The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, an antique train nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, offers a unique journey through the San Juan National Forest. Since the 19th century, this historic locomotive has not only transported passengers, but also served as a conduit for mine ore, contributing to its rich heritage. The experience isn’t just about a train ride, it’s about the memories created as you absorb the breathtaking panoramas of the vibrant Animas River, unending forest expanses, and quaint mountain towns frozen in the Gold Rush era.
Now recognized as a National Historic Landmark, this railway has been functional from the same station since July 1882, providing an authentic glimpse into the golden era of mining. Miners would use the train to ferry gold and silver from the mountains to the rapidly growing town of Durango, Colorado, which was established by the Denver and Rio Grande Railway in 1880. The town, retaining its charming frontier character with saloons and western wear stores, thrived on the enormous wealth of mountain metals transported via this railway. Today, despite the end of the Gold Rush, the railway remains a significant Durango attraction, transporting passengers through the high-altitude wilderness.
“Narrow Gauge” in the railway’s name signifies the three-foot width of the tracks, designed for easier maneuvering around tight mountainous curves. The train operates all year, offering shorter trips to Cascade Canyon in winter due to environmental restrictions, a festive Polar Express ride during holidays, and full-day round trips to Silverton in the summer. Each journey and carriage have their distinct charm, with attendants on board to share historical anecdotes, highlight geographical features, and provide a dash of humor.
Four different service classes cater to various budgets and preferences. The Presidential Class boasts opulent Victorian-style decor, complimentary morning pastries, and an outdoor viewing platform on the Cinco Animas car. First Class options offer rides in the exquisitely designed Yankee Girl, the glass-domed Silver Vista, or the lounge-like Alamosa Parlor Car. Both these premium classes provide bar service. Alternatively, the Deluxe Class and Standard Class offer large windows and plush seating or bus-style coach seats and open-air gondolas respectively, at more affordable prices.
Typically, the journey commences early morning from the original train depot in downtown Durango, adjacent to the historic Strater Hotel. Passengers are welcomed with clouds of steam and the quintessential conductor’s cry of “All aboard!” Once seated, the train gradually winds its way upwards into the Rocky Mountains, meandering across the Animas River, entering Cascade Canyon, passing famous cliffs from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and circling the striking Horseshoe Curve.
Throughout the journey, attendants share intriguing details, such as the transition from coal to oil-fired engines, the origin of the steam locomotives, and the expansion of trains due to rising tourism. Passengers can stroll within their cars and enjoy views from the viewing platforms, if available. Trips to Cascade Canyon usually last around five and a half hours and include a break for photo sessions or picnics, with food and snacks available on board or pre-ordered.
The highlight of peak season is the picturesque round-trip journey to Silverton, a town that feels straight out of a classic western film, allowing for a two-hour exploration during layover. This route has been operational since 1882, and while the mining era has faded, it still offers an unforgettable step back in time.
Regardless of the chosen route, season, or class, a trip on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad promises a unique and nostalgic journey. More than just a train, it is a magical time machine that takes you back to the past for a day, offering a slice of Americana that’s powered by steam and steeped in history.
The rhythm of the locomotive’s chug reverberates through the mountain air as you navigate through scenic landscapes and past remnants of the Gold Rush era. You’ll cross bridges over the Animas River, glide through the densely forested Cascade Canyon, and marvel at the surrounding mountain cliffs. Along the way, the on-board attendants offer nuggets of local history and geographical insights, adding a layer of informative entertainment to the picturesque journey.
As you travel, you might choose to unwind in the Victorian-style grandeur of the Presidential Class, replete with morning pastries and sweeping views from the Cinco Animas car’s outdoor platform. Or you might opt for a ride in the First Class, enjoying the polished mahogany interior of the Yankee Girl or the stunning panoramas through the glass-domed Silver Vista car. For a more economical experience, both Deluxe and Standard Class cars provide comfort and captivating views.
During the journey, the train chugs along the narrow-gauge tracks, winding through mountainous terrain and enabling sharper turns, while you’re free to explore your car and soak in the breathtaking surroundings from your carriage’s viewing platform. With trips typically lasting around five and a half hours, there’s ample opportunity to immerse yourself in the stunning wilderness, capture memorable photos, or even enjoy a picnic, with food options available for purchase on board.
In the peak season, the train’s course extends to the old town of Silverton. Here, passengers can explore, dine, and shop during a two-hour layover in this town that seems pulled straight from a classic Western film. This all-day journey is a highlight of the train’s operations, and although the mining of mountain ore has long ended, the experience delivers an unforgettable trip into the past.
Whatever the route, season, or class of carriage you choose, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers a unique, nostalgic journey. As the steam-powered train transports you back in time, the magic of the past comes alive, offering an experience that is much more than a typical train ride. Don’t miss this opportunity to ride this historic railway, taking you on a trip back into a bygone era.