10 myths about visiting the Colorado narrow gauge

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, July 25, 2014

Durango & Silverton 2-8-2 No. 482 climbs the hill at Hermosa, Colo. Jim Wrinn photo

Is the Colorado narrow gauge on your bucket list? If not, it should be. It’s still the easiest way to experience 1920s steam railroading without having to invent a time machine. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad are both remnants of the mountain meandering Rio Grande 3-foot gauge network that will delight and surprise you with their scenic beauty and authentic operations. They are both are well worth the time, money, and effort required to reach and enjoy them. A vacation built around a trip to the Colorado narrow gauge can be an unforgettable experience. But a lot of people who have not visited these operations have some strange notions. Here are nine myths I’ve encountered about visiting the Colorado narrow gauge and my rebuttals to each.

1. I’ll be satisfied riding just one, right? After all, they’re basically the same. Wrong. They do share the same Rio Grande pedigree, but the two operations are strikingly different. The main difference: The C&TS climbs a 10,000-foot mountain, while the D&S penetrates a deep gorge. Another significant difference: The C&TS is more rustic, and the D&S is more polished. Would I want to go to Colorado and come back and tell my friends I did just one? No way. 

2. It’s better to ride the D&S. Wrong. Significant portions of the D&S are inaccessible, but a morning spent north of Durango along U.S. 550 when two trains are headed to Silverton, especially between Hermosa and Rockwood, can provide plenty of good photos. You can also photograph the train arriving and departing Silverton.

3. It’s better to chase the C&TS. Wrong. While highway 17 parallels much of the line between Chama and Los Pinos, you’ll miss the view from the rim of the Toltec Gorge and the loops near Lava if you don’t ride.

Durango & Silverton 2-8-2 No. 481 couples up at Durango, Colo. Jim Wrinn photo

4. You should ride the C&TS from Antonito. Wrong. You can ride out of Antonito, but if you really want to experience a hard working locomotive on a 4 percent grade, schedule your trip starting in Chama so you can truly experience the drama of a train on Cumbres Pass.

5. One day at either railroad is plenty. Wrong. The C&TS yard is worth checking out for the coaling tower and shop, and the Durango roundhouse is worth seeing. Add in the chase opportunities, and you need at least 2 days at each railroad.

6. If I get to Durango and Chama, I’ve done it all when it comes to narrow gauge. Well, not exactly. The Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden (just west of Denver) and the Georgetown Loop Railroad (yet further west of Denver) offer more 3-foot gauge action. Add in the 2-foot gauge railroad at Cripple Creek, the standard gauge tourist railroads (Royal Gorge at Canon City; Leadville, Colorado & Southern at Leadville; Rio Grande Scenic at Antonito), and the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, and you can enjoy trains across the state (allow 10 days if you can do to the whole thing).

Cumbres & Toltec 2-8-2 No. 484 climbs Cumbres Pass at Tanglefoot Loop. Jim Wrinn photo

7. In the summer, I can chase the train in the morning and then fly out of Durango in the afternoon. The airlines schedule flights throughout the day using good-sized commuter planes. In summer, I’d suggest taking a morning flight in or out before the infamous afternoon Rocky Mountain thunderstorms form. I’ve done the afternoon flight to Denver, and found it bouncier than a trampoline.

8. They’re not worth visiting except in September when the Aspens turn yellow. Not true. You’ll see great scenery any time of the year. Yes, the Aspens are spectacular with their translucent yellow leaves, but anytime is a good time to enjoy the narrow gauge.

9. There’s not much choice when it comes to seating. Nope. Both offer coach seating, but they also offer parlor cars. D&S offers open cars with roofs with reserved seating, and C&TS offers an open car that is open to all.  

Cumbres & Toltec 2-8-2 No. 487 climbs Cumbres Pass just outside of Chama, N.M. Jim Wrinn photo

10. My family won’t tolerate an all-day trip so I guess I’m out of luck. Not necessarily. C&TS offers Chama-Cumbres turns called Cinder Bear Express trips that are aimed toward families with young children. D&S offers a train one-way, bus return option, but a lesser known way to cut an hour off the D&S at the beginning and end of the day is to catch the train at Rockwood (but be advised that not all trains stop at Rockwood, so make reservations first).

So, there it is… your Rocky Mountain High awaits. Have fun, and enjoy this living remnant from the past. Just be careful, because as Trains Editor David P. Morgan said in 1969, “the narrow gauge gets in the blood, and will not out.” 

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