Durango & Silverton Railroad

 Durango & Silverton Railroad, SW Colorado

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology

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. 

The Railroad

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!

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology

And I think you'll want to know this paragraph from their website:  "Today the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad continues to provide year-round train service, operating a historical train with rolling stock indigenous to the line. The locomotives used to pull today’s train remain 100% coal-fired, steam-operated. The locomotives are 1923-25 vintage and are maintained in original condition. The coaches each feature bathroom facilities and are heated during the winter months for passenger comfort. Open gondola cars provide a panoramic view of the mountains. Concessions are available on every train. The Durango & Silverton is owned and operated by American Heritage Railways."

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology

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

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
The Animas River Valley is bounded by scenic Mesozoic sandstone and siltstone, all dipping southward (to the left in the above photo, to the right in the photo below).  The white sandstone is the Jurassic Entrada Sandstone, which is also one of the prominent sandstone layers around Moab, Utah, where it is reddish.  The red layers below the Entrada are the Triassic Dolores Formation (more recently named the Chinle Group) and Permian Cutler Formation.  The Entrada was deposited in an extensive, sandy desert, while the older Dolores / Chinle includes a variety of deposits including river channels, flood plains, lake bottoms, and some volcanic ash.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
The bright red sandstone and siltstone are the Permian Cutler Formation.  Picture this: The Cutler was deposited in rivers, lakes, sandy deserts, and shorelines when North America was close to the equator, and before the dinosaurs showed up.  It was a totally different world!

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
You'll get up close and personal with the bedrock!  These are the "basement" of North America -- Archean (>2.5 billion years old) gneisses and granites called the Irving Formation.  While the overall rock type is gneiss, in detail it contains a wide variety of metamorphosed rock -- amphibolite metamorphosed from volcanic rocks, biotite- and epidote-bearing schist and gneiss, metamorphosed plutonic rocks like granite and diorite, quartzite and feldspathic quartzite, metasiltstone, banded-iron formation, and muscovite-quartz-biotite schist.  Whew!  The gneisses are all the rocks with light & dark colored layering.  The granites usually have very large crystals of feldspar and quartz, and are often dikes (like veins).

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
Near an hour out of Durango, the railroad reaches the beautiful gorge.  It's lined with the ancient gneisses.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
I think this is where the word "gorgeous" was invented!

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
The railway is cut into the cliffs above the Animas River, and provides a stomach-dropping view over the side.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
Don't worry too much -- they haven't lost a train here yet!

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
The Animas River has a wonderful turquois color from the fine silt & clays washed down from glaciated valleys.  Watch how it changes color along the route.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
For me, it was hard not to photograph every yard of the trip!  I think I did, anyway.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
The Animas River can get ferocious when it floods, as evidenced by stripped bedrock and debris piled at the high water marks.  Notable floods occurred in 1911 (the biggest one), 1927, 1949, 1970, 2005, and 2019.  The 2019 flood damaged a section of the rail line at Cascade Canyon.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
About half-way through the trip, you'll start to notice an orangey color to the river rocks.  This is iron-rich clays & minerals from the mining districts in volcanic rocks near Silverton, especially from Cement Creek (just north of Silverton).  Mines and tailings also put some heavy metals into the creeks, which is being monitored and cleaned up.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
Much of the red staining is natural from the volcanic bedrock upstream, but it was increased by mining north of Silverton along Cement Creek.  The big landslide complexes near Cement Creek contribute a lot of the red clay.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
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.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
The train stops a few times to refill the water tank on the long climb to Silverton.  Here, an engineer has lowered a fat pipe using a cable, filling the tank with a great rush.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
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.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
The iron staining become more pronounced as you approach Silverton.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
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.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
This area has over 300 productive mines!  The peak periods were 1870 to about 1920, with brief activity after that when precious metal prices were high.  This one is a mile south of Silverton.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
A large avalanche chute south of Silverton.  In winter, snow avalanches tear tress out of the forest, often chopping them off at the snow line.  In summer, flash floods carry mud and rocks down, eroding a deep gully and forming a rocky fan at its mouth.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
Looking back south into the canyon from near Silverton.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Animas River Geology
USGS map of calderas & bedrock in the Silverton region.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
Looking into Silverton, the river rocks are really red from the volcanic clays and minerals in the mining areas.  The mountains in this picture are the Silverton caldera.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
Watch for this waterfall on the east side of the train south of Silverton.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
The colorful rocks north of Silverton are remnants of a volcanic caldera, one of several that include the Uncompahgre, Lake City, and San Juan calderas.  They were active from 35 to 22 million years ago.  Remember, a caldera is a collapsed volcano that results from an extraordinarily large eruption.  Calderas often later fill in with lava flows and explosively erupted tuffs.  The calderas around Silverton and Ouray were extensively corroded and altered by hydrothermal water circulation, which produced the colorful reds, oranges, and yellows and were the source of precious metal deposits.  It's this alteration, along with mining activity, that put the iron-rich clays & minerals into the Animas River.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
Looking west from Silverton.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
Looking west from Silverton are volcanic peaks outside of the Silverton caldera.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
The old train station.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology
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.

Durnango Silverton Railroad Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountains San Juan Mountains Geology

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!

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Extras:

B.S.-- Embers from the coal-fired steam engines have occasionally sparked forest fires.  The railroad has done extensive mitigation along 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 


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