Time travel on the tracks: 6 historic and scenic rail routes in Colorado

Since they were first built in the 19th century, Colorado’s railroads are the best – and sometimes only – way to get a brush with the state’s cloud-baiting mountains, river valleys and forests…

Team Wanderlust
12 April 2022
Promoted by
Colorado USA

Since they were first built in the 19th century to connect gold and silver mining camps, Colorado’s railroads are the best – and sometimes only – way to get an intimate brush with the state’s cloud-baiting mountains, sweeping river valleys and forest wildernesses. Here are six grand train journeys to hop aboard in Colorado…

1. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

You probably thought the golden age of US rail travel was consigned to the history books, or sepia-toned photographs, but the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad proves it’s still very much alive. This is a true time-frozen train journey, where you’ll not only follow the same 72.5km route that the miners, settlers and cowboys rode in the 1880s, but also travel on the same train they did: a vintage steam locomotive. As much as the route was chosen for its practicality, the scenery outside must have had miners glued to the windows, as the track hugs craggy peaks and chugs through pine-carpeted valleys and the raw backcountry of San Juan National Forest. Even back then, its passengers must have thought they’d struck gold long before they had reached the mines.

2. The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Reopening in 2021 after a huge renovation, the Cog Railway is a must-ride, and is now faster, safer and more comfortable than ever before. The views from atop Pikes Peak (4,302m) of the Southern Front Range once inspired poet Katharine Lee Bates to pen the patriotic anthem America the Beautiful. But for years it was only accessible on muleback. A more civilised ascent was needed, and in 1891 the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway was born. Today, it remains the highest cog railway in the world, taking an hour to make the 14.5km journey from Manitou Springs, and the train’s route through canyons and wild forests to the summit of Pikes Peak is as captivating as ever.

3. Georgetown Loop Railroad

They broke the mould when they built the Georgetown Loop Railroad. Several remarkable feats of engineering were required during its construction, with its hairpin turns, a 30-degree horseshoe curve and four bridges – including the cloud-grazing Devil’s Gate High Bridge – all testing the technology of its era. This narrow-gauge railway, measuring less than a metre, promptly became one of Colorado’s earliest tourist attractions when it opened in 1884. It still serves up widescreen views of Clear Creek Canyon’s pine-wrapped peaks as it chugs between the mining towns of Georgetown and Silver Plume. It also proves that not all scenic train rides have to be epic journeys. At just 10km long, taking 75 minutes to complete, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trip is a quick but satisfying dip into Colorado’s wilderness, with the chance to explore an historic silver mine before the return ride.

4. Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad

Ever since gold was discovered here in 1860, Leadville has had a rich prospecting history, and during the 19th century it became a happy hunting ground for miners of gold, silver and lead. It was during this boom that a railroad was built to shuttle the precious metals across Colorado. The Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad now traces that line – and it’s an eye-popping journey at that. Trains climb the jade-hued wilds of San Isabel National Forest, where vistas unfold to reveal the Rocky Mountains, including Colorado’s two highest peaks, Elbert and Massive. Along the way, hear tales of Leadville’s eclectic former residents, including gambler Doc Holliday and rags-to-riches-to-rags-again couple Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. Ride the railroad in summer when the wildflowers are in bloom, or autumn when the trees turn fiery shades of orange and gold.

5. Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad

This locomotive’s sky-blue paintwork only serves to tantalise the wide-open horizons you’ll spy as you pick your way through Colorado’s backcountry on the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. This steam train transports you back to the State’s gold-rush pomp, taking you on a coal-fired chug through steep forested hills and passing several long-abandoned mines, including the camp complex of Anaconda. The open-sided carriages mean the 45-minute journey along the historic railroad is as much a multi-sensory experience as it is a trip through time, so be prepared to feel the pine-scented breeze on your face, smell the steam plumes and maybe even hear the growl of a black bear. It’s a wild journey into the untamed heart of Colorado.

6. Rocky Mountaineer Rockies to the Red Rocks

The Rocky Mountaineer is more readily known for exploring the snow-dusted ruggedness of British Columbia, but since 2021, it has also rolled through the rust-red mountainscapes between Denver and Moab (and vice versa) on a two-day route. Wind through canyons carved by the Colorado River, keeping your eyes peeled for mountain lions, deer and eagles among other wildlife, before pit-stopping in Glenwood Springs for the night. Pick up where you left off the next day, tucking into a hearty breakfast as you soak up a patchwork of ochre-hued cliffs, the crimson-coloured Ruby Canyon and the vertiginous peaks of mounts Garfield (2,062m) and Peale (the highest point of the La Sal Mountains at 3,879m), all brought to life with legendary tales of the Wild West. As you creep towards Moab, the startling sandstone formations of Arches National Park awaits, peering above the burnt-orange landscape – a definitive vista of the American South-West served up in the perfect package.

Whichever railroad you decide to ride, you’re in for a scenic and slow journey like no other.

Feel inspired?

For more information and inspiration on Colorado, head over to the official website.

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