America’s Railroad: Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge

We are in the process of changing cable tv providers, so we have been watching a lot of YouTube lately. If you didn’t already know, there are some awesome videos out there. One in particular that  caught our attention was the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which has been on our short list for quite some time:

This video set the “wheels” in motion for our southwest road trip. With our love for trains and western history, the main event on our 330+ mile drive to southwest Colorado was to board the infamous Durango/Silverton train.

Be sure to watch our video at the end of this post and change the gear icon on the bottom right to 1080p for best picture

So let’s continue our road-trip story…  As you recall, we spent a very long day on the road, completed a marathon tour of Mesa Verde, arrived at camp well after dark and managed to get a few good hours of sleep in our tent.  Our camp for the night was in a roadside campground just outside the Mesa Verde park entrance.  It was a cool evening with temps in the upper 40’s, which was the perfect temperature for late summer camping in the 2 person tent. We planned to get up early the next morning to make it to Durango and board the train for our 8:00am departure. We fell asleep under a beautiful starry sky with the faint sounds of coyotes howling in the distance.

The alarm went off at 5:30am, which gave us time to change and pack up the tent. We arrived in Durango a little early, so we drove by the depot to see if we could get a glimpse of the train. It was still dark outside but the tracks were buzzing with workers getting the cars hooked up and getting the locomotive ready to go. We drove down the street a couple blocks and grabbed a quick breakfast and headed back to the train depot. The depot remains almost exactly as it was in 1882 with its huge pot belly stove in the center and the waiting benches that look original. When you walk in the depot and take your place in line at the ornate ticket booth, it is like you have stepped back in time.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) is located in one of the most beautiful and rugged areas of Colorado, the San Juan Mountains. Its 45 miles of tracks connects Durango to the old mining town of Silverton and it has been in continuous operation since 1881. It was built to carry supplies and passengers to Silverton and gold and silver from the mines of the San Juan mountains. Today it is a tourist and heritage line, but they still use coal/fire steam locomotives from the period and perform all the maintenance on them in their roundhouse at the Durango Train Depot. Some of the steam engines and passenger cars are over 125 years old and are kept in excellent condition.

Once we got our tickets, we explored the depot and gift shop, and then went outside where the train crew was busy getting everything ready to go. We made our way down the tracks looking for our car and realized the engine was not hooked up yet. I looked back towards the round house and saw a plume of smoke rising above the cars on the other side. They were pulling the engine forward to connect to our car, which was the first one behind the engine. We quickly grabbed our cameras and set up to where we could get some good shots of the connection. What a spectacle! The street ahead of the tracks was closed down and the train crew were positioned along the tracks making sure nothing was in the way. Old number 481 made its way around the cars that were already hooked up and across the street where it changed tracks. With smoke coming from the smokestack, steam pouring from the sides and the “clang, clang, clang” of the bell it slowly backed towards the passenger cars. Watching all the moving parts and the raw power of the side rods moving the driving wheels was awesome to see up close. At 286,600 pounds, number 481 shook the ground where we were standing as it passed.

After taking some pictures and video, we headed towards our coach and found our seats. Steaming through town, I was amazed at the people waiting by the tracks to take pictures and we were lucky enough to actually be on board. We followed the Animas River north towards Silverton and quickly began gaining elevation. Even though we have covered similar terrain in the area via 4×4 trails, the scenery from the train was amazing. Kristy bought the official guidebook which enabled us to follow the mile markers and read about the notable events that took place and specific terrain features along the way. The book covered huge avalanches, floods, train derailments and history of the area. About an hour into the trip, we decided to make our way to the open sided car, which was three cars behind ours. It was still a little cool, but this car provided an unobstructed view out of both sides and we got some great pictures and video.

Three and a half hours later we arrived in Silverton. Silverton was founded in 1874 as a mining town and it sits at an elevation of 9,308 feet making it one of the highest towns in the country. Today it is a small, quirky western town with shops, restaurants, a mining museum, an extreme ski mountain and to this day, it only has one paved street. The train pulls in on the southeast side and unloads its passengers in the middle of town. Kristy and I got off the train and headed for some lunch. We have driven through Silverton before, but this time we had a little more time to walk around. We settled on some BBQ at Thee Pitts Again, which was featured on Diners Drive-ins and Dives. Their original location is in Glendale, AZ and they recently opened up in Silverton. We were glad to try “the only authentic award winning BBQ in town.” It was definitely some of the better BBQ we have had in Colorado. After lunch, we walked over to the original train depot, which sits just outside of town and doubles as a small train museum. It houses some really cool artifacts and information on the Silverton mining days. Some of the photos in the museum are amazing showing the train plowing through 20+ feet of snow. I can’t imagine the hardships people struggled with living up there in the late 1800’s.

We heard the bell ringing on the train, so that was our cue to get on board. Steaming away from Silverton, we began the 3.5 hour descent into Durango. Ten thousand gallons of water are used to produce the steam to power the locomotive from Durango to Silverton and back! The sun was at a perfect angle on the way down, which provided for more great pictures. Luckily the weather cooperated and we spent most of the return trip in the open car. As we arrived back in Durango, people were again waiting all over to get photos of the historic train as it passed by. We got off and made our way over to the roundhouse which held an incredible museum. The D&SNGRR museum has complete train cars and locomotives along with train models, pictures, and artifacts donated from railroad enthusiasts who have ridden on and love the D&SNGRR. It was an incredible display of our American railroad history and engineering prowess of the 19th century.

We ended the day at Steamworks Brewery and had some great food and even better beer. Kristy had their fish & chips and I had the meatloaf, for something different. We were impressed and Steamworks lived up to “food worthy of our legendary beer.” The next morning we left Durango and pointed the Outback towards Denver for our long drive home.

America’s Castles: Mesa Verde National Park

Life is about choices, and on labor day weekend we chose to have fun. We have house projects to do, money to save, and blogs to write…but somehow exploring always wins out unanimously. With a three day weekend awaiting us, we decided to drive to Southwest Colorado and explore Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is about an hour and a half west of Durango, CO so we set our sights on the park gates between Durango and Cortez, CO.






Everything was packed the night before and Bandit was dropped off to visit his friends at the local boarding facility. Of course, we live for early and the Saturday 4am alarm was just that. We showered and grabbed a quick cup of coffee and we were out the door and on the road. Fall is definitely in the air and we enjoyed an awesome sunrise as we headed south on highway 285 with the dash temperature reading 35 degrees. A couple hours later, we made a quick pit stop for breakfast in Buena Vista and continued on our course southwest.

DSC04234We arrived at the Mesa Verde park headquarters around 1pm and quickly made our way inside to purchase tickets. There are areas of the park, which can be explored on self guided trips, but the better preserved cliff dwellings are led by Park Ranger guided tour only. Unfortunately tickets cannot be purchased in advance, but we arrived just in time to get the last tickets for the Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours later that afternoon. We had a couple hours to kill before the first tour started, so we drove the 45 minutes to the other side of the park and checked out the archeological museum. The museum had some unbelievable artifacts collected from the area and gave us a great introduction to what we were about to experience. The park is 82 square miles and houses the best preserved cliff dwellings in the world. They were built 800 years ago by the Pueblo/Anasazi Native Americans. The Pueblo lived in this area until the late 1200’s when they fled south because of a 24 year long drought.


We explored the museum with its Native American artwork , clothing, pottery, tools, and even a jar which still had corn in it. This jar and corn weighed 31 pounds and it dates between 1200-1276!! After our American history refresher in the museum, we hiked down a 3/4 mile trail to the self guided area of Spruce Tree House which was located just below the museum. This is where we got our first glimpse of a cliff dwelling. It is completely mind boggling that something made of mud, straw and dirt is still standing after 800 years. Because of the dry climate and the natural shelter from the cliff overhangs, we are still able to visit this area and see how these great people once lived. There are over 600 cliff dwellings in the area which are still being explored and excavated. They are essentially small villages built into the rock and you can still make out the different rooms that were used for storage, living space and even ceremonial areas. Some of the original colored plaster is still visible on the walls and there is a reconstructed kiva that you can climb a ladder down into.


Ancient corn


After fully exploring our first cliff dwelling, we were excited to see what the actual guided tour had in store for us. Heading back up the trail to the parking lot we passed the out of state tourists who were huffing and puffing because of the 8,000 foot altitude. We drove down the road a few miles to the Cliff Palace tour and listened to the ranger give a great historical background of the area before we headed down into the canyon. The Cliff Palace tour was the easiest of the two we signed up to do. This one required a moderate hike down into a canyon to actually get to the dwellings and then we had to climb a few ladders and a rock stairway to get out. The Cliff Palace is probably the most photographed and largest of all the cliff dwellings and you do not realize how big it is until you are standing at its base looking up. It is estimated that 100 people lived here and it may have served as a social and administrative site. When they were built, the Pueblo started at the back of the cliff wall and worked their way out. This allowed space for about 150 separate rooms, some of which still had soot on the ceilings from their cooking fires. We were not allowed to go inside any of these rooms, but we were able to walk around them and look in the windows and doors. One structure, amazingly still had original artwork painted on the walls.

IMG_5403Once we climbed out of the canyon from the Cliff Palace we headed over to our last tour at the Balcony house. The long tunnel that you have to crawl through, tall ladders and steep rock steps make this “the most adventurous tour in the park.” It is not difficult, but unfortunately there are some people who cannot go on this tour. That being said, I told Kristy to look behind her at the view of the canyon when she was on the 30 foot ladder and she refused and quickly climbed to the top. The Balcony House is much smaller than the Cliff Palace, but because it sits further behind the lip of the cliff overhang, it is one of the best preserved in the park. All the cliff dwellings have had reconstructive work done, but none of the work takes away from the original construction. I think most of the work was done to preserve it from further deterioration and they did a remarkable job matching the existing materials. Since we had already seen three dwellings, the best part of this one was the ladders, tunnel and chain we had to climb to get out. In true JKBAdventure fashion, we managed to squeeze into what was suggested for 2 day trip in the park into 3/4 of a day.

IMG_5465 DSC04276After the Balcony House tour, it was getting late, so we drove the 45 minutes to the park entrance to our campsite for the evening. It was time for dinner, so we quickly set up the tent and drove back into Cortez to find some chow. Thanks to Yelp we found the Shiloh Steakhouse and decided to give it a try. Kristy had the beef tips and a salad and I had the chicken fried elk paired with a Durango Amber Ale; both meals were excellent. We cruised into camp well after dark and hit the rack; we had big plans early the next morning.

To be continued…

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