One of the American West's most scenic and historic tourist rides is on the
famed Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Using refurbished early equipment (dating mainly from the 1920's)
including huge, coal-fired steam locomotives, the railroad ferries thousands of visitors
every year from Durango (elevation 6,500 feet), up the spectacular gorge of the Animas River to the "old west"
town of Silverton, Colorado, "the mining town that never quit", nestled at 9,300 feet
beneath 13,000 foot peaks in the spectacular San Juan Range, the western
slope of Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
The line has been in continuous operation since 1882 after a major silver strike in the
San Juans created a roaring boomtown in Silverton. The peak of the mining era was from
1900-1912. While mining has continued in the area ever since - principally gold and silver -
slowing activity caused cutbacks in the railroad's schedule in the early 1950's
when the line started catering to tourists. The trip has become extremely popular
in recent years. It is said that 200,000 tourists now ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad every year.
Most visitors begin their journey at the well-groomed Durango depot, [photo left]. While Durango is
a small city with plenty of traffic and hustle-bustle, it also has a historic,
Victorian downtown which is well worth walking through. The train's destination
is the more rustic Silverton depot, [photo, right].
The going is pretty slow: it takes nine hours for the train to make the roughly
100 mile round trip. Buses are provided as an alternative for the return trip
to Durango. They can make the return trip on the equally spectacular "Million
Dollar Highway" in about an hour.
The road (US-550) traverses rugged mountain country. If you travel out of season
you could encounter snowy conditions. The photo, right, was taken on a Memorial
Day weekend. Traffic was stopped just outside of Silverton twice while minor avalanches were cleaned up.
(Silverton is in a valley, and the road drops steeply down a mountainside to reach the town.)
The highlight of the train ride is the gorge of the Animas River. Heading towards Silverton,
the peaceful and lush valley suddenly gives way to the gorge with the train high on the cliff
above the river [photo, left]. The train slowly descends to the Animas and follows the river [photo, right]
most of the way to Silverton. The tracks are right next to the water.
Because the locomotives are steam powered, the train must stop for a water refill about halfway to
Silverton. The procedure is shown in the [photo, left]. The train requires a tremendous amount of
energy to make the elevation gain to Silverton, almost 3,000 feet.
If you decide to take this trip, reservations should be made well in advance
especially in the summer. Try to get a car near the rear of the train. The
locomotive smoke is quite strong near the front. Also, some coal soot and cinders
do get blown about.
[Photo right, a lone kayaker braves the white water of the Animas River far below the train.]
Silverton, Colorado, "the mining town that never quit"