Few sounds evoke Colorado’s history more than the mournful call of a train whistle echoing through a canyon.
You still can hear that sound in many of the state’s mountain towns. It was by train that many settlers came, that miners plied their trade and commerce got its foothold on the state. It was by train that schoolteachers, preachers and families traveled to create such communities as Leadville, Durango, Silverton, Canon City — even Denver and Colorado Springs.
Many of these mountain trains ran on narrow-gauge rails — easier to build and navigate around steep mountain curves. Some trains are still powered by steam, others by diesel. But instead of hauling gold- or silver-bearing ore, they haul tourists who want to revisit a bygone era.
Here are a few of the historic trains worth riding this summer or fall:
The Georgetown Loop
A short trip between Silver Plume and Georgetown can take you far away from the present. The Georgetown Loop, acquired in 1959 by the Colorado Historical Society, once served miners and their families. Today, tourists can recapture that experience in the 75-minute round-trip ride.
An optional stop along the way lets riders off to tour the Lebanon Silver Mine — a fascinating venture, if you’ve never been in one.
Riders can choose from open gondola cars or covered cars with bench seats. Old railroad songs waft through the cars as riders wait for the ride to begin.
As the train loops around the high curved trestle that gives it its name, photographers snap its photo. And on the return trip, the restored Engine No. 9 plunges like a muscled workhorse up the last grade as it returns to the Silver Plume station. Its furious charge reminds riders that this train was once such a workhorse.
Information: (888) 456-6777 or www.georgetownlooprr.com
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a rocking, rolling all-day affair, with a stop for lunch. Though the seats are basically padded benches, true train buffs will be in railway heaven.
The train leaves Antonito, at the southern end of the San Luis Valley, chugging its way out of the depot, then zooms along at about 12-15 miles an hour over the 64-mile stretch that winds its way through the San Juan mountains to Chama, N.M.
Past sagebrush, rock outcroppings and piñon trees, the train rolls along with views of Blanca Peak to the north. As the grade gets steeper, the landscape changes to aspens and a variety of conifers — blue spruce, ponderosa and lodgepole pines.
In 1869, regular-gauge track was laid south from Alamosa to Antonito, but the route through the mountains was too difficult for that size track, so in 1880 a narrow-gauge line was laid by the Denver & Rio Grande company from Antonito to Chama to serve the mining camps along the way.
Just before the ghost town of Sublette, where the train stops for water, the terrain begins to take a dramatic turn. High walls flank one side of the train, deep canyons the other. The last major uphill climb happens before the train reaches Osier and the midway point on Cumbres Pass. It’s also where passengers gratefully detrain for lunch.
Information: (888) CUMBRES (286-2737) or www.cumbrestoltec.com
Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad
On a glorious summer morning, the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad gently chugs out of the Leadville station, backing up 11 miles to the Climax molybdenum mine, flanked by aspens, conifers and wildflowers. In the distance, Colorado’s highest peak — Mount Elbert, at 14,433 feet — looms majestic, snow still crowning its lofty peak. At 11 mph, passengers — whether seated in one of the open cars, covered cars or enclosed cars — can easily see everything.
The line, converted from narrow-gauge to standard gauge in 1943, eventually became defunct when the price of molybdenum plunged in 1986. That year, Stephanie and Ken Olsen bought it — rails, engines, cars and all — for $10.
The diesel engine doesn’t draw die-hard train buffs who are steam-engines purists, but the trip is both comfortable and fascinating.
Information: (719) 486-3936 or www.leadville-train.com.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Arguably Colorado’s most famous train ride, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad takes visitors from Durango up to the old mountain mining town of Silverton. It’s an all-day affair, with scenery varying from rushing streams to high rock outcrops.
It also can be a dirty ride if you want to sit in an open gondola, so wear old clothes. And dress in layers, because even if the day is warm in Durango it can get quite brisk in the mountains, especially if you’re in an open car.
The D&SNGRR route was built in 1881 to bring silver and gold from the San Juan Mountains to the main line. The route has been operating continuously since because even when the minerals played out, riders continued to enjoy the views.
There’s a two-hour lunch/shopping stop in Silverton.
The D&SNGRR has the most variety when it comes to special train events, including Thomas the Tank Engine and Polar Express events for families with kids, festive holiday runs and the annual weeklong Railfest celebration each August.
Information: 877-TRAIN-07 or 970-247-2733 or online at www.durangotrain.com.
San Luis Express
As the San Luis Express pulls out of Alamosa, in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, it begins to pick up speed. Soon, we’re blasting across the countryside at a wild 35 mph. It was the “bullet train” of its era.
Stately Mount Blanca looms up on the north, then passengers flock to the south side of the cars to ogle a herd of elk — maybe 50 or 60 grazing along a stream and in the adjacent meadow. It’s not unusual to spot wildlife on this 3-hour ride over the Sangre de Cristo mountain range into the town of La Veta. In the short time the train has been running — 2006 was its first season — passengers have spied bears, pronghorns, elk and wild turkeys.
The train passes through Fort Garland, then the tracks veer away from the highway (visible most of the time so far) and into the mountains. This is the only route crossing the Sangre de Cristos.
As we climb higher, the tracks pass through tall stands of aspen trees mixed with evergreens. This makes a beautiful contrast come fall, when the aspens turn gold. At times, the rock walls are nearly close enough to touch. At others, the vista opens into broad alpine meadows dotted with purple asters and sunflowers.
Eventually, the train enters La Veta, where passengers can get two hours for lunch and visits to art galleries, shops and the Fort Francisco Museum before the return trip.
Information: (877) 7CO- RAIL (726-7245) or www.alamosatrain.com
Linda DuVal is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.