Durango Silverton Trains, Foliage, Good Food and Excitement in the Old West

All Aboard!

Now that the dog days of summer are gone, and the cool, crisp air of Fall is upon us, a renewed sense of energy seems to take hold of our senses. Temperatures drop, gentle breezes blow, the skies gray a bit, and thoughts of family, holidays, and warm cider fill our hearts. 

What better time than to take an exciting train excursion or two on historic railroads through the idyllic scenery of Northern New Mexico and Colorado to view golden aspens, towering ponderosa pines, scenic mountain vistas, and alpine rivers teaming with rainbow trout?

Cumbres and Toltec Railroad
Image Credit: Richard Atkins

A Brief History – The Cumbres and Toltec/Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroads

A designated historic landmark and only 120 miles North of Santa Fe, the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad boasts the longest and highest representation of narrow gauge, steam-powered railroading in the country. 

The railway got its name from the 1,000-foot Toltec Gorge and the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass, the highest railroad pass in the US. It was constructed in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande’s narrow gauge San Juan extension, providing transport for the silver mining district of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado

The harsh topography in the San Juan’s demanded a 3-foot gauge track, allowing the railroad to lay less expensive track where standard gauge track would not fit. The hairpin curves were also easier to negotiate with narrower tracks. 

However, its inability to interchange cars with other railroads caused the Rio Grande to start converting its tracks to 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches, which became the standard in the United States.  

The Durango and Silverton line operates on 45 miles of track between Durango and Silverton in Colorado. Like the Cumbres/Toltec, it, too, is a designated historic landmark. The route was opened in 1882 by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, transporting silver and gold ore. 

Unfortunately, the repeal of the Sherman Act in the late 1890s was catastrophic to the silver mining industry, and both railroads fell on hard times financially. However, the enormous tourism potential was realized by preservationists years later in both New Mexico and Colorado. 

In 1970, the states jointly purchased the track from Antonito to Chama as well as the Durango/Silverton section; its sister operation abbreviated as the D&SNG. By 1971, both railroads were fully operational and touting thousands of tourists a day.

people taking photos of a train in a tunnel
Image Credit: Richard Atkins

The Experience

Both the town of Chama and its train depot are virtually stuck in a time warp from the Old West. Even passengers who booked tickets come dressed in their 1880’s, Sunday best. At first, we thought they were actors who performed a show on the train, but to our surprise, they were just old-fashioned train riders. 

The train is split up into different sections that are priced accordingly, some likening it to first-class vs. coach on a plane. Either way, the seats are comfortable, and the train features a snack car, an open car to the elements, and an experienced docent onboard for more specific historical info. 

At first, the train passes immense panoramic vistas, then slowly travels upward to mountain passes and monolithic rock formations, passing through dark tunnels and eventually stopping for a delicious, all-you-can-eat buffet lunch in Osier, Colorado. 

After lunch, we head back on the train for more spectacular scenery where the aspen leaves are turning a serene yellow amongst private ranch land, highlighting picture postcard backdrops and tranquil cows grazing the heartland. 

You’ll find that at railroad crossings throughout the journey, both tourists and locals alike park their cars and wait anxiously for the train to appear, waving vigorously as if the Queen of England were passing through, all the while snapping photos feverishly. 

It’s a phenomenon no one understands but appreciates nevertheless.  

You can ride the train roundtrip or take a bus from Chama to Antonito, then take the train to Osier and then back to Chama. I highly recommend the latter because the roundtrip train ride is about 7 hours, and taking the bus one way cuts off hours from your day.  

durango silverton train
Image Credit: Richard Atkins

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s topography is quite different from the Cumbres/Toltec, as you are confronted almost immediately with the roaring animus river. Its pristine turquoise waters flow over smooth river rock, winding from one side of the train to the other, then chugging deeper into ponderosa pine forests with Rocky Mountain spires in the distance. 

You’ll also pass old, abandoned mining operations and railroad bridges that cross the river no longer in use. At one point, the train is at its highest point, where you can look down hundreds of feet into an impressive gorge, completing the photo op! 

Again, I recommend taking the bus from Durango to Silverton and then traveling by train from Silverton back to Durango. Silverton is a wonderfully colorful mining town with tons of gift shops and excellent restaurants. 

However, as soon as you disembark from the bus, quickly find a place for lunch because trains and buses all unload at Silverton, and long lines become an issue for food. 

At the end of your journey, don’t forget to check out the Durango & Silverton railroad museum, located in the back of the Durango rail yard. It consists of antique steam locomotives, covered wagons, vintage coaches, automobiles, and an extensive collection of model trains. Admission is free for everyone. 

The Polar Express

From November 17th to December 31st, the Durango and Silverton line operates the Polar Express that will capture your heart as you and your family are transported into an intricate holiday fantasy where hot chocolate, holiday music, an entertaining show, and ‘Ol Kris Kringle convey the spirit of Christmas. Reserve early, as this is the railroad’s most sought-after ticket!

Hollywood

With such an authentic setting and preserved locomotives, it isn’t surprising Hollywood has used both railroads to tell their stories. 

In addition to documentaries and mini-series, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Hostiles, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feature the Cumbres/Toltec. Likewise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Around the World in 80 Days feature the Silverton/Durango trains.

main ave in durango
Image Credit: Richard Atkins

Where To Stay – Chama and Durango

When in Chama, the Chama Trails Motel is the place to stay. Less than two miles from the train station, the property is well appointed with roomy accommodations featuring a TV, kitchenette, microwave, and free internet. The staff is friendly and responsive to your every need. 

The murals on the exterior walls are whimsical and eye-catching, with the motel centrally located close to restaurants and conveniences. 

The quaint town of Chama is small but charming in its own inimitable way, and the best gift shop is the one at the Cumbres/Toltec railroad station. If you want great barbeque and live music, head for Outlaw Barbeque, and for great pastries and coffee, the Wilder Bakeshop and Espresso fits the bill.

Durango, in comparison, is quite large and spread out, featuring many great gift shops, cafes, ice cream shops, and restaurants. I highly recommend Primi, the only Italian restaurant in Durango offering hand-made pasta, salads, paninis, gelato, and over 16 Italian wines with a full bar with draft beer and cocktails.   

Your best bet for lodging in Durango is the Fairfield Inn and Suites, perfectly situated within walking distance of downtown Durango. That alone takes care of the parking nightmare along Main Avenue. 

The hotel caters to all your needs, including a complimentary hot breakfast in the cafe and a state-of-the-art workout room to burn off that breakfast muffin, as well as an indoor pool. Rooms are more than spacious, with comfortable beds and sofas to lounge in, free Wi-Fi, cable TV, and writing desks for your computer work. And best of all, prices won’t break the bank.  

people in hot springs in durango
Image Credit: Richard Atkins

Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa

After a long weekend of train rides, the Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa is the place to relax, unwind, and let your mind wander. The facility is a short 6 miles North of Durango, overlooking the imposing Missionary Ridge mountain range. 

These particular hot springs are quite unique, consisting of a distinctive blend of minerals with absolutely no sulphuric odor. The temperature of each hot spring pool differs to suit individual taste, accompanied by comfortable, Adirondack-style seating surrounded by multi-colored rose bushes and soaring ponderosa pines. 

The compound also features an oversized swimming pool, cold plunge pools, and a concession area for your convenience. Metal sculptures, a huge water feature, and earthy rock walls complete the architectural design, adding to its Zen, spiritual vibe.  

The Trimble Club houses an indoor spa featuring a variety of massages, including Swedish, deep tissue, prenatal, hot stone therapy, and reflexology. All treatments can have added enhancements, such as hand and foot rituals. Customized facials are also included to round out the extensive treatment menu. 

For future reference, construction on a beautiful Zen garden is underway in the back of the Trimble Club. All in all, it is a gloriously sublime, full-service spa surrounded by restorative mineral springs to be utilized year-round—reservations required.

gorgeous landscape and river
Image Credit: Richard Atkins

Cafe Abiquiu at the Abiquiu Inn

Driving back to the Albuquerque Sunport or to your home in New Mexico, you’ll want to stop off at Cafe Abiquiu at the Abiquiu Inn for a great meal, either at their interior dining room adorned with local artists and photographers or their lively outside terrace overlooking the mountains. 

Our meal started with the Elote dip, a fabulous three-cheese Oaxacan street corn, then graduated to some tender rainbow trout and a tasty marinated chicken breast entree. We finished off with some incredible desserts, including a to-die-for chocolate pinon tart and some old-fashioned cheesecake. 

Inside, you can visit the tantalizing gift shop full of Native American jewelry, rugs, photography, and fashions. But if you hang around too long, you’ll have to check into the inviting Inn for the evening. 

If you’re into adventure, history, trains, and nature, this is a great way for young and old to explore the Old West and have a wondrous time doing so!

If You Go

  • Cumbres and Toltec Railroad – cumbrestoltec.com, 888.286.2737, info@cumbrestoltec.com
  • Silverton and Durango Railroad – durangotrain.com, 877.872.4607, info@durangotrain.com
  • Chama Trails Motel – chamatrailsmotel.com, 575.756.2156, chamatrails@windstream.net
  • Fairfield Inn and Suites Durango – 970.259.1300, 21719 West US Highway 160, Durango, CO
  • Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa – durangohotspringsresortandspa.com, 970.247.0111, info@dhsresort.com
  • Cafe Abiquiu – abiquiuinn.com/cafe-abiquiu, 505.685.4378, jamie@abiquiuinn.com

Note on Fall Foliage – the peak times for changing colors is the last week in September or early October, depending upon the weather. However, if you miss those peak times, aspen trees are just as beautiful without leaves showing off their stunning white barks.

Check out this gorgeous slideshow of the experience.

 


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Richard Atkins is a travel photo-journalist, playwright, screenwriter, actor and pianist. He can be reached at: rcratkins@att.net.