The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Friday, May 25, 2007

We live in Bryson City, NC, home of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. GSMRR offers train rides along the Tuckaseegee and Nantahala Rivers. This past year, the steam engine has been undergoing renovations, but hopefully this coming fall we’ll again be able to enjoy the sound of the steam whistle reverberating around the hills of our farm. It’s always a thrill to watch the train puffing out of the Bryson City depot, full of all the happy tourists that keep our little town alive!

Here in Durango is a sister line, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (DSNGRR). Also steam powered, the route follows the Animas River as it winds thru a steep gorge and steep mountain slopes on the long climb from Durango to Silverton, Colorado. The rail line goes right through the heart of the wild and imposing San Juan Mountains, originally constructed to transport ore from the numerous silver mines surrounding Silverton.

Nothing against my hometown railroad, which is a great ride, but the DSNGRR is simply spectacular. Being narrow gauge track, the cars and engines are smaller than a standard gauge railroad, and almost look like something from a toy train. Most of the equipment originally came from the narrow gauge Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which was a lengthy route that passed through Royal Gorge and parts of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado.

At the height of the summer, the railroad runs 4 excursions daily, although on the day of our ride only two trips were offered. You can take the full round trip from Durango to Silverton and back, or take the train one way and a bus ride along the amazing San Juan Skyway back (you can do this in either direction). We opted for the full round trip. After being pelted with snow two days in a row at Mesa Verde, and knowing that Silverton is at 9300 feet, I decided to book us in the enclosed parlor cars, rather than braving the weather in the open cars. This worked out well for the trip up, with a brisk wind blowing, although it limits your view slightly.

The trip up to Silverton was enjoyable – Denise and I talked with a couple that was chaperoning a 4-H group from Durango on the train. We like Durango a lot, and we quizzed them at length on the area and what it was like to live there. At one point the train is perched on a narrow ledge blasted into the side of the Animas River Gorge, nearly 400 feet above the river. The views of the rapids below are great, and everyone rushes to the gorge side of the train to take it in.

It’s about a 3 hour trip to Silverton. The route closely follows the Animas River, most of it through the San Juan National Forest. There are a few cabins scattered alongside the river, but for the most part, once you clear Durango, it’s just you, the train, the river and the snow-capped mountains. It’s a beautiful ride.

Reaching Silverton, the train puffs to a stop right in the middle of a wide dirt street. We had a two hour layover in Silverton, which we spent eating and wandering around looking into the various shops. Silverton started as a mining town, and it still looks like one. Surrounded by high, snow covered mountain peaks, the town has maintained most of its silver mining town heritage. All of the streets are dirt, and it's not hard to imagine that the town looked much the same 100 years ago.

We ate at an old western saloon, complete with a honky tonk piano player. The girl playing the piano, ripping out Scott Joplin ragtime tunes with aplomb, was surprisingly young. Vance got a big kick out of the whole setting.

The train was considerably less crowded on the return trip, and after a light rain let up we moved back to one of the open air cars to enjoy the views. On the downhill trip back to Durango the steam engine mainly coasts, only occasionally having to pull or brake.

We really enjoyed the views of the raging river and the snow capped peaks surrounding us. The one downside was that the steam engine is coal fired, and belches small chinks of coal and black soot – you get covered in the stuff if you stay out in the open too long!

Curious about a small motorized railcar that follows behind the train at a discrete distance, we learned from the conductor that its job is to put out any fires that may be started by the steam engine! Despite the recent snow, this is a very dry area of the country, and the fire prevention precautions are necessary.

It was early evening when we arrived back in Durango. The ride was long, but exhilarating (although Vance was more than ready to get off the train by that point). I enjoyed it so much, I could have hopped right back on!

Vance: The Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has been open for almost 100 years. Back then, train transportation was very popular. It takes about six hours in all to ride the train. All of us enjoyed the ride. At Silverton, they gave us two hours to get lunch. We ate at a saloon with a great piano player. Next we explored town to kill the remaining time. We hopped back on the train and headed back for Durango.


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