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.
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!