Traveling by Train in Colorado
By Emily Krempholtz
There are faster ways to get around in Colorado, but sometimes the journey itself is more important than the destination. It wasn’t so long ago that trains were the primary form of long-distance travel. They were widely used for shipping and commercial purposes. In Colorado, trains presented the most effective way of traversing the steep mountainsides and hairpin turns of the Rockies, especially for mining communities that had little other access to the outside world. Today, most of these railways are defunct, but many of them are still in use, whether for travel or for recreation.
If you’re looking to get from Point A to Point B by train, Amtrak is going to be your best bet in Colorado. The California Zephyr Train, which runs from Chicago, IL to San Francisco, CA passes right through Colorado, and we like to think the segment through the Rockies is why it’s often referred to as one of the most beautiful train trips in North America. The Zephyr stops in Fort Morgan, Denver, Winter Park, Granby, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction.
A second Amtrak line, the Southwest Chief line, runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, and travels through a few stops further south in Colorado. The Southwest Chief line takes riders through La Junta, Lamar, and Trinidad.
Georgetown Loop Railroad
For those looking for a scenic railroad experience near the Front Range, the Georgetown Loop Railroad might be your best bet. Only 45 miles from Denver, and located right off I-70, the Georgetown Loop Railroad not only allows you to take a scenic ride through Clear Creek County, it will take you to the Lebanon or Everett Silver Mine, where you can tour the mines and even go panning for gold. Georgetown offers events throughout the year including their Wild West Days, Fall Colors rides, Holiday North Pole rides, and more.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Taking riders 45 miles from Durango to Silverton and everywhere in between, the Durango & Silverton narrow Gauge Railroad offers a breathtaking view of the San Juan mountains. The railroad, which was built in 1882, is a National Historic Landmark, and today offers several different rides, including the Cascade Canyon Express, which follows the Animas River, and for the adventurers among you, a Wilderness Access package, which will drop you off and pick you up in the backcountry so you can spend your time camping, trekking, rafting, and more in some of the most beautiful wilderness Colorado has to offer. Throughout the year, the D&SNGRR offers seasonal events like a Polar Express train, as well as more regular events like Brew Trains. No matter what kind of ride you take, make sure to check out the free railroad museum in Durango for an in-depth look at the train’s history and impact on the region.
Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway
There are quite a few railway experiences in Colorado that will showcase Colorado’s stunning landscapes, but the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway is the only one that will take you to the summit of a 14,000 foot mountain. Now renovated and reopened after public efforts saved it a few years ago, the Cog Railway offers a guided tour up the steep sides of the tallest peak in the Front Range, and a 360-degree view from the top.
Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad
The Cog Railway might show you what the view looks like from one of the tallest peaks in the Rockies, but the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad will show you views OF the tallest peaks in the Rockies. This incredible scenic ride will provide amazing views of Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, the two highest mountains in Colorado, as well as the Arkansas River Valley, from the open-air cars. New in 2021, you’ll also have the opportunity to sit in comfort in one of the new lounge cars, which are enclosed with big windows so you never miss any part of the view. You’ll learn about Leadville’s history, the history of the mining industry, and some fun tidbits about the surrounding areas.
Royal Gorge Route Railroad
On any given day, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad has up to four departures, taking guests through the majestic Royal Gorge canyon, which runs alongside the Arkansas River on a historic segment of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. With open air cars as well as classic covered cars with dining service, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad is a great scenic trip for the family, and their regular Ales & Rails trips, which feature flights of beer from local breweries paired with delicious food, make a great group gathering or unique date experience.
Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad
This steam engine train ride located in Cripple Creek is only 45 minutes long, which means it’s much less of a commitment than some of the other train rides on this list, perfect for families with small children who might not have big attention spans. The ride will take you through beautiful mountain scenery and past the sites of old mines, with guided tour information from knowledgeable conductors.
Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where a young Indiana Jones escapes from grave-robbers on a passing circus train? You know, the one where he ends up in a car full of snakes? That train was the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs through the Toltec Gorge, from Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico. Relive the adventure (without the reptiles!) on your own scenic train ride over 64 miles of beautiful Rocky Mountain terrain.
Whether you’re trying to get somewhere or just enjoying the view, Colorado’s trains will take you back to a simpler time. Get out to an open-air car, use it as an opportunity to debark and go rafting, or simply watch the mountains pass you by on your way to a bigger destination. Colorado’s railroads take “the scenic route” to new heights. Literally.
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