Durango Silverton Train — When a Splurge is Not a Splurge

Of all the modes of transportation available to the traveler, train travel has always been my favorite.  I could sit for hours, hypnotized by the clickety-clack of the rails, as I watch the landscape unfold in front of me.   Seats on the train typically offer more leg room than buses or airlines, along with the freedom to move about at will.  Even when commuting in the northeast corridor when the company was footing the bill, the train was always my chosen method of transport.

But my love affair with trains goes much beyond practical transport.   I have gone out of my way and to great lengths to ride historic trains, often planning entire vacations around them.  So I knew I wasn’t leaving Southwest Colorado without a ride on the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Historic Railway.IMG_2960IMG_2965

Construction on the line to Silverton began in 1881, originally built to haul silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains.  The “narrow gauge” of 3 ft or less was used frequently in mining operations, both because the smaller scale would fit through the tight “cuts,” but also the smaller radius curves made for better mobility through the mountains.

Durango Train Station

Durango Train Station

The Knight Sky Rail Car

The Knight Sky Rail Car

It’s sometimes a fine line between pleasure and pain when visiting tourist attractions in the summer months.   I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to choose the right venue for my train ride in hopes of insulating myself from the “cattle car” feeling I had seen at the station.  Arms and upper bodies hanging out the open sides of the gondola car, a dozen elbows protruding horizontally out the windows in the “iphone photographers stance.”   I decided this was too important to leave it to chance of getting stuck in a car full of screamers.    So I took all the precautions, splurging on a more expensive ticket in First Class.

View out the right side going through the "Highline."

View out the right side going through the “Highline.”


Train follows the Animas River all the way to Silverton

Train follows the Animas River all the way to Silverton

What would my “big splurge” net me, besides souvenir tote bag and insulated mug?  Well, no one under age 18 for one.  And assigned seating…a place to call my own to “park” my junk while I visited the observation decks.   Nice, big comfy airline-style leather seating as opposed to the paralyzing school bus seats on the Blues Train.  And a “host,” the charming Tim, who would bring Bloody Marys and beers to my seat as long as I kept my tab open.   And did I mention, no kids allowed in the car?

The Knight Sky glass car allows for good views all around.

The Knight Sky glass car allows for good views all around.



There are several options for an upgrade on the Durango Silverton line.  The reservationist tried to sell me on the parlor car.  I asked her, “Why are you not recommending the glass-top car?”  Her answer was “Because I rarely ever look up!”  So I booked the glass-top car, the Knight Sky.

Going through "The Cut," which was used in filmng Butch and Sundance's leap onto a moving train.

Going through “The Cut,” which was used in filmng Butch and Sundance’s leap onto a moving train.


One of three water stops along the route.

One of three water stops along the route.

The train stops midway at the "hiker bridge," as many hikers (including Mark and Bobbie) get off here to do a backpacking trip to nearby 14'ers.  I have a little envy...

The train stops midway at the “hiker bridge,” as many hikers (including Mark and Bobbie) get off here to do a backpacking trip to nearby 14’ers. I have a little envy…

Imagine the sinking feeling in my stomach when I showed up to claim my ticket at the Will Call, only to find the lobby filled with a sea of red sequins.   It was the “Miss Kitty’s Social Club” chapter of the Red Hat Society.  Oh, dear lord.  Red felt fedoras, plumed feathers, rhinestone-studded baseball caps with sequined shirts to match.  Even the bustling of purple taffeta.  Since when does purple go with red??   Some were in red and purple period costume, while others sported disco trash flash…all in red and purple.  Please….don’t let them be in my car!   But thankfully, they filled an entire car of their own.  There but for the grace of First Class go I…

It didn’t take long for my big splurge to pay off in other ways as well.  I am not sure what part of “Open Car” I didn’t understand, but I showed up at 8:00am on a chilly morning wearing only shorts and a tee shirt.  I was shivering before we ever pulled out of the station.  Tim, our host, brought around a pile of cozy fleece loner blankets to wrap up in.

Thanks, Tim!  I didn't think i would need a blanket!

Thanks, Tim! I didn’t think i would need a blanket!

This is our Fireman on board.

This is our Fireman on board.

Tim was also very helpful in alerting us to upcoming photo opportunities.  The car was only half full, leaving us free to move from one side to the other.  On the Durango to Silverton northbound run, once the train reaches Rockwood, it begins a one mile, 5mph creep through the “Highline.”  This is the most beautiful part of the ride through the gorge, and it is imperative to be on the right side of the train until mile marker 471.   But then, the train crosses over the Animas River, and follows the river all the way to Silverton, where the scenery is best out the left side.

Okay, I admit to a twinge of guilt for the environment, with all this coal smoke!

Okay, I admit to a twinge of guilt for the environment, with all this coal smoke!

Tim says the rocks are more orange than usual due to the recent mining waste spill.

Tim says the rocks are more orange than usual due to the recent mining waste spill.

I have an extra treat waiting for me in Silverton.  Mark and Bobbie are meeting me for lunch!   Thankfully, Mark’s 6’4” baseball cap towers high above Miss Kitty’s Social Club, and we are able to part the Red Sea and make it to the Avalanche Brewery before the crowds.

Avalanche Brewery had some darned good brews!

Avalanche Brewery had some darned good brews!

Hey!  There's a stow-away in my car!

Hey! There’s a stow-away in my car!

Thanks, Mark and Bobbie for driving down from Ouray to meet me for a fun lunch, and rescuing me from the Red Hats!

Thanks, Mark and Bobbie for driving down from Ouray to meet me for a fun lunch, and rescuing me from the Red Hats!

Most people advise to only take the train one-way, returning on the bus option to Durango.   “You’ll be sick of it after four hours.  Going both ways is a looooong day!”  But then I remind them, “I once road a train across Zambia for 59 hours.  I’m up for it!”   I actually enjoyed the return trip even more, as most of the crowds opted for the bus return.

I tend to be a pretty frugal traveler, very selective about my “splurges.”  But this one was worth every penny.  What a fine, “quintessential Southwestern Colorado day!”IMG_3827

31 thoughts on “Durango Silverton Train — When a Splurge is Not a Splurge

  1. We did this trip in the cattle car, and it was, indeed, awful – beyond awful. The seats were wooden and hard. It was raining so the train had a hard time with traction, and went slower than slow. We had all of 30 minutes to see the town and get lunch. Sorta soured me on it, but I see I just picked the wrong day and cheaped out!

    You’ve made me a better traveler! ;->

    Virtual hugs,


    • Judie thanks as always for your expressive comments! What a horror of a trip! You must have been so happy to get off there! I did take one look at those seats, and that became my first criteria for deciding how much I was willing to abuse that sciatic nerve! 😉 Hope yours is quiet!

    • Hi, Debbie. Thanks for the comment. There are several levels of “comfort” on the train, so be sure to check out the pictures and diagrams on their website before booking. I found it very helpful.

  2. You bring back good memories! Back in the 70’s celebrating college graduation, I rode the train. Stayed overnight at the General Palmer House(?) next to the station. It was a beautiful ride, your experience makes me want to try it again!

  3. I think the Knight Sky car was a great idea – wonderful to see the sides of the mountains and the sky above. Looks like a good day weather-wise, too. I’m glad you had such a great experience. Sometimes we just have to splurge – we’re certainly worth it! 🙂

    • Yes, Barbara, I agree! I don’t splurge on myself often, but when I do, I milk it for all I can. haha!! Yes, the weather was perfect this day, thankfully!

  4. My daughter was 9 when I cheaped out and took the open car with hard seats. At the end of the day we had to take two baths each to get clean. Even the insides of our noses and ears were black with coal soot! Next time we are going to splurge. Great pictures Suzanne, as always!

    • Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by, Evelyn! Yes, I had to laugh at all the “crumbs” I found in my hair, my clothing, my nostrils. My friends warned “Don’t wear white!” haha! I was in the second to the last car, so it wasn’t as bad back where we were, but I imagine those further up were really “encrusted!” Hope you and Steve are well…

  5. Taking the glass top car seemed a smart idea. Why not truly enjoy your train ride:) How very nice of Bobbie anf Mark to meet you for lunch:) Those Red Hats would have really ruined your day.

    • Yes, it was fun to laugh with Mark and Bobbie as we ran from the Red Hats and holed up in the brewery! Some fine brews to be had there!

  6. I did the train ride last year in the Rio Grande car (open air first class). It was worth the extra money for a nice seat and having a host tell stories and fetch drinks. In my opinion, the train ride rivals any National Park experience. Spent most of the day saying “Wow!”

  7. Great photographs, I enjoy your blog. We rode the train last week and splurged on inside coach seats. Added benefit of the dome car is being near the rear of the train, you can get good pictures of the steam engine. We enjoyed beers and pizza at the Avalanche Brewing last night too.

    • Thanks for the comment, Cyndi. It sounds like we are following in each others footsteps. I thought the beer at Avalanche was quite good. And yes I liked being at the back, as it was easy to photograph the curve of the train. I didn’t realize until I was already on there that you really couldn’t walk from car to car…or at least not back where I was. That private fancy Zip Line car was in front of us, and they really didn’t want us traipsing through. So I was glad we had good photo position.

  8. I recommended your blog to a friend the other day and realized it’s been a while since I’ve lived vicariously through your travels so I’m back catching up. I always enjoy your writing and photos. Matt is currently exploring New Zealand as a sabbatical graduation gift to himself after finally earning his engineering degree. Don’t forget you always have a spot to stop in Florida!

    • Candy! How wonderful to hear from you! Oh, that Matt has got it all figured out at such a young age! Is he posting updates from NZ to Facebook? Those Kiwis may latch on to that fiddle master and not let him go! 😉 I hope our paths cross again soon! Please keep in touch and let me know if you have any plans to venture west…

      • The Kiwis have limited internet so his photos and updates are infrequent. Plus he doesn’t indulge his mother as much as I think he should with updates :). I will make sure our paths cross again. The west is where my heart wants to be!

  9. I think you made the right choice in upgrading. I didn’t do the train ride when last in Colorado but plan to when I make it back. Looks beautiful and I kind of liked the blues train ride as well. May have to splurge and do them both !

    • Thanks for the comment, Susan. The Blues Train only happens two weekends a year — Once in May and again in August. They have their own website, so be sure to check for dates. Both train options were equally entertaining!

  10. Wow! I had this RR trip on my schedule this spring, but my desire to beat the bad weather on our drive across the great plains caused me to stick to New Mexico and not go up into Colorado until we were almost at the front range. The trip will have to go back onto the bucket list and it shall be in the car where we can look up. My dad, his brother and father were all RR men so I have an affinity for riding the rails. The scenery which you captured and your description are great and convincing.
    Keep on…

  11. Allen and Deede — My Mom’s Dad, though I never got to meet him, was also a railroad man. Both parents loved riding the rails, so I come by it naturally. You and Deede should definitely so this ride one day. They have “rapid return” buses if you don’t want to go both ways. I really enjoyed the Knight Sky car.

  12. We studied the Durango-Silverton offerings and compared them to the Cumbres-Toltec line (since we decided doing both would be a splurge). We were concerned that boarding the cattle car would force us to stay in our seats, and we wanted to spend most of our time outside. It seems that’s not true? Maybe next time!

    • Roxi — I would have loved to also take the Cumbres-Toltec line too, so I could compare the two. But there just wasn’t time to make it down and around in time to meet a couple of commitments. But I suspect you made the right choice if you were looking for more mobility on the train. We had a lot within our car, but not within the train itself (unlike the Blues Train, where you could wander end to end all night!) But I think the one you guys did probably offered a more relaxed, intimate train experience. I will go back and do it next time I am nearby…

  13. Certainly worth the splurge, especially the Knight sky. Love those open views. Only rode a long train once from northern to southern IL and think it went backwards more than forwards. Wanted to take the train from Cape Town to Joburg in South Africa but it was booked way in advance.

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