Durango & Silverton Railroad
Durango & Silverton Railroad, SW Colorado
Take SW Colorado's iconic narrow-gage railroad along the spectacular Animas River!
What You'll See
The train climbs nearly 3000 feet from Durango (elev. 6512 ft., 1985 m) to Silverton (elev. 9318 ft., 2840 m) in a distance of 45 miles. This route provides an amazing spectrum of bedrock geology including scenic Mesozoic sandstones, some of America's oldest metamorphic rocks, and finally the 30 million year old volcanic caldera that hosted precious metal mines in the Silverton region.
Oh, and the famous scenery of the San Juan mountains!
Travel to Durango
Durango is located in SW Colorado. It does have a small airport served by three airlines (see https://www.flydurango.com/), but most people will want to drive there so they can tour the region.
Durango has plenty of hotels and good restaurants.
Their website for info & reservations: https://www.durangotrain.com/
The railroad has been here since 1882 serving the once-bustling mining districts in and around Silverton. It has been promoted as a scenic railroad ever since, and has been called America's most scenic railroad by many publications -- and I agree!
In the 1950's, several movies showed the railroad including Ticket to Tomahawk, Across the Wide Missouri, Denver & Rio Grande, Viva Zapata, and Around the World in 80 Days. Later, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid featured the railroad. But don't worry -- outlaws don't chase the train any more!
You'll board at the quaint station in the south part of Durango. Parking is ample in the gravel lot to the west by McDonald's.
Geology of the Rail Line
The railway is cut into the cliffs above the Animas River, and provides a stomach-dropping view over the side.
Don't worry too much -- they haven't lost a train here yet!
Some of the red staining is natural from the volcanic bedrock upstream north of Silverton along Cement Creek, but most is from the 2015 accident. The big landslide complexes near Cement Creek contribute a lot of the red clay.
You'll get occasional views up & down the canyon of the high surrounding peaks, which are up to 14,000 feet high. This is Vermillion-7 Peak.
As you get near Silverton, you'll notice the higher rocks on the west side of the canyon are sedimentary layers like limestone and sandstone. These are Paleozoic rocks deposited when this was the western edge of North America.
The bedrock here has been scoured by mostly springtime floods throughout the centuries and millennia. You can spot the annual high water mark by the lack of vegetation. Infrequent higher floods usually deposit debris (like logs) into the trees & bushes.
Looking into Silverton, the river rocks are really red from the 2015 accident. The mountains in this picture are the Silverton caldera.
Watch for this waterfall on the east side of the train south of Silverton.
Silverton is a quaint, quiet (except for the ATVs), enjoyable place to visit. You'll find shops and restaurants aplenty to keep you busy while waiting for the train's afternoon departure.
I especially like visiting old mining towns because they were prosperous enough to build and preserve some of the peak architecture and commerce of the era, which is missing in most small towns of the same era.
This is a trip to put on your bucket list!
Extras:B.S.-- Embers from the coal-fired steam engines have occasionally sparked forest fires. The railroad has done extensive mitigation along the line (removing dead trees, cutting trees close to the line) to prevent this from happening again. You'll see the results of their efforts along the route.
M.S.-- Over $300 million in precious metals were transported on this railroad, much more than Butch Cassidy ever stole!
Ph.D. -- Geologic maps covering the route are available here:
Durango East quadrangle: https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/Prodesc/proddesc_41293.htm
Silverton Quadrangle: https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/Prodesc/proddesc_32197.htm