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How to visit the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

By Jim Wrinn | March 9, 2021

Ride one of tourist railroading's key companies in Colorado

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A steam locomotive-hauled passenger train navigating a rocky slope as seen from a car in the rear of the train.
A steam locomotive-hauled passenger train navigating a rocky slope as seen from a car in the rear of the train.
A passenger takes a cellphone photo as a Durango & Silverton train makes its way along the High Line between Rockwood and Silverton, Colo. Trains: David Lassen

Introduction to the Durango & Silverton

A trip to Colorado to see and ride a narrow gauge railroad is essential for anyone with an interest in great steam railroading in the Rocky Mountains. Colorado has several railroads worth visiting (in fact, we offer, in conjunction with Special Interest Tours, a week-long trip to visit them all.). Let’s look at one of the most popular, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

History of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

This 45-mile, 3-foot gauge line was built between its namesake cities in 1881 and 1882. Its history as an excursion line dates back to the Denver & Rio Grande Western’s summer-only excursion train, The Silverton, begun in 1947. Western movies made on and around the line starting in the 1950s popularized it, and as many as four sections of trains per day in the high summer months have run many years. Since 1981, the railroad has been in private hands, but Rio Grande charm and influence abound to this day.

Riding the Durango & Silverton

Following the rushing Animas River for much of its journey, the trip is one incredible view after another between Rockwood, Colo., where the railroad is high above the river, and closer to Silverton, where it runs beside the rushing torrent. Rio Grande 2-8-2 Mikado-type steam locomotives of the K27, 36, and 37 varieties power the trains, and they put on a real show on the climb from Hermosa to Rockwood and then as they follow the river into Silverton. In Silverton, the train lays over for a lunch break and a stroll around the many interesting shops and stores that cater to tourists. For a more expansive experience, think about an overnight in Silverton. By prior arrangement, you can spend the night at the D&S’s own hotel, the Grand Imperial, or choose another place for the night, before returning the next day.

Because the railroad runs year-round, any time you can go is a great time to visit. At least once, treat yourself to the amazing translucent colors of the aspens in September and early October. The railroad offers every type of accommodation imaginable — from open cars with a roof and benches to standard coaches, and luxury office cars. For a unique ride, sign up for the Silver Vista, a glass-topped observation car with overstuffed chairs and a panoramic view of the San Juan Mountains. The railroad, Trains, and other groups also sponsor photo charters for those seeking a more in-depth experience beyond the normal tourist trains.

A Durango & Silverton train in Silverton, Colo., in October 2018.

A Durango & Silverton train sits on a street in Silverton, Colo., after arriving from Durango. Trains: David Lassen

Durango & Silverton Museum

In addition to an amazing train ride, the railroad also has a museum inside a portion of the roundhouse, which gives visitors a glimpse into the many roles the railroad has played over the years – from mineral carrier, to movie location, to tourist powerhouse. Be sure to check out the baggage car used in the movie Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. There’s also a behind-the-scenes tour of what has to be one of the busiest steam locomotive shops in North America.

Because Durango is a retail and tourist center for southwestern Colorado as well as a college town, there is every type of hotel and restaurant available. The Best Western Durango is a favorite because some third-floor rooms overlook the D&S yard and shops as well as the balloon track used to turn trains. The 1887 Strater Hotel is within walking distance and offers a historic hotel experience; departing and arriving trains run right outside the Strater’s back door.

Taking pictures of Durango & Silverton trains

In addition to riding the trains, the D&S offers the opportunity to photograph the trains as they travel between Durango and Hermosa along U.S. Route 550 north of Durango. Additional images may be made from roadside and from a U.S. 550 bridge over the railroad between Hermosa and Rockwood. Rockwood is the last place you can reach the train without a significant hike into the Animas River canyon by established trails. Under no circumstances should you hike on to the high line from Rockwood, as it is a posted no-trespassing area and clearances are tight. A better solution, again, is to join a planned photo charter.

Attractions near Durango

In addition to great hiking and other outdoor sports nearby, Durango is within an easy drive of Mesa Verde, the National Park that preserves ancient Native American cliff dwellings. The park is well worth a visit. In addition, you can chase the road bed of the abandoned Rio Grande Southern from Durango to the north and west. And it’s easy to combine a D&S visit with a trip to the Cumbres & Toltec, which is about 2 hours to the east.

The D&S is one of America’s great railroad adventures. Everyone should experience it. Tell them Trains sent you!

A steam locomotive leads a passenger train along a mountain river valley with trees in autumn colors.
Fall colors highlight the Durango & Silverton route along the Animas River during an October 2018 Trains Tour of Colorado trip. Trains: David Lassen
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