Coal-fired, steam-powered Locomotive 493 pulls the excursion Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train home to Durango from Silverton along the steep canyon walls. Photo by Anthony D’Amato.

Story by Darl Devault, Feature Writer

Coal-fired, steam-powered Locomotive 493 pulls the excursion Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train to Silverton along the rugged San Juan Mountains. Photo by Anthony D’Amato.

For seniors trying to make a decisive quality of life recovery from pandemic restrictions booking outdoor experiences now is critical because pent-up demand will create a scarcity at premium destinations.
Seniors got to their vaccines first. With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions more Americans will be getting outside. This may mean seniors need to act quickly in planning a vacation. (story continues below)
Going to the Colorado high country in the summer is often on the minds of senior citizens. One of the most memorable experiences available there is taking the narrow-gauge steam locomotive sight-seeing train journey from Durango to Silverton. After a two-hour layover so visitors can eat, it returns to Durango through the scenic San Juan National Forest.
“I rode the train last year under full COVID-19 protocols where it only went halfway to Silverton. It was still a great experience,” said Larry Floyd, 68. The adjunct U.S. history teacher at OSU-OKC said, “This year going all the way on up to Silverton to spend two hours in the historic mining town and coming back would be a great bonus.”
“I also recommend driving up to Silverton to tour the wonderful mining town museum. The jail in the museum really gives you an idea of how bleak jail was at the turn of the last century. Also, only five miles out of Silverton is the Old Hundred Gold Mine tour. You find out what it was like to work underground in search of gold.”
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad also provides visitors an all-inclusive full day of Silverton’s historic mining town highlights. A bus takes visitors to Silverton in the morning. They return in the afternoon on the train.
Riding the D&SNG for three hours and 40 minutes each way at 12 miles an hour is one of the most unique vacation experiences in America. The trains travel at slow speeds along the mountain cliffs due to many sharp turns. The track takes the trains 400 feet above the Animas River amidst steep mountain scenery.
The coal-fired, steam-operated locomotives are 1923-25 vintage. The train offers four classes of service, from a historic private car, first class, recently refurbished deluxe class, to a seat in vintage coach seating or open-air gondola car.
The coaches each feature bathroom facilities as both enclosed and open gondola cars allow a panoramic view of the mountains.
Concessions are available on every train.
A National Historic Landmark and National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, the railway has been ranked in the top 10 railroad journeys in the nation for many years.
The railway features a 12,000-square foot free railroad museum in Durango near the ticket office matching its historic status. Besides many vintage exhibits, it features an 800-square-foot model railroad.
Last year for the first time in 138 years the train did not make it to Silverton, elevation 9,318 feet. The normal cadre of 159,000 tourists were denied a 45-mile full trip last summer on the 36-inch-wide rails.
The 2021 summer schedule will be released in early March. Seniors should book their tickets while these high-demand reservations are available. This is especially important to seniors who plan for the weekends where a 10 percent senior discount is offered if they book online.
Highway 550 between Durango, Silverton, and Ouray is known locally as the Million Dollar Highway. Some say it is because of the amount of gold ore many thinks is still in the roadway’s fill. Others say the name comes from the priceless views it provides of the San Juan National Forest and the highway’s actual cost through the rugged terrain. It features steep and twisting canyon-clinging roadway through the towering mountains.
From Durango the highway featuring steep drop-offs without guardrails climbs over Coal Bank Pass at 10,660 feet, and Molas Pass at 10,899 feet. Two campgrounds are nearby before the highway descends into Silverton.
Beyond Silverton on 550, drivers climb Red Mountain Pass, at 11,075 feet and descend the steep canyon walls of Uncompahgre Gorge into Ouray. Ouray, featuring a large outdoor natural hot spring, is known as the “Little Switzerland of America.” Bathers at the springs are treated to picturesque mountain views.
One way to see the historic train on its way to and from Silverton each day is to camp at the Durango North Riverside KOA, a convenient 15 minutes north of Durango. Campers can watch the train from their campsites along the gentle Animas river among Ponderosa Pines.
The KOA offers RV sites, lodging and tent sites. If tent camping, campers want a site next to the river where they can sometimes spot wildlife in the pasture across the river.
Many visitors to the area also tour the Mesa Verde National Park nearby. It sees half a million tourists each year. It is one hour and 15 minutes west of Durango by state highway and the Mesa Top Loop Road. The United Nations named the well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings a cultural World Heritage Site in 1978.
Visitors can buy 1-hour, ranger-led tour tickets for the park at the Durango Welcome Center beginning at 10 a.m. up to 2 days ahead in person only and sell out quickly.
Seniors age 62 or over can buy discounted annual and lifetime National Park passes in person at a federal recreation site or through the mail. It provides the pass owner plus any number of accompanying passengers entry in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle at all Federal operated recreation sites in America.
Touring the huge Cliff Palace and the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum offers visitors insights into this ancient Native American culture. Many of the dwellings can be seen from the Mesa Top Loop Road. It offers views of the archaeological sites and overlooks. This includes Sun Point Overlook with panoramic canyon views.
Starting just north of Durango, outfitters in town also offer rafting experiences of every level. They also offer guided 4X4 Jeep trail tours, zip line adventures and introductory rock-climbing excursions.
The folks at Mountain Waters Rafting sell a D&SNG Raft and Rail package. After a morning raft trip on the Lower Animas, customers take a shuttle for the scenic ride to Silverton along the spectacular San Juan Skyway. They explore on their own for lunch before catching the afternoon train back to Durango.
The phrase San Juan Skyway also invites visitors to the area to set out on a seven-hour minimum car tour they will not forget. The trip from Durango to Silverton is a small part of the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway System. It forms a 235-mile loop of southwest Colorado traversing the heart of the San Juan Mountains.
Please allow this story to serve as a caution to not show up in Durango and expect to buy a ticket for the train. It just does not normally happen. The train is almost always sold out. It makes sense to book reservations at now to enjoy one of the greatest railroad experiences available.