The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway provided just enough history, touches of nostalgia, modern humor and plentiful scenery to be a great day excursion.
The coal-powered steam locomotive was already puffing smoke as we boarded the "Alamosa" car, the last one on a 10-car train, for the 8:45 a.m. Departure from downtown Durango, Colorado. We discovered our car was built about 1880, and looked pretty much the same, including the oil lanterns hanging on the walls and the classy little bar at the front of the car. As we left the station, I could imagine ladies in their bustles and gents in their vests oohing and aahing, just as we were.
Ellie was the attendant in our car, and provided patter off and on throughout the trip. She is definitely an independent spirit, but her humor was spot-on and not the usual canned, rehearsed gaffaws one often gets on tours. In a previous life, Ellie was a geologist, so she was well-versed in talking about the six climate zones we traveled through and the origins of the San Juan Mountains and valleys.
The narrow-gauge line follows the Animas River the entire trip up to Silverton. This is one of the few rivers we've encountered on this trip that is free-flowing, uncontrolled by dams. The water rushes over boulders and debris much of the way, adding to the excitement of being on this train. The forested mountains and valleys, once we climbed away from the ranch land valley, were laced with the yellows and golds of aspen in their fall colors, and the snow-draped mountain tops reminded me I was above 9,000 feet elevation.
The train winds its way up, up, up. Often, we were alternating between sheer rock cliffs on one side and the rushing river on the other. In some places, the width of the railroad tracks filled the entire ledge, and on curves this made for some great photo opps of the engine spouting out her steam and soot.
Some three-and-one-half hours later, we pulled into Silverton. This old mining town still has the dirt streets and many old-looking store fronts, but behind the facades are many tourist-catering businesses. We shunned the popular lunch restaurants for a 20-minute hike above town to the Christ of the Mines Shrine, and some wonderful eagle-eye views of Silverton and surrounding mountains.
We succombed to a Black Forest funnel cake and an ice cream cone as we walked back through town. We chose to take the bus back to Durango, a 90-minute ride back down Highway 550. I imagine the trip back on the train was beautiful as well.
The prices for this train trip are high, but I would definitely recommend this day trip. Though the train does not go all the way to Silverton in winter months, I was told the winter trip through the forest and along the river is a snowy-white fantasy scene.