A Train Trip to Last A Lifetime
Nestled in the San Juan Mountains, the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge railroad is one of the most popular and exciting attractions in southwestern Colorado. This genuine piece of Americana was first constructed by the Denver and Rio Grande Railway in 1881 to transport silver and gold ore to and from the mines above. Soon, people realized that this little rail line cut through some of the most gorgeous terrain in the state of Colorado and the train immediately became a hit for travelers. After World War II, the train was rarely used for mining purposes, but it soon gained popularity with tourists. Today the D&SNGRR is still used to transport sightseers, tourists, train-enthusiasts, and hikers between the rugged mountain towns of Durango and Silverton.
As a vision of William Jason Palmer, the Durango-Silverton rail line became a branch of the narrow gauge rail system that would stretch from Denver to El Paso, Texas. This vision was never fully realized, but when the Durango-Silverton line opened, the vast silver mines of Silverton became accessible to the rest of the country. For nearly ten years, the rail line was a smashing success, but the silver crash of 1893 quickly reversed this.
Despite this setback, the Durango-Silverton railroad stayed kept hauling mining ore and passengers through the Colorado mountains. By the mid-twentieth century, the rail line met even more pressure from the newfound prominence of highway trucking, the declining significance of mining, and a smaller passenger load. However, after the end of World War II, domestic tourism grew in popularity and left hopes for the continued operation of the Durango-Silverton train. From World War II to today, the popularity of the rail line has only grown.
Both the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the entire town of Silverton are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Riding the Durango-Silverton
In its current state, the Durango-Silverton Railroad travels a 45-mile route between Durango and Silverton. The train takes passengers above the Animas River through valleys and on the edge of cliffs through some breathtaking terrain. The ride from Durango to Silverton takes about three and a half hours up and two hours and fifteen minutes back down.
Most passengers begin their ride in Durango—the more accessible of the two mountain towns. Ample parking is offered near the train depot, which is a safe place for all cars parked overnight. All passengers must arrive and be in their seats thirty minutes before their scheduled departure time. If passengers are not in their seats, the spot will be opened up to waiting passengers. No refunds are offered 48 hours after the scheduled departure.
The Durango-Silverton offers all sorts of ticketing options ranging from the most expensive ticket in the “Presidential Class” cars to their least expensive “Standard Class.” Seats in the presidential cars will cost passengers a cool $179, but the amenities abound. These cars are only for those ages 21 and up. Standard Class cars are still a steep $83, which will put passengers in a rustic but still very enjoyable open-air car. Ticket prices may seem quite expensive, but passengers must remember that the upkeep of both the steam engines and rail lines cannot be cheap. In reality, the $83 is a small price to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Once passengers arrive in Silverton, they are free to roam through this quaint little mountain town. Trains from Durango arrive between noon and 1:30 each day in Silverton. Each train will stay in Silverton for about two hours at which point all passengers must leave unless other arrangements have been made.
Silverton has a number of cute shops, restaurants and museums that will keep visitors occupied for those two hours. Many passengers even opt to spend the night in Silverton and will board the train the next day to travel back down to Durango.
For passengers hoping to save a little time and money, the rail line also offers train and bus rides between Durango and Silverton.
The D&SNGRR - A Backpacker’s Dream
There are only two stops on the D&SNGRR line—Needleton and Elk Park, which are both popular destinations for backpackers. The Needleton stop leads to Chicago Basin, which provides access to three of Colorado’s 55 fourteeners, while the Elk Park stop connects to both the Continental Divide and Vallecito Creek Trails.
All passengers who wish to use either of these stops must make arrangements when ordering their tickets, which are slightly less expensive than the normal ticket prices. All backpacks are considered freight, which are charged a $10 fee per bag. Backpackers planning a trip should also keep in mind that their parked cars will cost $7 per night.
Only one train traveling from Durango to Silverton each day will actually stop at these locations so travelers must be aware. When backpackers have completed with their trip, they must flag the train during its decent from Silverton to Durango.
As mentioned, the Needleton stop provides access to three fourteeners—Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom. Because of the popularity of Colorado’s high peaks, the Chicago Basin is extremely busy during the middle of the summer. If passengers want to avoid crowds, they are most likely to do so during the middle of the week. The Needleton stop also provides access to New York Basin, which is much less traveled. A number of very high and difficult thirteen thousand foot peaks can be climbed from this basin. Only experienced climbers should attempt these mountains.
Special Events at the Durango-Silverton
The Durango-Silverton has a number of special events throughout the year that are sure to delight all passengers. These events include meeting Snoopy for Easter and enjoying an Independence Day festival in Silverton. One of the most popular events for children is a “Day Out with Thomas” from the popular television series. Visitors can take Thomas the Tank Engine for thirty minute rides through some of the beautiful scenery near Durango. And finally, a fall photo train is available during peak colors season. This is a great opportunity for photographers to capture some gorgeous shots.
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