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.

3rd Annual 100s in the Hills

After months of emails, texts and conference calls with the 3 other Co-Directors, it was finally time to hit the road. Bandit and I had the Cruiser and trailer packed up and we were off for the 3rd Annual 100s in the Hills event. Some of you might remember a few years ago a trip we took to the San Juans to camp and wheel with some friends. Well, this small excursion has grown significantly in the past three years to a nationally recognized event. This year we had almost 30 vehicles from all over the country, 65 people in attendance and twenty-three sponsors. Located in a remote area where everyone is to be self sufficient, we require all participants to practice the leave no trace principles. This event takes quite a bit of logistics and planning, which was completely worthwhile. No one left disappointed.

Unfortunately Kristy was out of town on business, but she is sure to attend next year. I wrote an article that was published in the November/December issue of Toyota Trails magazine on this years event. Please click below for the online edition of the article page 19:

Toyota Trails Nov/Dec 3013

Below are more pictures and a link to the 100s in the Hills Facebook page:

Facebook/100s in the Hills

Day #1: Clear Lake family fun run

Day #2: Ophir Pass & Imogene Pass

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Day #3: Black Bear Pass

Day #3 continued, Directors run back to camp and night run:

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Day 2 – Cruise the San Juans

Day 2 – The Alpine Loop: Poughkeepsi Gulch, Lake Como, California Pass, Animas Forks; and return to “The Super Secret Trail”

After a good night’s sleep in the roof top tent, we were ready to head out early to see what else the San Juan Mtns had to offer.  Our trusty trail leader, JH1, planned for all to explore the Alpine Loop.  The Loop is about a 65 mile trail through the mountains and provided some challenging trail obstacles.  We started the Loop at Poughkeepsi Gulch – this section of the trail climbed over loose rocks, through streams and led us to the main obstacle – “The Wall.”   Even though Landcruisers are not rock crawlers, they can hold their own.  We all made up “The Wall”, with only one having to be winched up, due to lack of a suspension lift and larger tires.  The scenery up to this point was nothing short of amazing….it is literally something you see “in the movies” and is known as the “Switzerland of America”.

Just a few miles up the rocky road, we stopped for lunch at Lake Como — A turquoise colored lake nestled in the midst of the mountains. Refueled, we headed through California Gulch and ended the Alpine Loop at the ghost town of Animas Forks.

Animas Forks, a small mining town, was first established around 1875 and remained active until the 1920s.  The town reached it’s largest population in 1883 with over 450 residents.  After years of decline, the town rebounded in 1904 with the construction of a giant mill – The Gold Prince Mill, which only stayed open for 6 years.  Today, several of the buildings are still very much intact and are open to the public. 

After visiting the ghost town, we headed into Silverton.  A couple of Landcruiser stragglers had arrived late the previous day, and missed “The Super Secret Trail”, so with some time on our hands, we decided to revisit the trail and share the view.  The second trip did not dissappoint.  With clear skies, we were able to see the green mountains in a totally different “light”. 

Back at camp, we had another night by the camp fire….we could definitely get used to this!

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1st Annual 100 Series – Cruise the San Juans

We spent the weekend exploring the San Juan Mtns and Uncompahgre National Forest with 6 other Landcruiser owners (including one year old twin girls).  Most of the group was from Colorado, but there were a couple of long distance travelers – one from Arizona and another from Wyoming.  We all met at base camp in Ironton Park (near Ouray) on Friday afternoon and did not waste any time to start exploring a few of the nearby 4×4 trails.  Most of the offroad trails in Colorado were created around the 1800s during the mining boom.  And they are all packed full of stunning views and traces of Colorado’s mining history.

Day 1: Corkscrew Gulch and “The Super Secret Trail”

Corkscrew Gulch was our first expedition.  The beginning of the trail was like entering an alien planet. The trail head winds through the Red Mountains which are rich in minerals, especially iron.  The iron rich ground does not have any type of vegetation growing on it; creating a rocky, almost “Mars” like landscape.  After passing through the Red Mountains, an afternoon shower set in.  Since slippery, muddy roads can make for a dangerous trail ride, we cut short the remainder of the trail and headed to the nearby mining town of Silverton.

After waiting out the rain at the Silverton Brewery, we met up with a local Silverton Landcruiser owner, who offered to lead us on a nearby scenic mountain trail.  This “Super Secret Trail” (real name unknown) was one of the easiest trails we encountered, but offered some of the most fantastic views of the weekend.  The low hanging “after rain” clouds hung close to trail and provided some spectacular scenery.  We also met hundreds (literally) of local free range sheep that surrounded both sides of the trail.

We spent the rest of evening setting up our roof top tent, enjoying grilled blue cheese burgers and sitting around the campfire.

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