Colorado Scenic Train Rides
by Emily Krempholtz
There are so many ways to see Colorado: on foot, by bike, on skis, on a scenic drive, and even on horseback or by dog sled. But there’s something timelessly charming and exciting about a scenic train ride, where the journey is more important than the destination, and luckily, Colorado’s got several great ones.
History of the Railroad in Colorado
In the 19th and 20th centuries, railroads were a primary source of transport, both of people and goods. When the Union Pacific Railroad bypassed Denver in favor of Cheyenne during the 1860s, it was almost the end for a lot of early Coloradoans until the Denver Pacific Railroad was built to connect the Front Range to the rest of civilization. Getting through the Rockies by train was not easy, but in the height of the mining boom that struck Colorado, it was important to find some way to access these remote areas. Narrow-gauge railways became a popular solution as they were easier for trains to maneuver around the tight curves and rough terrain of the mountains than traditional railways. In the past century or so, most of these railways have gone out of use, but some have found new purpose as scenic railways for tourists and sightseers, and they offer an incredible look at the Rocky Mountains that is hard to come by in a car or on foot.
Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad
Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the US, with an elevation of over ten thousand feet, so it only stands to reason that the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad has some truly unbeatable mountain views. Daily trips include a 2.5 hour round trip to and from the Leadville station, but there are also some special trips that are offered throughout the year, like the summer Wildflower Specials that include a guided hike through some of the most beautiful and colorful parts of Colorado. There’s also the Devil’s Tail BBQ ride, which has not just a train ride and scenery but some great food and drinks as well, and a couple of amazing adventure packages that combine the train ride with activities like zip lining or white water rafting.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
With 45 miles of track between the towns of Durango and Silverton that travel through the beautiful San Juan National Forest, along the stunning Cascade Canyon, on the sides of steep mountain slopes, from Durango to Silverton and back again. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers a lot of really great special tours and events, like Brew Trains that feature a different local brewery every week, Wine and Rails, which includes a great lunch and plenty of wine samples, and the Cowboy Poetry Train, which is held every year during October. Other seasonal events include The Great Pumpkin Patch Express during the fall, where kids can trick-or-treat and ride the train to the pumpkin patch to pick out the best jack-o-lantern material, or The Polar Express Train Ride, which takes families on an exciting trip to the North Pole. Regular tours run from May to October and include the Skyway Tour along the San Juan Skyway, the Cascade Canyon Express, and the Silverton Silverlight Express, among others.
Georgetown Loop Railroad
The Georgetown Loop Railroad dates back to 1884, as a freight route to and from the profitable silver mines in the area. Today, you can take this incredibly beautiful narrow gauge railroad through Clear Creek Canyon, from Georgetown to Silver Plume, where you can disembark and tour the historic Lebanon silver mine, which dates back to the 1870s, or the Everett Mines, which are from a similar era. You can explore the mines, learn about their history, and even pan for gold, before hopping back on the train for a scenic return ride along the loop. Classes of service on the train range from basic coach bench seating, with open air cars during the warmer months, to the prestigious VIP experience of the Waldorf car, with its historic, comfortable seating and food service. Georgetown Loop Railroad offers special events throughout the year, including Halloween Haunted Mine adventures, scenic fall foliage hike and rides, and holiday train rides with gorgeously lit trees along the way, and even a visit from Santa Claus himself.
The small town of Cañon City has a truckload of Western, cowboy history and flair, and the impressive, dramatic gorge which borders the town is a huge part of that appeal. Royal Gorge is incredible seen from both above and below, and if ziplining across its death defying depths isn’t for you, or if you’ve already done that and are looking for a different vantage point, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad is there to offer a beautiful and fun experience. The beautiful, historic train traverses the gorge alongside the Arkansas River, and passes by abandoned mining buildings, an old wooden water pipe, and some pretty gorge-ous scenery (pun intended). Guides in each of the cars are available to answer questions and point out interesting sights along the way. The train itself has several options for passengers, including an open air car, reserved seats, and even a dining and bar car where you can take part in an Ales on Rails experience, which features a four course meal in which each course is specially created to be paired with craft beers from local featured breweries.
Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway
How many people can say they’ve taken a train to the summit of a 14,115 foot mountain? This train near Colorado Springs, which uses a cog track to traverse the 8.9 mile trip up and down a mountain slope with grades as high as 25%, will get you there. Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway is the highest cog railroad in the entire world, and the ride to the top of Pikes Peak, in an open air car, will take you through beautiful mountain forests, above dramatic ravines, past gorgeous alpine lakes, and up above the treeline to the rocky and beautiful summit of Pikes Peak. Along the way, your guide will tell you stories about the early pioneers who attempted to summit Pikes Peak on foot, including Zebulon Pike himself, for whom the mountain is named, and give information about the sights and wildlife you pass. The cog railway has been in use by passengers and tourists since 1891, but in 2018, Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway closed for business due to safety concerns about the historic cog tracks. However, through the concerted efforts of the community, the entire track is now being removed and rebuilt. The railway is expected to reopen to the public in 2021, so while it’s unfortunate that you’ll have to wait to enjoy this incredible experience, the good news is that it will return, better than ever!