Years ago, my family visited Durango and rode the Durango & Silverton Railroad. We were excited to visit this western town in July and ride the train again.
The Durango & Silverton line is a special train dating back to the early 1880s. The train today takes the same path it did way back during the boom years when trains transported ore from Silverton to Durango. The ride provides impressive views and a glimpse of history. It will leave you in amazement at how they ever built the railroad.
Durango is located near Four Corners in southwest Colorado, accessible by US Highway 160 from the east and west and US Highway 550 from the north and south.
The Durango-La Plata County Airport is approximately 12 miles from downtown Durango. Other nearby airports include Four Corners Regional Airport in New Mexico, and Animas Air Park, Cortez Municipal Airport in Colorado. Albuquerque International Sunport is the closest international airport.
Whether you arrive by car or plane, be sure to ride the Durango & Silverton Railroad when you visit. Let’s look at why you should ride this train when in Durango.
Visit Durango hosted our visit. All opinions are my own.
1. Voted #1 Train In The U.S.
USA Today voted Durango & Silverton the number one train in the United States in both 2021 and 2022. Once you ride this historic narrow gauge train, you will understand why everyone thinks it is so amazing.
2. It Is A National Historic Landmark
When riding the Durango & Silverton, you get an authentic taste of railroading history as it was in 1882, hauling silver and gold between the two towns. It was registered as a National Historic Landmark in the late 1960s and was awarded a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. When riding the train, you will wonder how they ever built the tracks the way they did without the technology we have today. It was quite an engineering feat. The Durango & Silverton railroad is a true American historical treasure.
3. It Takes You Back In Time
The incredible journey on the Durango & Silverton through the San Juan Mountains is akin to stepping back in time. From the authentic old-time station to the antique locomotives, you will find your experience with the railroad makes you feel like you are in another era.
The Durango & Silverton Railroad has been in continuous operation since 1882. It is the same route used to haul ore from Silverton to Durango when things were booming. The train excursions take place on the 45-mile spur of the Denver & Rio Grande rail line.
The majority of the scenery has remained unchanged over the years. It is an opportunity to unplug from the modern world and step back to a time when there was no such thing as cell service or Wi-Fi.
4. It Is A Unique Experience
Riding the narrow gauge is a unique experience that lets you enjoy fantastic scenery and relive the “Golden Age” as you sit back and relax. As you chug along through the rugged, yet beautiful San Juan National Forest, you will experience the High Bridge, view the Animas River Gorge from the High Line, and the famous Horseshoe Curve. You will see some majestic mountain vistas and fascinating river views.
The train’s top speed is 18 miles per hour, and it is a three-and-a-half-hour ride to travel the 45 miles by rail between Durango and Silverton.
5. The History
The three-and-a-half-hour ride each way provides plenty of opportunities to learn more about the train, how it was built, what it was used for, and the changes over the years.
They began building the railroad in the fall of 1881, and by July 1882, the tracks between Durango and Silverton were completed (quite a feat considering they didn’t have the equipment we have today).
The Narrow Gauge rails are 36 inches (three feet) apart, compared to the standard gauge 56.5-inch rails. The Durango & Silverton chose the narrow gauge for several reasons. The mountain terrain and sharp curves were easier to maneuver with a narrow gauge track, plus the equipment was less expensive.
Although primarily constructed to haul gold and silver ore, the Durango & Silverton Railroad was promoted as a scenic route for passengers from the start. It transported over $300 million in precious metals from Silverton to Durango during the boom years.
Over the years, the railroad faced various challenges from floods, wars, snow, slides, and financial instability. For a while, between WWI and WWII, the Durango & Silverton ceased operations. In the 1940s, they were operational again and began to promote tourism. Hollywood soon discovered the railroad and Durango, then used them in several movies.
Tourism in Durango has continued to grow along with the fascination associated with the historic Durango & Silverton Railroad.
6. The Mountains
There is nothing like viewing the Rocky Mountains. When riding the Durango & Silverton, you not only view them, but the unforgettable trip climbs up into the Rocky Mountains with scenic views of the San Juan National Forest.
7. The Animas River
The beautiful Animas River is so close to the side of the train you feel like you could reach out and touch it for most of the trip. Other times, you can peer out through the window and view the river down in the gorge.
8. The Train Cars
Durango & Silverton uses both steam and diesel locomotives. The locomotives used for daily rides are from 1923 and 1925. A fireman shovels six tons of coal daily for a round trip to Silverton using steam. That is a lot of coal. They also use ten thousand gallons of water to produce the steam to power the locomotive.
Both coach and gondola cars are available. Coach cars are fully enclosed with windows, doors, and forward-facing seats.
Gondolas are open on the sides, and the seats face outward. Although roof-covered, if it rains, you can get wet. It can also be chilly as you head up the mountain to the higher elevation of Silverton.
We rode the Knight Sky Car, which had a glass roof that provided a fantastic view.
Each enclosed standard coach has a restroom available to all passengers. Private bathrooms accessible to premium-class ticket holders are available on premium coaches.
A wheelchair-accessible restroom and lift service is available on one of the train cars. Be sure to call in advance and ask for the ADA car when booking your reservations so you are scheduled on the correct car, which runs daily. The trains have a concession car for snacks and refreshments.
9. Visit Silverton
As part of the day, you will spend at least two hours enjoying the sights, food, drinks, and shopping in Silverton, a historic mining town surrounded by tall peaks as far as you can see. It is an authentic old west town with a paved main street, dirt side streets, saloons, stagecoach rides, and general stores.
Silverton makes you feel like you have stepped back in time.
Information You Need To Know
- Trains run May through October to Silverton. During the winter months, it only travels to Cascade Canyon.
- You must have a printed ticket to board the train. You can print at home or have one printed at the station. No digital confirmations are permitted.
- All seats are by reservation. Your row and seat will be listed on your ticket.
- No pets are permitted on the train.
- No smoking, alcohol, or firearms are permitted on the train.
- There is a Skyway Tour Option that provides a bus that will drive you one way of the trip (this option allows you an extra hour in Silverton). The bus driver will provide narrative and historical facts as you travel along the highway.
- Take a bottle of water with you. If it is hot, you will need to stay hydrated. The elevation can also make you feel tired, so be sure to drink lots of water.
- Head to lunch as soon as you arrive in Silverton. Get to a restaurant before the crowd hits. If you wait, you will spend all of your time at lunch.
- Wear appropriate footwear. Closed-toed shoes are recommended for the train and exploring Silverton.
- If riding a gondola, you might want to take a jacket or sweatshirt. Even though only traveling 18 miles per hour, it can get chilly.
- Sunglasses or safety glasses are recommended if riding a gondola due to possible cinders in the air.
- Durango & Silverton Railroad Museum and rail yard tours are available to enjoy before or after your ride. On display is No. 42, a locomotive built in 1887.
If you long to experience a true historical treasure and enjoy some beautiful Colorado nature, a trip on the Durango & Silverton is for you. All aboard!