Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train pulling into the station. / Photo by Larry Myhre / flickr.com

Staff writer

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad takes tourists aboard coal-fired, steam-powered locomotives on the 45-mile trip from Durango to the historic mining town of Silverton, along a route that dates back to 1882. The scenic views are legendary, including a stretch where the train hugs steep cliffs more than 200 feet above the Animas River.

The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad cut the rail route through the narrow, steep-walled Animas River Gorge to transport gold and silver ore from Silverton to a smelter in Durango, and the trains carried an estimated $300 million worth of ore, most of it before the 1893 silver crash that sharply curtailed mining around Silverton.

The trains also carried passengers along the scenic route from the beginning, and they became a tourist attraction as part of the Denver & Rio Grande’s “Around the Circle” tour, which began in 1891 and took riders on a 1,000-mile trip through the Western Slope. Tourist traffic grew after World War I, and the Denver & Rio Grande wanted out of that business, finally selling the Durango-Silverton train to private investors in 1979.

Today, the railroad runs from Durango to Silverton from May through October, with reservations recommended in the peak summer months, and from Durango to the halfway point from November through early May. The train climbs from Durango’s 6,512 feet in altitude to Silverton’s 9,318 feet on its 45-mile journey.

The train begins the trip at the Durango depot built by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1882 to serve passengers on this route. Note the narrow-gauge tracks, which are just three feet across instead of the four feet and 8½ inches for standard gauge. They were adopted as a cost-savings measure for D&RG railroads built through the mountains. Listen for four long blasts of the train whistle to signal that it’s time for the train to depart.

The 3½ -hour, one-way journey begins at 5 mph as the train clears the rail yards. From there, it heads out of town and through the flat farmland of the Animas River Valley at 15 to 20 mph. U.S. 550 parallels this part of the route. At Hermosa, 40 minutes later, there is a stop at a water tank for the locomotives, and the train begins to climb and take curves.

About 20 minutes later, the train slows to 10 mph and passes under U.S. 550, a favorite spot for photographers. The train continues through a meadow before entering the Animas Gorge, where it slows as it enters a famous section where it crawls along the face of high cliffs. The train picks up speed to 15 mph for the rest of the trip. It continues to follow the Animas River, stopping at another water tank at the Tall Timber Resort to let off resort guests and then running along another narrow rock wall before it reaches Cascade Canyon, where it turns around in the winter because of the heavy snow and avalanche chutes ahead. Cascade is a two-hour ride from Durango.

The train continues through a series of short, steep grades and longer, gradual grades until it reaches Needleton, a stop popular with hikers heading into the Chicago Basin of the Weminuche Wilderness, which features climbs to the summits of three 14,000-foot peaks. The train will struggle to get started up again if it stops for hikers, and the engineer may have to back up the locomotive by a few feet to gain forward momentum.

The train then enters the route’s steepest grade, at 4 percent, to reach Elk Park, where there is a stop that meets the Colorado Trail. The train then passes through an avalanche area and begins the long, sweeping curves that lead into Silverton. The train slows to 10 mph as it enters town and gives a single long blast on the whistle to signal that it is arriving at the station.

The train’s locomotives date back to 1923 to 1925, while the 50 rail cars for passengers range from historic (a concession car from 1879, coaches from the early 1880s and a caboose from 1881) to modern replicas (most of the gondola cars). The railroad’s collection includes the personal coach of Rio Grande founder William Palmer from 1878 and a 2006 reproduction of the Silver Vista observation coach, both for special events.

Most of the summer passengers will find themselves in either enclosed Pullman coaches that place some limits on their scenic views or open gondola cars where they are exposed to a steady stream of smoke, ash, and cinders from the coal-fired locomotives at the front of the train. The coaches used during the winter are heated.

The train consumes six tons of coal and 10,000 gallons of water for each round-trip.

The trains have been featured in a number of movies, notably the opening scenes of the 1967 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” with actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford running along the roofs of the cars to stage a train robbery, and the 1957 film “Night Passage,” starring James Stewart and a section of the Animas River Gorge.

The railroad’s museum opened in 1998 in the Durango roundhouse and features memorabilia from the Denver & Rio Grande and other railroads, a model train layout of the D&RG as it operated in the 1950s, and a movie coach from “Butch Cassidy.” A satellite museum operates in Silverton.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum
479 Main Ave
Durango CO 81301