On Track to Silverton: Snaking Through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

Slowing to a motion-numbing 8 miles per hour, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train creeps along a narrow ledge. Cliffs tower on one side, plummet down the other. The Animas River surges 400 feet below. White froth caps its turbulent, beryl-green current.

As we round a broad curve, the black, coal-belching locomotive chugs into full view. Although warned not to poke appendages from the train, I cast caution to the wind and lean out to savor the sight. After all, it’s scenes like this that inspired me to take the slow track to Silverton.

Tucked almost 2 miles high in the craggy San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, the tiny community of Silverton attracts 200,000 visitors every summer. Some come for its spectacular location, abandoned mines and handful of Victorian hotels, inns, restaurants and shops. Most of us, however, visit because of how we get there.

Riding high in the San Juan Mountains, the railroad affords awesome views.

From the popular vacation crossroads of Durango, 40 crow-flying miles to the south, two dissimilar avenues lead to Silverton. The fast track, U.S. Highway 550, crosses a pair of 10,000-foot passes and affords blitzing views of some of Colorado’s most spectacular mountain scenery.

The slow track, on the other hand, requires stepping back to a bygone era when people considered 15 mph speedy travel and 90 miles a good day’s distance. The trip, voted by the Society of American Travel Writers as one of the “10 Most Exciting Rail Journeys in the World,” begins at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Depot.

I arrive early in the morning and find Durango’s station buzzing with activity. Folks scurry about snapping photos and coffering souvenirs. Eventually they locate their assigned seats in the gold-painted cars that trail a coal-fired, early-century locomotive.

Many had reserved space in the sedate, closed coaches, but I opt for one of the open gondola cars. Only mountain air will separate me from alpine splendor.

As departure time approaches, seats fill and boarding steps disappear. Excitement mounts. Finally, with a whistle wail and a lusty hiss of steam, the train lurches forward. Slowly, we exit the station.

Scenting the air with the pungency of blazing coal, the train creeps through the city of Durango and into the broad valley beyond. Along the tracks, spectators wave. We onboard return their salutations.

Silverton receives 200,000 visitors every summer, some arriving by the scenic railway.

After about 16 miles, the highway and rails cross for the last time on their separate tracks toward Silverton. Our route soon continues through a steep-walled slice in the hillside known as the Rockwood Cut. The warning not to poke arms out windows now assumes limb-saving significance.

A track-side sign declares the train is about to enter Animas Canyon. Until reaching Silverton, we will traverse country inaccessible to automobiles. At the pace of a middle-aged jogger, we crawl along the High Line, a thin shelf blasted from the red granite.

Today, when it requires years to build even a tiny section of highway, it seems incredible that construction of the Durango & Silverton railway took only 11 months. Built as a “narrow gauge,” tracks lie closer together than normal. This allows the train to negotiate sharper turns, handy in the confines of a mountain canyon.

We slow even more when the train crosses the Animas on a cast-iron bridge. Suddenly, the river dominates the scene on both sides of the car. A chorus of clicking cameras follows. Then, like lint attracted to a party dress, we all rush to the river’s new side of the train. At every subsequent crossing, we will repeat this position-changing ritual.

After the next river crossing, the nearly 14,000-foot-high summits of Pigeon and Turret Peaks expose their snow-streaked crowns from behind canyon walls. Soon, more spires of the aptly named Needle Range poke into view.

Just before Silverton, the route cuts through the narrowest part of the upper Animas Canyon. Then, the valley opens to reveal the remains of a century’s mining activity. Slowly, the train enters town, turns onto 12th Street and stops. The railroad has scheduled a two-hour layover.

Some claim Silverton got its name when an early miner bragged, “We don’t have any gold, but we’ve got silver by the ton.” Although christened for silver, the discovery of gold in 1870 originally lured prospectors to the area. Eventually, more than 1,500 claims dotted the mountain sides and valleys of the upper Animas.

Communities sprouted up along the river, with Silverton platted in 1874. The town, which quickly became the county seat, boomed. In mid-1883, it boasted five hotels, 10 restaurants and 34 saloons. Silverton also had 18 lawyers, and at least 117 prostitutes worked the dance halls and brothels that lined Blair Street.

Now designated a National Historical Landmark, Silverton looks today much as it did a hundred years ago. Mining has always been the town’s lifeblood. Its last working tunnel closed in 1991 after 118 years of operation.

Four whistle blasts tell me it’s time to reboard for the return to Durango. As we leave Silverton behind, the euphoria so prevalent in the morning seems to have waned.

Adults, engrossed in conversation, spend less time admiring the wilderness passing by. Older kids amuse themselves by continuously hiking the length of the cars. Younger ones curl up to sleep, a seemingly impossible task on the jostling train. Even

Riding the Narrow Gauge Railroad echoes of times past largely preserved by the historic train.

the river-crossing, side-shift ritual loses much of its following.

Clouds build, and an afternoon thunderstorm provides a roof-pattering diversion. The downpour tapers to a drizzle. After the train enters the lower Animas Valley, the sun finally pokes from behind dissipating clouds.

Someone notices a rainbow. Stowed cameras re-emerge. Kids burst with renewed excitement. Boredom vanishes.

Those of us on the slow track relax to the gentle sway of the train and clicking of rails. Lost in our thoughts, we watch as the arc varies position, shade and intensity. Every turn of the advancing train shifts the proverbial pot of gold located at rainbow’s end.

I lean out one last time.

If You Go

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
479 Main Ave.
Durango, Colorado 81301
970-247-2733 or 877-872-4607 (general information and reservations)

Reservations for the train should be made well in advance. Trains to Silverton run from May through October, with shorter trips available in winter. Each train has a concession car which sells souvenirs, beverages and light snacks. No pets are allowed onboard.

Durango Area Tourism Office and Visitor Center
111 S. Camino Del Rio
Durango, Colorado 81303
970-247-3500 or 800-525-8855

Durango is a tourist-oriented town bursting with hotels, motels and inns, but vacancies may be difficult to find late in the day. A pair of the nicest, the General Palmer Hotel (800-523-3358, generalpalmerhotel.com) and the Strater Hotel (800-247-4431, strater.com) lie within two blocks of the depot. Check with the tourism office for other lodging options.

Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce
414 Greene St.
Silverton, Colorado 81433
970-387-5654 or 800-752-4494

A variety of eating establishments compete to satisfy passengers’ hunger. All are within easy walking distance of the train, and some offer entertainment. The San Juan County Museum (970-387-5838, silvertonhistoricsociety.org) is open daily from Memorial Day through mid-October.

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website, www.LookingForTheWorld.com.