The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. A 20 Year Bucket List Item Ticked!

Possibly the best day of this trip so far for me at least.  I’ve wanted to ride this train for 20 years, since I researched a Colorado trip back then that never happened.  And it really, really lived up to all my expectations.  An amazing day.

Our train was at 845 from Durango and we were instructed that boarding would start at 815.  We had allocated seats – you book them during the initial process.  My research had suggested that sitting on the downhill side on the Durango-Silverton leg was the better side.  There are a number of different booking options – different types of carriages, train both ways or train one way, coach the other, train both ways and stay overnight….  It’s a touch decision.  In the end, we had opted to book in the open air carriage.  Two reasons: economy and ease of photography.  This is not a cheap trip, but it is worth every penny.  Our two tickets, round trip, were $250 including parking in Durango.  And that was for the cheapest carriage.  But, honestly, this is really, really worth it.

I’d also selected an open carriage towards the rear (but not right at the rear) and our two seats at the rear of the carriage.  This seemed to me to give us the best photo opportunities both for outward facing photos but also to be able to observe the train forward and back as we went around the bends.  It also meant we would have a little space to our right at the end of the seat row.  More of this later.

The only mistake we made – and I regret this – is that we took the train up-coach back option, rather than the train both ways.  The journey from Durango to Silverton takes 3.5 hours and we thought two long trips would be too much.  It wouldn’t have been and if we did it again – and I hope we do one day – I’d take the train both ways.  Not that there was anything wrong with the coach trip – it was excellent – but the train was just outstanding.

So, the journey is 45 miles – a long run for a steam train these days.  The top speed is 18mph and the trains – they have 8 steam engines – are all historic, most dating from the 1920s.  Three were running today, 15 minutes apart.   We got seated – you face outwards in the open carriages – and bang on time – we were off!  The weather was brilliant – bright sun and blue skies – and of course the fall scenery was just amazing.  It gets better every day.  I had thought that the open air carriage would be like the other steam trains we’ve ridden out here i.e. completely open air.  Not true in this case.  It was like a regular compartment with a ceiling but no glass in the side windows.

I mentioned our space between the end of the row of seats and the end of the compartment.  I have learned from other trips that you have to block this space off otherwise people come and stand there and even lean right over you to get their pictures.  So…. we put our bags down there on the floor.  It wasn’t totally effective.  Some thickskinned souls still leaned over them, but it was a massive help.

The tracks follow the Animas river up the valley, slowly climbing through the hills from about 6000 feet to about 8500 at Silverton.  The views across the valley were outstanding.  Sometimes the track went through narrow, rock gaps, clearly blasted by the builders.  Other times it went along sheer drops with amazing views down to the river far below us.  Occasionally we met the odd hiker, sitting on a rock beside the track, or a couple of intrepid photographers who’d hiked up to get their pictures.

The train stopped briefly twice to pick up water.  You couldn’t get off, but it was a good opportunity to see the watering process.  The train certainly put out a lot of steam and smoke.  And there’s a smell about it.  I am old enough to remember steam trains running routinely in the UK.  In fact my grandfather (mum’s dad) was a train driver on the Cornish Riviera train from Penzance to Paddington for much of his adult career before a coal fragment blinded him in one eye and he became an inspector.  It brought train journeys to Cornwall as a child back.  Mostly, the smell, which I didn’t even realise I would recognise.  But, as I say, a surprising amount of smoke.  I guess it explains (along with coal fires) the pea soupers of  the 1950s/60s too.

We had a volunteer guide in the carriage who gave us information on the history of the line, natural features we saw along the way and on wildlife we might see (we didn’t!).  There was also a buffet car where we could buy food and drink.  Other more expensive carriages had free drinks and snacks.  We had our own with us, so we didn’t buy anything.

The 3.5 hours went by quite quickly and all too soon we pulled into Silverton, right into the centre of the town.  We then had about 2.5 hours to explore.  We went to a coffee house and had a drink and then walked around the historic town centre.  Ate our lunch outsite the museum, in their garden, looking up at the beautiful mountains surrounding us.

Our coach departed at 3pm and took 90 minutes to return to Durango via the Million Dollar Highway.  A spectacular road as we well know.  The driver was superb and he gave us a non stop commentary all the way back – so interesting – on any number of local and historical topics.   We got back to Durango at 430, nearly 8 hours after we left.  What a great day!

I imagine train enthusiasts would be even more rapturous than we were at this experience.  All I can say is that if you are in Colorado, THIS is the one thing you should definitely try to do.  And if you can do it in the autumn colour season, all the better.  We would love to think that one day we will get the chance to do this again (both ways this time!!).