Ever since it was built in 1882, this little train has been puffing along the Rio de las Animas Perdidas (that's Spanish for the River of Lost Souls, a haunting name indeed), traveling 45 miles through the mountains and San Juan National Forest to the town of Silverton and back. When it was first built, Silverton was, as its name suggests, a silver-mining town, and the train's business was to bring precious ore back down to the railroad hub of Durango. When the United States went on the gold standard in 1893, the price of silver dropped dramatically, throwing this region's economy into a tailspin. Many local railroads went belly up, but this one survived because of its incredible scenic views. Nowadays, it's tourists that trundle along those tracks, in strings of restored gold-colored Victorian-era coaches.
Traveling at around 18 mph, you'll climb 3,000 feet, past relics of the area's mining and railroading activities; elevations en route range from 8,000 feet at the passes to 14,000 feet on the peaks you'll see from the train windows. White puffs of smoke trail from its coal-powered steam locomotives -- a fireman shovels about 6 tons of coal per day to power these locomotives. If you look at the tracks, they're only 3 feet apart (standard train tracks are 4 ft. 8 1/2 in. wide), which makes it easier to navigate sharp mountain curves. In this train's case, however, the narrower tracks also meant workers had fewer inches to cut out of the sheer granite cliff face of the Animas Gorge. Good thing, too -- it was already such a risky job that the railroad's president, William Palmer, constructed the route in secret, fearing that the directors of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad would veto the plan before he could safely complete it.
This is a full-day excursion -- it takes 3 1/2 hours to ride from Durango to Silverton, you're given 2 hours to poke around picturesque Victorian-era Silverton, and then it's another 3 1/2 hours back down to Durango. (Before getting on the train in Durango, you could also spend half an hour or so in the attached D&SNG Museum, right beside the train depot.) You'll have a couple of hours to explore Silverton before the return trip; one fun thing to do is to visit the Old Hundred Gold Mine (tel. 800/872-3009 or 970/387-5444; www.minetour.com) in Cunningham Pass, just outside of Silverton. The tour takes you a third of a mile deep into Galena Mountain on an electric mine car, where miners demonstrate historic mining equipment and techniques. There's also gold panning, and box lunches are included in the deal.
The views are even more spectacular on the ride back. In fact, the stretch of U.S. 550 that parallels the train tracks is called the Million-Dollar Highway, not only because it was so expensive to build, but because you'll get million-dollar Rocky Mountain views all the way home.
Nearest Airport: Durango–La Plata County, 14 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Strater Hotel, 699 Main Ave., Durango (tel. 800/247-4431 or 970/247-4431; www.strater.com).