Friday, June 21, 2013

Durango to Silverton Train

Yesterday we had the most amazingly spectacular train ride from Durango to Silverton.  So many folks who have been here had told us to be sure and take this train, and now we see why everyone raves about it.  When we visited Grand Canyon, we had taken the train to the Canyon from Williams, but, quite frankly, the train ride there was a bit disappointing, as the scenery wasn't nearly as dramatic along the way as we had expected.  Well, this trip more than made up for that, as the scenery from Durango to Silverton is just stunning!  The train starts from the depot in downtown Durango, and the place was hopping with excitement as lots of people are eagerly milling around the depot, some taking the train like us up to Silverton to see the sights, some hikers with their stuffed backpacks taking an earlier train up to one of the stops along the way so they can hike part of the Colorado Trail, including scaling 3 of the more than 50 "fourteeners" Colorado has--mountains that are over 14,000 ft., some rafters, heading up to another stop to raft some of the upper rapids of the Animas River, and some going "soaring," doing the longest zipline in North America, which is only accessible by train. Just a festive, fun atmosphere, a great way to start the day!

The Durango & Silverton is a narrow gauge railroad, and they run several trains each day from Durango up to the old mining town of Silverton.  They run all year, but in the winter only go halfway, due to the risk of causing avalanches by the train's vibrations.  Durango's average snowfall is 70 inches, but Silverton's is 300.  The trains are all powered by honest to goodness coal fired steam engines, which are really beautiful.  Our car host told us that each roundtrip will use several tons of coal, all hand shoveled by the fireman, 20 pounds a shovel full, and the boiler goes through 10,000 gallons of water.  They make two stops for water on the way up, and one stop on the way down, as the boiler only holds about 5000 gallons.  It's so cool to ride a train that is a true throwback to the old days--even though some of the communication is done via radio and cell phones, given the spotty cell connections in the mountains, they still use some of the old fashioned ways of communicating.  For instance, there is one very high bridge the train crosses over the river gorge, along a section of track that is literally on the edge of the gorge, thus requiring a 5 mph speed restriction.  After the last car clears the bridge, the rear brakeman gives the highball signal--leans out and waves his hat up and down--and the engineer can see it due to the curvature of the track, and knows he can increase his speed back up to the normal setting. Really cool!  And the whistle on this train had a really wonderful timbre and pitch, just an awesome sound!

From my days car hosting on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, I knew it would be much more fun to be in an open air car, so we booked the car that is not only open air, but also has a glass roof, so you can look up through it to see the beautiful sky, plus some remarkable views of some of the rock overhangs as you're traveling.  The only downside to this is that there is a lot of soot and steam from the engine, even though this was the second to last car in the consist, but it was well worth it.  By the time we got back in the afternoon, Santa's beard was looking pretty gray!  Took a little scrubbing in the shower last night, but it was oh so much fun!  We had a wonderful car host, Heather, a native of Durango who has been doing this for 8 years, so she was extremely knowledgeable and really did a fantastic job of giving us heads ups when particular photo ops were coming up and giving us the history and stories of the railroad and surrounding areas.  Turns out she was also a theater manager, and in fact is a stage manager for a local theater, so she made it quite entertaining as well.  She was so friendly, and was high energy the whole way.  It's not quite a 4 hour trip up to Silverton, and a little less than that coming back, so she had a full day on her feet, keeping everyone supplied with beverages, answering questions and generally keeping everyone happy.  The train also has one car that's called the historical car--hosted by a man dressed in period costume as General Palmer, who built the railroad in the 1800's.  But that was an enclosed car and we heard pretty much the same history plus more from Heather.  Apparently there was originally a town called Animas City, named after the river, a little outside present day Durango.  General Palmer apparently went to the city fathers asking to build a railroad depot in the city, but they were skeptical of this newfangled technology, so they denied him his permit.  So, he went a bit farther south, built his depot, and detoured the track around Animas City en route up to the mining down.  The result?  Durango sprang up around his depot and flourished, and Animas City faded into just a memory.

The track follows the Animas River for most of the way up to Silverton, going through town passing houses and parks where everyone waves to the train, along the bike path we had ridden the day before, leaving Durango and through the beautiful pastures and farmlands, past our RV park, the glider port where you can take sail plane rides, flatlands with lots of prairie dogs standing straight up, still, listening for what's coming, and signalling their compatriots with different pitched chirps to let them know if it's an animal, and what type, or if it's humans, with yet a different pitch chirp.  According to our car host, they can even signal what color clothing the humans are wearing--fact or fiction?  Don't know, but it certainly made a great story in either event!

We quickly began climbing--ultimately reaching Silverton's elevation of over 10,000 ft.  We passed a place where, though a bit far off, you could see the bridge over the river where the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed where Paul Newman and Robert Redford jumped off the bridge into the river--the Baker Bridge.  I was not quick enough with the camera to get the telephoto in focus in time to get this shot, unfortunately.  Passed a hydroelectric plant built in 1905 that's only accessible by train or helicopter, so the man who maintains this lives right there.  Stopped to take on water, stopped to let some hikers off to start their usually 6 day trek to the fourteeners, passed so many beautiful rapids in the blue green water of the river.  We also got into the beautiful groves of aspens, sometimes almost completely solid with aspens, sometimes interspersed with some evergreens, lots of firs, blue spruces, ponderosa pines, sage brush and lots of arrays of wild flowers, including many columbines, Colorado's state flower, which are just spectacularly beautiful!  It was interesting to see the color of the rocks along the river bed change colors as we got higher, from darker grays and almost black rocks to much redder rocks as we ascended--I suppose from higher iron content.

Heather explained how they have a track patrol going ahead of the train each way, to inspect the track for any problems, particularly looking for rocks, trees or other debris that may have fallen across the track.  This is especially critical, as there are cuts through rock in some places where there is no more than an inch or two of clearance, so the risk of falling rock is ever present.  She also told us about what happened in 2010, after a time when they had experienced heavy rainfall.  There were three trains running that day, she was on the second one coming back down the mountain.  After the first one came down, the track patrol discovered a debris flow--including trees, rocks, some uncovered timbers from old structures, completely blocking the tracks.  Apparently the track patrol precedes the train by about 5 or 6 minutes, and, as he was radioing in to the dispatcher about this blockage, but before the train could reach his location, another, much larger, debris flow happened between him and the train.  He had to climb over the debris to reach the train, but they had to back the train, and the one following it, all the way back up to Silverton and get buses to take the passengers back down to Durango.  It took them 4 days to clear the track before they could get the trains back down, and there are still huge piles of debris off to the sides of the track where they cleared it.  Fortunately no one was hurt and the debris didn't hit any of the trains or the track patrol.

Unlike then, this summer is extremely dry, so there is a very big risk of fires.  We asked about how they could manage the fire risk with the steam engine spewing off cinders, and she said that, in addition to the forward track patrol, they also have a track car following the car to watch for fires that may have been started by sparks or cinders coming off the engine, and if this happened, they had equipment and procedures to put the fires out.  Also, given the extreme drought of this summer, they also have a helicopter flying along, with a huge water bucket on a cable to douse any fires that may be started.  She pointed out a couple of places along the way where fires had pretty much decimated a lot of the trees in the past--one in 2002 along Missionary Ridge, which apparently started when an automobile's catalytic converter ignited sparks when the car was started.  It took over 4 months to contain the fire, and, even though there is a lot of green vegetation that has grown back, most of this is lower to the ground bushes and grasses, as it will take a long time for the trees to come back.  She also pointed out many of the ponderosa pines that are quite large and their bark is an orange/yellow color, and explained that these trees don't become this color until they are at least 80 years old.

Silverton is a quaint little town, but now mostly shops and restaurants, which of course rely heavily on the train to bring in customers.  You can access the town by road, and we plan to drive up there when we leave Durango, as the road is apparently quite spectacular, following along narrow ledges around some sections of the mountain.  Heather had directed us to a restaurant where we were able to find some vegan alternatives to the usual lunch fare, and we enjoyed that.  We also walked around the town, found some old churches and lovely flowers before reboarding the train for the return trip.  A number of folks had elected to take a bus back down to Durango, since it takes a lot less time than the train, but we were glad we decided on the roundtrip train ride.  The rhythm  of the rails and the gentle--ok, sometimes not so gentle--rocking of the car side to side, the clickytyclack of the wheels going over the rail joints, the sound of the rushing river rapids alongside, all combine to make a very peaceful, relaxing trip--Trisha was even lulled to sleep a bit!  Oh, I almost forgot to mention--on the trip up, at one point she felt something crawling on her shoulder, and at first thought it was a bee or something that might sting, but when she cried out and before she could swat it, I could see it was a beautiful butterfly, and it just stayed right there on her shoulder for a good long while.  I was frantically trying to get pictures of it but it was hard to focus as it would flutter its wings but I did get a couple of good shots.  Pretty cool!

All in all it was just a fantastic day.  We got back into Durango around 6, and, after stopping at the Natural Grocery to get some more veggies, we found a lovely Himalayan restaurant with really interesting Indian and Nepalese dishes.  It was good to get back to the campground and take a nice long  hot shower and clean off the soot!

I took so many pictures along the way, and I have tried to pare them down to give just a little flavor of what we saw without overdoing it, but likely have overdone it anyway.  My apologies for that, but if you were here, you'd see how you just can't get enough of this gorgeous scenery!

Durango depot
 View through the glass roof of our car, as we were awaiting departure
 Engineer Mike inspecting the locomotive before we pulled out
 Was still a little cool when we left, but it warmed up enough to shed the outer layer before we got into Silverton
 The river is still in places, as here, as we're just outside Durango

 Brilliant blue sky, with some smoke from the locomotive
 The runway for the glider port
 You can see several of the gliders in their storage trailers--I've done a glider ride out in California several years ago, but Trisha is not too keen on the idea!
 Passing by the entrance to our RV park
Here was where we started seeing the prairie dogs--tried hard but could not get the telephoto to focus quickly enough to get any pics of these little things
 Going under a bridge

Beautiful shot through the glass roof
 Somewhere down there is Baker Bridge, where Butch and Sundance jumped off, but I blew this shot!
 Shalona Lake--so beautiful!

 Cute little house along the way
 Looking down on the Animas River
 Isn't this locomotive just the coolest sight??!!
 Getting higher and higher!

 Goin' round the mountain!  Right on the edge!

Hard to get a true feel for how fast these rapids are with still shots

 Beautiful gorge!

Shot up through the roof, showing just how straight up sheer the rock cuts were in places!

 You can see why they restricted the speed to 5 mph going over this bridge, very high above the river!
 Rear Brakeman, highballing the engineer after clearing the bridge
 You can tell by the color of the bark that this ponderosa pine is more than 80 years old; 1905 power plant in background

 Our delightful car host, Heather!
 Rafters having fun--you can judge the temperature of the river at this elevation by the fact that all the rafters are wearing wetsuits!

 Some of the beautiful aspens

Love this shot with the beautiful pine and the rugged peaks in the distance!

 Pigeon Peak, almost made it to fourteener status, but just about 20 feet shy!

 Loved having this glass roof!
Trisha and her new best friend, the butterfly!  How cool is that??!!

 Santa and Mrs. Claus, just chillin'!

Some of the debris flow cleared from the track in 2010

 Former route of the railroad, over this old bridge.  When they built a better bridge and relocated the track, there was an old miner who still had an active claim in the area and they left the bridge for him to have access to his claim.

 Skunk cabbage along the track!
Long distance shot showing some snow still up at higher elevations
 Hard to make it out, but there's a waterfall coming down

 Old abandoned mine

 Thriving metropolis of Silverton--population 600--in the distance.
Scenes coming into Silverton

 General Palmer
 As we were getting off the train in Silverton,here is the fireman, getting a well deserved rest!
Old reliable Engine 482!
 Engineer Mike, autographing someone's guide book

 Only a couple of the streets in Silveton are paved, most are gravel like this
 Pretty bench
 Beautiful old hotel
Two shots of the very pretty courthouse--Silverton is the county seat--not surprising, since it's the only town in the county!

 City Hall
 Gorgeous flowers outside this lovely weaver's store
 These are avalanche paths through the trees
Shrine called Christ of the Mines--Heather referred to it as the two ton Jesus!
 Beautiful old Congregational Church

 Gorgeous poppies in front of a little house in town.

 And, their columbines--aren't these just the most beautiful flowers?

Catholic Church in town
 Better shot of the waterfall as we were coming down
 Love this shot showing the peak in the background and the locomotive below; thank you Heather for the heads up when to take this shot!
Stopping to fill up with water.

 The fireman, putting the arm from the water tank in place--the tank is filled from creeks above, and gravity takes care of getting the water from the tank into the boiler of the train.

 Engineer, Fireman and Conductor making sure all is ready to start up again
 Helicopter keeping a watch out for fires
Couple of hikers who've spent 6 days climbing the fourteeners, waiting for the train to pick them up

 Above:  track we just came down; below, the fire watchman following the train


  1. Yes, so do I! I've done several different excursion train trips and this is by far the best one I've ever done.