Growing up, my husband wanted to be a train engineer, so whenever we visit a city with a train museum, we go. Unfortunately, we haven’t had that many opportunities to actually ride historic trains. That’s why we made a point to book tickets on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad when we visited Southern Colorado.
Why Ride the Durango & Silverton Railroad
Although I’m only mildly interested in trains, I love history, and the area has plenty of history tied to the railroad. In fact, the city of Durango exists because of the railroad.
Durango dates back to 1880 when the Denver and Rio Grande Railway founded the city to connect its railroad to the mines surrounding the boomtown of Silverton. When the line was completed in July 1882, the D&SNGRR primarily hauled gold and silver from the mines. But, even then, it sold tickets to passengers who wanted a scenic ride through the San Juan Mountains.
If you want to know more about the history and the equipment used by the Durango to Silverton Railroad, check out this great book.
Most people today ride the Durango & Silverton Railroad to marvel at the pine tree-studded canyons and mountains, feel the power of river waters rushing alongside the tracks, and, occasionally, spot wildlife. But, riding on the coal-fired, narrow-gauge railroad transports you to another time, too. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Before You Board the Durango & Silverton Railroad
No matter when you go between May to October, be prepared for a drastic climate change as you head into the mountains towards Silverton. Dress in layers even though it's a warm, summer day in Durango. However, if you do get cold, blankets are available, and you can always purchase hot chocolate, coffee, or an alcoholic beverage to warm you up.
The railroad also suggests bringing sunglasses to protect your eyes from cinders. You’re more likely to experience this in an open-air car or if your window is open. I personally didn’t notice cinders even when I was outside, but I was wearing sunglasses.
On the morning of your train ride, arrive at least an hour before your departure time. This allows you plenty of time to find your car and board the train before the final boarding call, which takes place 30 minutes before departure. If you don’t already have your ticket—the railroad recommends picking up your tickets the day before—allow even more time.
Riding the Durango & Silverton Railroad
The 45-mile journey begins slowly as the steam-powered train chugs out of the station and through downtown Durango. As it cuts through intersections, the train’s whistle sounds, an audible reminder of a bygone era. It takes only a few minutes to steam out of the city, though. Horses in pastures replace cars in parking lots and the Animas River replaces parallel streets.
Soon, the train begins climbing, and from that point on, every few hundred yards or so, a twist in the track presents a new, Instagramable scene. My favorites were the long sweeping curves in the track when you could see the length of the train, including the engine, with gray smoke billowing from its stack. Traversing what is known as The Highline, a stretch of track carved into a cliff 400 feet above the river, is a wow moment that literally takes your breath away.
About halfway to Silverton, the train stops at the Tall Timber Depot to allow hikers, hunters, and zipliners tackling Soaring Tree Top Adventures’ course to disembark. Now is a good time to purchase snacks or drinks from concessions or to delete less-than-satisfactory photos from your phone and make room for more.
For much of the remainder of the trip, the train skirts the Animas River, eventually leaving the mountains for flatter land as it approaches Silverton. Luckily, the railroad is only part of the adventure. Visiting Silverton is just as much fun.
What to Do in Silverton
Whether you will be returning to Durango by train or bus, you’ll spend two hours in Silverton. Since the train arrives at 11:30, 12:15 or 1 p.m., depending on your travel dates, most people head directly to one of the restaurants for lunch. Popular options include Handlebars Restaurant & Saloon, Avalanche Brewing Company, and The Bent Elbow.
If you can wait to eat, I recommend wandering through the gift shops and art galleries first to allow the restaurants to clear out some. Or, explore the San Juan County History Society, an impressive mining museum next to a fully restored jail from 1902. Every summer, there seem to be one or two new establishments, and one or two that disappear. Please comment if you’ve found a new one to try.
There’s only so much you can do in two hours, though. On a longer stay, explore the Million Dollar Highway from Durango to Silverton and maybe even overnight in the town. Several adventure companies, like Rock Pirates Backcountry Adventures, offer off-road adventures worth the extra time. You can also tour the Old Hundred Gold Mine or hike the 3.5-mile Ice Lakes Trail.
When you get back to Durango, it will be dinnertime or close to it. According to a representative at the convention and visitor's bureau at the time, the city has more restaurants per capita than any city in the nation. Regardless of whether that's still accurate, there are some really great options. I love Steamworks Brewing Co.—order a Prescribed Burn, the German ale flavored with habañero, poblano, and Hatch chiles—but the city has everything from fine dining to Nepalese food and barbecue.
The next day, revisit the D&SNGRR’s depot. Its roundhouse has a free museum filled with railroad artifacts, and daily, at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m., it offers tours of the yard and roundhouse. Since the museum is only open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., you won’t be able to tour it on the day you ride the train. (It doesn’t open until after the train leaves and closes before it returns.)
Beyond the railroad, Durango has several other attractions. Visit the Animas Museum to learn about the area or The Powerhouse, a science center and makers lab especially popular with families. Although it’s a half-hour drive from downtown Durango, the Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center offers an excellent look at local tribes and their artwork. And, of course, Mesa Verde National Park is just 40 minutes west of Durango.
Additional Railroad Information
The train ride from Durango to Silverton is 3 ½ hours long. Whether you opt to ride roundtrip or take the bus one way, you will be gone the entire day. Tickets start at $94 for the roundtrip train ride and cost up to $224 for Presidential Class tickets.
Additionally, you have the option to book packages. The tour package includes a visit to Mesa Verde National Park. The hotel package comes with an overnight hotel stay. Adventure packages pair the train ride with activities. Throughout the year, the railroad also hosts special events such as The Polar Express train rides. Purchase your tickets for any of these before you go to guarantee a spot.
Be sure to visit Wander for more to see and do during your visit to Colorado.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.