I very much enjoy riding trains. One of the trains I have wanted to ride on for many years is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. For some reason I just never got around to it.
Well, I finally did it! A short time ago we packed the car and headed out of "Dodge" to drive the seven-hour, 400-mile trip to Durango, Colo.
Durango proper has a little over 15,000 population, but the outer areas around the town are rather heavily populated which gives the feeling of a much larger town. Durango itself is definitely "Old West" in feel and appearance. It has a real downtown housing many fine restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels. It's a good walking town with much interest at every corner.
The focus of Durango for tourists is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge railroad. The Denver & Rio Grande Railway began construction on the railroad line to Silverton in August 1881. Nine months later in 1882 the tracks were completed and the train began transporting freight and passengers. Freight was mostly silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains. However, passengers soon realized that the marvelous view from the windows of the train of the fast-moving Animas river coming down the rich pine and aspen-covered valley with tall peaks above the tracks was something very special.
This year the train celebrates 125 years of continuous operation and is now owned by Allen and Carol Harper. It carries more than 250,000 passengers each year. Why narrow gauge? The original owner, General Palmer, wanted narrow gauge passenger cars to prevent men and women from being able to sleep in the same bed while on the train. The rails were also less costly to install. Narrow gauge rails are three feet apart while standard gauge is four-feet, eight-and-one-half inches apart.
The train is pulled by vintage coal-burning steam engines that choo-choo and chug up and down the steep grades. All were built in the 1880s. The equipment is kept in fine running condition by continuous maintenance and refurbishment. Every one of the employees I spoke with seemed to have genuine pride in his and her work and the railroad. When you ride the train you realize what a feat it must have been to construct the rail bed and tracks. The railroad follows the Animas River some 45 miles from Durango to Silverton and travels at an average of 18 miles per hour. Slow, yes. But in this distance the tracks climb from 6,500 ft. at Durango to 9,300 ft. at Silverton. It takes a lot of chugging to make the trip. The train uses six tons of coal and 10,000 gallons of water for the round trip of 90 miles.
I have experienced a lot of train travel in various parts of the U.S., Canada, Europe and China. The Durango & Silverton Railway offers the most beautiful, up-close views of river, valleys, mountains and nature. It almost takes your breath away. Sometimes you are but 10 feet from the water rushing by the train while at other times you may be 400 feet or more above the river.
Since we traveled the train in September, the temperatures in Durango and Silverton were already cool. Fresh snow was visible on the mountain peaks at Silverton and the aspen trees were already turning to fall colors. Beautiful!
Our train departed Durango at 8:15 a.m. to arrive Silverton at 11:45 a.m. Upon arrival, passengers scatter through the small old mining town, picking a place to have lunch. There are 17! We selected the Bent Elbow restaurant, which had been recommended. During lunch an old-time piano player banged away with tunes of the old days. Some we could even sing! The food was quite good and we ordered the best dessert I have experienced in years, bread pudding.
This mountain community is nestled in the San Juan Mountains and claims a thriving population of 450 residents.
At 1:50 p.m., the train whistle toots a few blasts and passengers dutifully board the train for the 2 p.m. return trip to Durango, arriving at 5:30 p.m.
There are many fine places to stay in Durango. We chose the Durango Lodge, which is privately owned and located only a half block from the rail station downtown. If you want to feel "Old West," I recommend the Strater or General Palmer Hotels, also downtown.
There are many fine eateries in Durango. One night we enjoyed fine prime ribs at Randy's and another evening we ate at Ken & Sue's. I can highly recommend both.
The train runs most of the year in some form of various routes. The most popular time is between May and October. Be sure to make reservations for both the train and lodging, since Durango is a very popular tourist destination. All seats on the train are assigned so there is no pushing or shoving for seat locations.
Our return to Arizona was via a route taking us to the archaeological center of America. Mesa Verde National Park, home to various Indian tribes, allows an opportunity to view the culture and form of living from approximately A.D. 600 through A.D. 1300. These people built elaborate stone villages in sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls now called cliff dwellings. We also drove into the area of Canyon de Chelly for a chance to see the beautiful red colored high canyon walls overlooking the dense green along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The return trip took us about 12 hours with the two major stops, but well worth the time.
This is one trip not far from home, and one you will never forget!
Some helpful telephone numbers in planning your Durango trip:
Reservations for the train only: 1-888-872-4607
Reservations for various hotels: 1-866-294-5187
For complete information on Durango and area, go to www.durango.org on the Web.