Serving travelers, tourists, and backpackers along the Animas River between Durango and Silverton, the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a highly recommended mode of passage to backcountry destinations in the Weminuche Wilderness, the Chicago Basin in particular.
The Chicago Basin receives around 100,000 backpackers per year, and many of them use the Durango-Silverton Railroad as their point of entry. There are no access roads to the Needle Creek Trailhead, and accessing the trailhead on foot requires additional backpacking days, depending on the chosen route. While backpackers might scorn the price tag, even with the special backpacker’s rate, the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge is the quickest way to access the Chicago Basin, the 14ers that rise along its rim, and the hordes of human-habituated mountain goats that devour any and all unprotected food in Chicago Basin campsites—fair warning.
The San Juan Mountains are rich with mining history dating to the 19th century, and the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a vestige of that past. Mining booms in the area brought hordes of settlers seeking the rich ores that lay buried in the mountains, and the railroad between the mining towns began carrying passengers and ore in July of 1882. The price of silver collapsed within 15 years, however, and silver mining in the region went with it. Surviving the Spanish flu pandemic and two world wars, the railroad rebranded itself as a tourist destination. It operates as a historic railroad today, using original 20th century locomotives powered by coal and steam—indeed, the locomotive must make regular stops along the Animas to refill its water tanks.
Narrow gauge railroads are, as their name suggests, narrower than the standard 4 feet 8.5 inches. The narrower profile mitigates cost and allows the train to navigate the tighter curves, that are found in abundance along the Animas River.
When it comes to backcountry wilderness access, there’s nothing like the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Thrifty spenders can access the Chicago Basin via the Vallecito Reservoir and the Vallecito Creek Trail, which are highly recommended in their own right. That said, railroad access to the backcountry is a novelty that can’t be ignored.
Be sure to reserve the open-air gondolas, which are especially useful after a few days in the backcountry. The railroad serves two important backcountry stops: Needleton, which accesses the Needle Creek Trail to the Chicago Basin, and Elk Park, which accesses the Vallecito Creek Trail and the Continental Divide. Note that, although your reservations denote a specific date and time, the railroad allows for flexibility and will find a place on later trains for backpackers who miss their return train. Also be aware that more than one train serves the route daily; if hikers find themselves sprinting to catch the train home, they might be sprinting after the wrong one. The train departs from Durango earliest in the morning, so hikers will have the most time to get to camp if they leave from Durango rather than Silverton. Parking for cars is provided at the station, but it is not secured.
Be careful about the airborne ash that wafts through open-air gondolas with abandon.
Call the ticket office at 888.872.4607 or 970.387.5416 for the backpacker special.