Many locals told me the must-do activity in Durango is riding the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train.
I’ve never ridden a real, old-fashioned train before; there’s something so nostalgic and romantic about it. As seems to be the case any time you’re catching a train (at least from what I’ve seen in movies), my sister and I almost missed it. My dad dropped us off late at the train station, and we sprinted inside, shoved our tickets in the face of the first employee we saw, and then ran to our train car.
We took our seats in one of the narrow benches that lined the wood-paneled car and watched the employees in conductor hats and overalls come by and attempt to sell things or tell us interesting facts about the train ride. As the train lurched forward and whistled, I waved goodbye to the people waiting at the train station as we began our long journey from Durango (elevation: 6,512 ft) to Silverton (elevation: 9,305 ft).
The coal-fired, steam-powered train winds through the mountains along 45 miles of narrow rail that’s been used since the 1880s. The train spews soot and rhythmically rocks to and fro as it chugs along. I noticed as we rode that everyone we passed waved at the train’s passengers. Farmers tilling their land stopped what they were doing, looked up, and waved at the train; motorists stopped at the railroad tracks waved at the train; we even saw this woman holding up a sign and waving at the train at one intersection—and I kid you not—a few minutes later, she was at the next intersection, happily waving away.
The pinnacle of the trip is when the train emerges from a tunnel and the lookout reveals a 400-foot drop to the river below.
The views from the train were breathtakingly beautiful, but they come at a hefty price: $212 for my sister and me to travel up to Silverton by rail and back down by bus. A one-way train ride takes three and a half hours, so I strongly suggest doing one way by rail and then returning by bus. It cuts down the total travel time by about two hours.
I loved Silverton, which is an old mining town nestled in the valley of the San Juan Mountains. Although clearly a touristy area, the town still gives the impression of being untouched since the days of the Old West. Log cabins, saloons, and the occasional horse line the pedestrian-friendly streets. The town’s population is less than 200 people during the winter; the only school in Silverton enrolls about 50 kids; and there’s only one grocery store.
We stopped to eat at Handlebars Restaurant, which looks like a tourist trap, but our friends in Durango said it was a great place to go. The place was packed (mostly with travelers), and my sister and I sat down with some people from Texas and California who offered to share their table. My sister ordered the elk burger, and I ordered the bison burger; we then split our burgers and traded halves with each other, so we could try both meats.
With the bison burger, I couldn’t really tell the difference from beef. The elk burger, however, was really dry (lower fat content than beef) and had a strange taste.
Unfortunately, we had only two and a half hours in Silverton before we had to catch our bus ride back to Durango. Yes, Silverton is very small, but two and a half hours wasn’t enough to explore everything
Okay, so you’re probably wondering, with the cheapest tickets being a whopping $83, is it really worth the price? That really depends. If you love history, small towns, photography, and the outdoors, you’ll probably love it. The train ride isn’t for someone looking to do something extremely active and fast-paced; it’s pretty laid-back and relaxing. If you’re looking for adventure, you can sign up for an “Adventure Package” where they drop you off in the middle of the train ride to go hiking in the wilderness. If you’re going to spend big money on this train ride, I recommend going ahead and splurging on the more expensive seats (First Class, Presidential, Deluxe, etc.) where you can have a private car, more space, and be served complimentary food and drink. (You know, it’s kind of like flying first class instead of coach. Well, at least I imagine it is. I’ve never actually had the privilege to fly first class.) Also, keep in mind that the views offered by the train ride cannot be found any other way. Driving to Silverton is a much different route. Although it’s beautiful, it cannot offer the pristine wilderness views that the train can.
Things to Know Before You Go
Address: 479 Main Ave
Durango, CO 81301
Tickets: Reserve these early, as they tend to sell out quickly. The prices vary widely because there are different train car options. For adults, lowest is $83, highest is $179 (not including fees and tax). For children ages 4-11, $49. Children 3 years and under ride free.
Train schedule: Check http://www.durangotrain.com/ride-us for the updated schedule.
Parking: You do have to pay for parking. It’s recommended that you pick up your parking ticket along with your train ride tickets the day before the ride. The parking lot is at the corner of Hwy. 550 and College Drive, near McDonald’s.
- Keep in mind there’s a 3,000-foot difference in elevation between Durango and Silverton, which means a significant change in temperature (about 10 degrees Fahrenheit) from one destination to the next. Wear layers, so you can change your clothing accordingly.
- Pack drinks and snacks for the long train ride (3.5 hours!).
- I wouldn’t recommend booking your ride for the open-air gondola, simply because the sun will be beating down on you and the soot from the train will be relentless. The covered Vintage coach is the same price, and you can still take pictures out of the windows next to you (they don’t roll up all the way though), and you can walk outside onto the gondola at any time during the train ride if you want a less-restricted view.
- Many people have warned about soot getting into your eyes, teeth, and everywhere else during the train ride. I actually didn’t have any problems with this. However, if soot does get into your eyes, I hear there’s a retired doctor in Silverton who will clean out your eyes for free. Just ask around when you get to Silverton.
- Because of the potential soot problem, I highly recommend you bring sunglasses to shield your eyes.
- Don’t miss the pinnacle of the whole trip–the view of 400-foot drop to the river below that I mentioned earlier. Sometimes the employees will warn you, but in case they don’t, you’ll know you’re approaching it when you pass through a tunnel.
- Sign up for the train ride one way, and a bus ride back. It costs about $20 more to do this, but I think it’s worth it. Even for such a beautiful train ride, 3.5 hours is a long time. You probably won’t be so thrilled to do it twice. Plus, the bus ride back is beautiful too, and it takes you through a different route. So you’ll still get awesome pictures on that ride.
- When you book your train ride, MAKE SURE you book your seat for the “Canyon-facing” side. This will ensure the best views. Just call the number listed on the website and ask the employee for the canyon-facing side.
- You generally get only 2 hours and 15 minutes in Silverton before you have to catch your train or bus back, which to me, is not enough time. If you can, book the ride that has the late return or try driving to Silverton and spend some more time there. Be warned though, the drive is up steep, winding mountain roads.
- Eat at Handlebars. Any restaurant you choose will be touristy, but this place is also really good and fun.
- If you want to get off the beaten path, hike up to the Christ of the Mines Shrine, a 12-ton, 16-foot-tall statue of Jesus. It’s up on a hill above 10th and Bluff streets, and you can’t miss it. It’s visible from the town below.