecast before setting out because there are only one or two pullouts along the drive.
Molas Pass (10,970 feet elevation) on the highway from Durango to Silverton is one of the higher and more dangerous of the passes in Colorado. As you drive the pass, think about the fact that riders in the annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic race try to beat the train from Durango to Silverton and take Molas Pass on bikes!! Unbelievable!
SILVERTON: A TASTE OF THE GOLD RUSH DAYS
We reached Silverton about 11:00 a.m. There is only one paved road in the entire town! Tourists come and go in Silverton but the original buildings and feel of the place made our exploration seem very authentic! About 670 people live in Silverton. Only a handful of those folks stay year round. Winter snow closes the passes and blocks the highways so the year-round residents have to be very self-sufficient!
Silverton was a boom town established in 1874. Until the Durango & Silverton Railway reached the town in 1882, it took 13 days for a stagecoach to make the trek from Durango with supplies.
We strolled Silverton’s streets in less than an hour, stopping constantly for photographs. It is a tiny town representative of the late 1800s.
THE DURANGO TO SILVERTON RAILROAD
Originally part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, this line was constructed in 1882 to transport silver and gold ore from the mines in the San Juan Mountains. In 1893, a mining panic caused prices of gold and silver to drop. The Durango-Silverton line kept running, however, until a man named Charles Bradshaw bought the Silverton line in 1980. The Durango-Silverton Railroad has run continuously for 126 years!
Although silver and gold mining ended by about 1903, the train carried uranium ore mined near Silverton which was refined south of Durango during WWII. Armed guards actually rode the train with that uranium ore. Oil and gas were transported via the train and helped keep the railroad profitable, but the main source of income after WWII was tourism. The 1967 movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was filmed on location on the Durango-Silverton line.*
TIME TO BOARD!
Before we headed for lunch (we tried several restaurants that hadn’t yet opened for the season in late May), we wanted to be certain we knew where to catch the train. It turned out to be a joke between us! There is no train station in Silverton. In fact, the 3-foot wide narrow gauge tracks come right into town and then suddenly stop! It was explained to us that the train comes in engine first to town but must then leave and turn around on a short spur and back into town!
We heard a train whistle in the distance which meant the train was on its way!
The scenery along the route is breathtaking!
We stopped halfway on the trip back to Durango for the train to load more water!
We talked to the history and wildlife experts on board who shared sightings, stories and helped create a fellowship of travelers among those of us on the train. The education we received was friendly, informal and great fun! There are no gunfights on this train-just fantastic scenery, great folks and a journey you should definitely take!
If you visit the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, we urge you to take the Durango-Silverton Railroad trip! You will never forget it!