Riding through the San Juan National Forest and the Weminuche Wilderness on a steam-powered train over narrow gauge rails is an experience that will create many memories. While you may be tempted to focus your gaze upwards at the beautiful views of the Needle Mountains and Grenadier Range, be sure to keep on the lookout a little closer in for some of the wildlife with whom we share the forest. Marmots, bobcats, coyotes, bald eagles, and many other critters often make an appearance. Mule Deer and Gunnison Prairie Dogs are often seen along sections of the track and Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels greet passengers at the Tank Creek water stop.
The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, the official state animal of Colorado, was all but extinct in southwestern Colorado in the early 1980s. In January of 2001, 28 sheep were gathered from an overpopulated Georgetown, CO herd and transplanted via livestock cars on the D&SNGRR to an area north of Cascade Canyon. Since that time, the animals have thrived in the area and can often be seen scaling the perilous cliffs near an area known as the Highline.
In the late 1990s, the Colorado Division of Wildlife reintroduced moose near Creede, Colorado, just over the mountains east of Silverton. While only a few short years ago moose sightings were unheard of on the D&S, they are now commonly seen on the northern end of the line near Elk Park and often in the streets and yards in the town of Silverton! The most common of these sightings is a cow-moose who resides in the marshy flats just south of Elk Park, and every year she returns with a new calf or two. A young bull also lingers around the edge of Silverton, occasionally taking a stroll into town on one of the dirt and gravel streets.
One fairly frequent visitor, the American Black Bear, always gets an excited response from passengers. The name is deceptive, as these animals come in a variety of colors including dark brown, cinnamon, or yellow-brown. Oftentimes the bears merely glance at the passing train and have seemed to have accepted it as part of their habitat. On one memorable occasion, a curious bear cub climbed aboard the concession car of a special event train, no doubt in search of some snacks. As soon as he realized there were people occupying that car as well, he made a quick exit.
While riding the Durango and Silverton train, enjoy the ambiance of the historic narrow gauge cars, relax to the chugging of a 1920s steam locomotive, and keep an eye out for some of our furry friends who inhabit the San Juan Mountains.