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A Ride on Colorado's Durango - Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (DSNGR)
All Aboard For A Three and a Half-Hour Tour!
On a trip to Colorado, my husband and I took a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, using the train as a fun way of shuttling from one end of our Colorado Trail section-hike to the other.
We'd wanted to ride this historic, scenic train through the San Juan Mountains for years, and we weren't disappointed. What a great trip!
Here, I'll share some of my own photos, a little history of the "DSNGR," a description of the route, the various seating options and amenities you can choose from, and a few suggestions for making the most of the experience.
What is Narrow Gauge?
The term refers to rails that are three feet apart. By comparison, standard gauge rails are 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart, based on Roman chariot wheels.
A Little History Of The DSNGR
The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad first came to Durango, Colorado on August 5th, 1881, two years after the Denver & Rio Grande Railway founded the new town. Intended for hauling silver and gold from the surrounding San Juan Mountains, construction on the line to Silverton began just a few months after the railroad arrived.
By July, 1882, the route was completed, and the train began moving both freight and passengers between the two towns. The DSNGR and its steam engines have now been in continuous operation for 127 years.
The completely coal-fired and steam-operated locomotives are 1923-25 vintage and maintained in their original condition.
There are two museums where you can learn much more about this historic railroad -- the DSNGR Museum located at the south end of the roundhouse in Durango and The Freight Yard Museum at the Silverton Depot. Admission is included with the price of a train ticket and is good for two days before and two days after your ride. (Otherwise, it's $5 per adult or $2.50 per child, without a train ticket.)
A DSNGR Guide & Keepsake Book - Some history and a mile-by-mile "tour"
This 8th edition of "Cinders & Smoke" includes 47 new photos and a nature section.
Fire & Water and the DSNGR
For a round trip, a "fireman" shovels six tons of coal, and 10,000 gallons of water are used to produce the steam to power the train!
I know, not the most complimentary of statistics. But the train's whistle sounds quaint, anyway. Toot, toot!
The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway Route
The train travels 45.4 miles along the Animas River during the summer season from May through October. On winter trips from late November through early May, the train runs 26 miles from Durango to the turn-around at Cascade Station and back.
From May through October, you can board the DSNGR at several points, including the small, fun city of Durango at an elevation of 6,512 feet or tiny, historic Silverton at 9,305 feet at the other end of the line, or the wilderness access points at Needleton and Elk Park.
There is now also the option of getting off and later back on the train at Soaring Tree Top Adventures, where you can zip line your way through and above the aspen trees or fly from platform to platform on spans ranging from 50 to 1400 feet over a distance of more than a mile. (There is no road access to this location.) I missed a great photo, by the way, of a kid zipping through the trees past the train -- upside-down -- when my camera got hung up in my pocket.
Anyhow, at one point along the train's route, the tracks literally take passengers along a cliff, hundreds of feet above the Animas River rapids.
Uh-oh! Everybody lean to the left! (Nah, I wasn’t nervous.)
Hey, see that kid in the photo above — the one drinking from the red straw? He was the one who kept leaning over and spitting out the side of the gondola. Thing is, the spray kept blowing back at me! His mom saw but didn’t seem to care, so we moved to the other end of the car. Yuck!
Below, the train passes through Elk Park, a “short stop” that provides hikers wilderness access. The train only stops here if people are scheduled to get off or if they flag the train to board. (I was kinda hoping the spitting kid would get off, but no such luck.)
The train stops a couple of times to load up with water for the engines.
You’re constantly in sight of the Animas River along the entire route, so keep an eye out for rafters and kayakers. That looks like quite a ride, too!
The train crosses the river five times along the way, so you’ll have lots of great views of the Animas from either side of the car.
The quiet town of Silverton comes alive when the train arrives, offloading more than 200,000 people each year, often for a stay of no more than a couple of hours.
At the start of our trip, when we rode the train from Silverton to Elk Park, we got all excited when we heard the steamy whistle blow just outside of town, well before we saw it when it rounded the corner onto Blair Street.
There is no train station in Silverton. The tracks simply lead down the unpaved road, stopping just before the crosswalk.
Short Stops or Flagstops
These are wilderness points where the train will stop to let hikers get on or off.
Not all DSNGR trains are scheduled for allowing pick up and drop off at these locations, so refer to the online time table for those dates and times.
The Train Ride
Some Tidbits And Tips For Making The Most Of The Trip
If you're really afraid of heights, I still wouldn't pass up this ride, which is very safe (I think). The majority of the route really is down at or near the bottom of the narrow valley.
If you’ll be riding in one of the open-air gondolas, you’re sure to get covered with bits of soot and cinder from the coal-fired steam engine, so I’d recommend against wearing anything you wouldn’t want to get grimy, like white pants for instance.
Also, bring along eye protection. It’s not like you’re constantly getting pelted, but without eyeglasses, sunglasses or safety glasses, you’re almost sure to get irritating particles in your eyes. They do sell safety glasses on the train if you forget yours.
Even in late June, our train ride from Durango back to Silverton was very cold and unseasonably wet. What began as t-shirt weather in Durango soon became fleece, rain jacket, hat and gloves weather as we climbed and the clouds rolled in. So be sure to bring along some layers and maybe even a blanket if you’ll be riding outside at all. The train goes slowly — it’s top speed is 18 miles per hour, which it rarely seemed to reach — but there’s still enough added breeze to create significant windchill.
Also, if you don’t want to spend extra dollars on the train, you might bring along drinks and munchies like we did.
And, by gosh, don’t forget your camera!
The Elk Park Stop
This stop gives hikers access to the Colorado Trail, which runs 482 miles from Denver to Durango, the Elk Park Trail to the Continental Divide Trail, and the Vallecito Creek Trail. The latter can be connected with other trails to create a difficult, 34-mile loop back to the town of Needleton.
The Needleton Stop
This short stop gives hikers access to the Chicago Basin, including the Needle Creek Trail, the Johnson Creek Trail and the base camp for mountain climbers. The three tallest peaks in the area are 14,059-foot Sunlight Peak, 14,084-foot Mount Eolus and 14,087-foot Windom Peak.
The Durango-Silverton Railway Cars
For your ride, you have the choice of several "classes" of cars and service, from the standard (aka economy) class in the open-air gondolas and vintage coaches, the latter with windows that you can open, to the cushier "deluxe" class, the stylish "first class" with its complimentary pastries and beverages, and the private "presidential class."
Pictured here is the interior of a standard vintage coach (before most of the passengers had boarded).
And this is a gondola. There are padded bench seats, which face towards either side of the car. On a nice day (and even on a not-so-nice day), this is where I’d want to be, cinders or not.
There’s also a concession car on the train. We brought along our own lunch and drinks for the ride, but we heard about an endless cup they sell–I think it’s around $6–which you can have continuously filled with whatever you’d like to drink, cold or hot. And you can keep the cup and bring it back with you if you ride the train again and continue to get those free refills. I saw several folks have quite a few hot cocoas and coffees on our trip.
And, yep, there are bathrooms aboard the train, too.
Flagging The Train
To board the train at the Elk Park or Needleton short stops, you should wave your hands horizontally across your knees. When flagging the train to go in either direction, you need to be on the east side of the tracks.
The Cost of a Ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
While all of this information and more is available on the official website of the DSNGR, I'll give an overview here:
Basically, the cost of the train is the same whether you're going one-way or round-trip and regardless of where you get on or off. We chose the "cheap seats" for $79 (at the time) per person. This price applies to both the open-air gondolas and the indoor, vintage coach seating. (Seats are assigned when you make your reservation, but we found we were able to move about freely and sit inside or out as long as there was room on the train and we weren't occupying someone's reserved seat that they wanted to use.)
Prices range from $81 to $179 per person for adults, with a season pass now available for $139 for adults and $69 for children. In addition to unlimited rides throughout the year, season pass holders also get discounts on special events, like the New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, Independence Day, Cowboy Poet, and Photographer's Special trains.
**It's noted on the website that there is a $10 charge per backpack (I mean the big, hiker kind, not the small day packs many people carry), but there was no mention of that charge when we made the reservation or got on the train, and we were never assessed the baggage fee. We were not, however, allowed to hang onto our packs during the ride. They were placed in a different car and handed down to us when we got off.
Also, if you'd like to make it a round trip (or semi-round-trip like ours) but return on a different day, that's no problem. Our ride from Silverton to Elk Park was a week before our ride from Durango back to Silverton. In addition, there's the option of making a return trip by motor coach instead of taking the train back.
Take A Virtual Ride On The Durango-Silverton Train - This is a winter trip, so dress warmly!
One thing I noticed in this video is that the flow of the Animas River is MUCH lower than it was when we took the ride in June. At that time, the river was running fast and furious.
In the winter, the train departs Durango and then does a turn-around before Silverton, due to heavy snows at the higher elevations, so you'd begin and end at the same place.
The DSNGR And The Colorado Trail
The Durango-Silverton Train provides wilderness access and pickup for hikers on the Colorado Trail. We used the train as our means of shuttling when hiking the CT between the two towns.
At the beginning of our trip, we boarded the train at Silverton and rode it to the "short stop" at Elk Park near the trail crossing to start our hike. At the end of the trip, we rode the train from Durango back to Silverton where our car was parked.
Durango, Colorado, Travel Information
- Official Website of the City of Durango
Durango news, city calendar, "Discover Durango" with maps, public art, things to do, and more
- Trip Advisor's Durango section
With 21 hotels, 16 B&Bs, and 81 restaurants -- reviews and information
- Durango Tourism Office website
With specials and packages, things to do, trip planning information, Durango area information, and more
Silverton, Colorado, Travel Information
- Silverton Mountain
The website about the ski area and the town
A Keepake Book from the Durango-Silverton Train
This book contains 250 beautiful photos of the DSNGR and the breathtaking scenery it passes through.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury