Riding the Durango & Silverton

We spent a full day in Durango, Colorado to ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad up to Silverton and back. “Up” was true in two ways: 1) Silverton is north of Durango on the map, and 2) Silverton is also higher than Durango by about 2700 feet. The train was at least 15 passenger cars long, so we had two steam locomotives pulling us on the steeper parts of the route.

Cute tourist ready to board the train.

The Durango & Silverton traverses some amazing mountain scenery as it follows the Animas River upstream to Silverton. If you look on line you can find a list of movies (e.g., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Support Your Local Gunfighter) that used this train as a prop or as part of the storyline. Perhaps the most spectacular part of the route is the “High Line,” where the track follows a ledge carved out of the side of the Animas River Gorge. A safety vehicle traverses the entire route ahead of each passenger train (out of sight of the tourists) to check for rockfalls on to (or from beneath) the track.

Engine 473 moving us along and above the Animas River Gorge.

Here is a look down into the Gorge. The Animas River suffered serious pollution a few years ago when an EPA mine reclamation project accidentally released a pond full of contaminated mine water into the river. Fortunately, the damage was temporary and the river appears to have recovered.

Animas River Gorge — note the narrow gauge track on a ledge in the upper left of the photo.

We used two engines to climb the steeper parts of the route. Until a few years ago the engines all burned coal, but have since been converted to burn bunker oil. This helps reduce the risk of fires caused by sparks and cinders, and even bunker oil burns cleaner than coal.

Double-header: two locomotives hauling our train up to Silverton.

Silverton was a busy mining town, and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad originally built this narrow-gauge route to connect the mining district with the mainline railroad at Durango. This is why the distance to Denver is listed on the placard seen below. The mines are closed or idle, but now the town swarms with tourists as trains arrive each day from Durango. Things become really quiet here when tourist season ends and winter begins

Railroad station at Silverton, which is about 2700 ft higher in elevation than Durango.

The Silverton mining district sits in a beautiful valley south of Ouray, north of Durango, and amidst peaks of the San Juan Mountains, many of which go up to 13,000 or even 14,000 feet. Snow comes early in the high country, and the photo below shows snow from the night before our late-September visit.

San Juan Mountains overlooking the route from Durango to Silverton.

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