The Cascade Canyon Winter Train is truly a great experience for not only a hard-core railfan but for anyone interested in experiencing a wintertime train trip in the Colorado mountains from the comfort of a comfortable rail car.
Cascade Canyon Winter Train – Some Background
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is one of the worlds’s most famous and picturesque heritage railway experiences. The 45 miles of track linking the Colorado towns of Durango with Silverton was completed in July 1882, after just eleven months of difficult construction, largely by hand labor.
The Silverton Branch was built by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway to access the gold and silver mines in the area. General William Jackson Palmer, a co-founder of the Denver & Rio Grande, chose narrow gauge instead of standard gauge because it was faster and cheaper to build, and allowed tighter curves in mountain terrain.
Over the years, the railroad (commonly referred to as the Rio Grande), converted its main tracks to standard gauge, but not some of the old mining branches, including the Silverton line.
By the 1950s, the line was losing money, and the railroad wanted to abandon it. The Rio Grande had made an effort to promote tourism in 1950 by repainting a steam locomotive and four coaches, which became the seed of what the Durango & Silverton line is today. Nevertheless, declining freight traffic convinced the railroad to petition the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to abandon the line. Railroads were a highly regulated industry in those days and the ICC turned down the request because the modest tourist traffic seemed to be increasing. Following the ICC ruling, the railroad perhaps reluctantly invested in additional rolling stock and made improvements to the Durango depot, but continued to look for a buyer for the line.
In 1981 the railroad finally sold the Silverton branch to Florida businessman Charles Bradshaw, Jr., with the new owners naming it the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
The new business invested heavily in restoration of historic coaches dating to the 1880s. Line improvements and modifications to bridges allowed larger K-36 and K-37 class engines to pull the trains to Silverton for the first time. Heavy promotion led to an influx of tourism for the railroad and area businesses, and additional trains were added.
In early 1989 the original roundhouse was destroyed in an overnight fire. Six locomotives inside were damaged but salvageable. A new larger roundhouse was built on the same spot, and incorporated two brick walls which remained standing from the old structure. The locomotives were restored in time for the start of the 1989 operating season.
In 1997, Bradshaw sold the Durango & Silverton to First American Railways, Inc. of Hollywood, Florida. In 1998 the Durango & Silverton was sold once again, this time to the current owner American Heritage Railways, headquartered today in Durango.
During the warmer months of the year, the railroad runs up to three trains each day on breathtaking trips between Durango and Silverton. In some cases the trains use doubleheaded locomotives.
The Durango & Silverton has established a long tradition of carrying travelers during spring, summer and fall on the spectacular route between the two towns. Patronage comes from casual day-trippers, hikers and campers, and avid rail and steam fans from all over the globe.
Less known is the operation available only during portions of the winter and early spring, known as the Cascade Canyon Winter Train. While this train does not cover the entire line to Silverton due to the heavy snow and the risk of avalanches over northern portions of the route, it is no less spectacular. The Cascade Canyon Winter Train does, however, traverse perhaps the most iconic and dramatic “High Line”, which was blasted into the rock face 400 feet above the Animas River.
Our experience on the Cascade Canyon Winter Train
Friend and fellow-videographer Mark Paulson and I headed to Colorado in January to travel on and record the Cascade Canyon Winter Train when we discovered a couple of times where our schedules were open to do this. The 10-day weather forecast (who trusts those things?) also looked favorable. The immediate weather in Durango was extremely cold with a forecast of a large dump of snow in mid-week, followed by clear skies and slightly below average temperatures during the time we planned to be there.
Wouldn’t you know it, but the forecast was spot on! The snow was finished and the skies were clear.
The Cascade Canyon Winter Train was running on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday schedule at the time of our visit. We planned to ride Thursday and Friday, then chase on Saturday.
We picked up our equipment-laden bags and rental car at the Denver airport and headed to Durango. There are several possible routes, but with uncertainty about road conditions over some of the higher elevation passes after the recent snowfall, we decided to take the long way; I-25 south to Walsenburg, then US 160 west to Durango. Once we headed west the trip was spectacular as we went from one mountain pass to another, occasionally running into somewhat treacherous conditions where the sun had not melted all the recent snow and ice from the well-maintained highway. It was a long but interesting drive through the afternoon, and we arrived in Durango shortly after dark.
We had made arrangements with the Durango & Silverton in advance, and we were to meet a representative early on Thursday morning. Of course we got there much earlier, so we could get some daybreak shots in front of the historic depot. The air was quiet at that hour, with little activity in the front of the station.
When it was time to meet our contact, we exchanging pleasantries and signed release forms and other documents. After that we were escorted to the depot platform before the other passengers were allowed out of the building. This was a great opportunity to get some nice footage of the cars being readied and of locomotive 473 coming from the direction of the roundhouse. After passing the depot, 473 backed to the train, and we still had time to get some “beauty shots” of the locomotive and platform activities of the crew. It was a very chilly start to the day, which made for some nice steam.
Eventually the passengers were allowed onto the platform to board the train, and soon we had to pack up our equipment and get onboard as well. Today’s train was made up of enclosed (and heated) coaches, a concession car, one open car with padded outer-facing benches, and the Cinco Animas, a beautifully restored luxury car constructed in 1883.
The Cinco Animas has two seating areas, one with built-in Pullman berth seating and the other with plush parlor-style chairs. There is also an outdoor viewing platform on the rear where passengers my enjoy a spectacular view of the surroundings and the track stretching out behind the train. This car commands a higher fare and and is restricted to adults only (21 or older). Mark later had the privilege of spending some time getting great video from the rear platform as we left Cascade Canyon.
Soon we were on our way as the train began moving from the depot and through the city of Durango. After a short time the track curves away from the downtown grid and headed for its first crossing of the Animas River on what used to be the edge of town. The city is no different from other American cities which have seen the “urban spread”, so it seems like we continued to travel through populated areas a bit longer than expected.
Mark and I positioned ourselves on opposite sides of the open car. Even though the train never exceeded 25 miles per hour, it was COLD. We often took breaks inside one of the coaches but not for long!
The first portion of the trip is somewhat flat and parallels not only the Animas River but US Highway 550. We’re in a wide valley with high hills to the east and west. By the time the train reaches Hermosa we have traveled 11 miles and gained only about 130 feet in elevation.
Hermosa was once a small town and became a railroad camp during construction of the line. Today there is still an iconic Rio Grande wooden water tank standing, although locomotives now get their water from a steel tank right next to the earlier structure. The Durango & Silverton has a large fenced area used mostly for equipment storage and maintenance purposes. Once the train passes the water tanks the tracks cross highway 550 at grade protected by lights and gates. The track grade also becomes noticeably steeper after the crossing and the engine can be heard working harder. The locomotive and train will also encounter some tight curves for the next mile or so.
Not too much further the line once again meets Highway 550, but this time they are grade-separated with the highway on a modern bridge overhead. Other than this encounter, we will not see the highway again as the Winter Train and roadway head their separate ways.
Not quite two miles later our train rounds a curve and comes to Rockwood, where there is a small outdoor depot for flag and requested stops. Sidings at Rockwood held miscellaneous snow-covered freight cars, track equipment, and a small diesel engine. Rockwood is the last place accessible by road on the Durango end of the line, and it is a staging area for the Durango & Silverton for bringing heavy equipment loaded onto flatcars into the roadless area.
When the train reaches Rockwood, it has climbed 855 feet in elevation above the Durango depot.
At the far end of the small Rockwood yard, the track goes through a narrow rock cut as the line enters the Animas River Canyon. Almost immediately we passed the San Juan National Forest signposts on either side of the track and spectacular views into the canyon on the right side of the train. There is a 5 mile per hour slow order as the train snakes its way over the dramatic shelf track 400 feet above the river below. This is the most spectacular part of the trip, so plan your restroom break or concession car needs accordingly.
Shortly the train crosses the Animas River over what is called the High Bridge, a 130 foot long deck-truss bridge built of cast-iron in 1880.
The only sign of civilization, other than the train we’re on, is the Tacoma hydroelectric plant. Electric Lake, nearly 1100 feet higher than the power plant, provides rushing water to generate electricity. The plant is accessible only by train in this wilderness. The spent water from the plant rushes into the Animas, which flows downstream toward Durango and is much less ice covered than the river above the discharge.
Soon our train stops at Tank Creek for water. The old wooden tank built by the Rio Grande is long gone, replaced by a steel one. The stop is short and before long we see the Cascade Canyon signpost. The train backs into the wye and passengers have about 45-50 minutes to get off, enjoy a picnic, explore, or warm themselves by a fire.
During the turn on the tight curve on the wye, a flexible hose between the engine and the tender cracked, causing a slow but steady stream of water to leak out. The Durango & Silverton crews are well prepared for any situation, and they worked together to minimize the loss of water.
Other than the sounds from the steam locomotive and the voices of the passengers, this place is really QUIET. I went to the end of the train to get some images of the Cinco Animas, and when my feet stopped crunching the snow, it was remarkably still.
The passengers mostly stayed close to the locomotive, many posing for photos using 473 as the backdrop. If you go, I advise taking a walk to get away from the train to experience the stillness of the winter scene. Today the sun was shining, the air was still, and the temperature was now above freezing and very comfortable.
Our time here went very quickly and 473‘s whistle blew to signal all to get onboard. Mark headed to the rear platform of Cinco Animas to get some great footage.
The ride back is more downhill so the engine does not have to work hard. With the afternoon temperature much more comfortable than the morning, we found ourselves with much more company (and the sound of voices) on the open car.
Normally the locomotive can make it back to Durango easily without stopping for water, but as a precaution after the leak, we stopped at the Hermosa tank.
Upon our arrival at Durango, Mark and I received a private tour of the yard area, roundhouse and the modern machine shop. Much of this is not normally available to the general public and we were both grateful for the opportunity.
The Durango & Silverton is generally well thought of by the local community, but the locomotives do burn coal and can generate a lot of smoke. The railroad is well aware of this and works hard to minimize the smoke by moving the locomotives out of the depot area shortly after the passengers are off the train. Diesel locomotives are used to shuffle cars around the yards and steam locomotives are relegated to the roundhouse as soon as they are serviced. If a steam locomotive is kept hot overnight, they burn wood pellets for a more pleasing smell instead of coal.
We watched as 473 had its sand dome refilled. Then the locomotive was moved over the ash pit where its firebox was cleaned. Here’s a short video of this operation.
Before going to the roundhouse, 473 was put onto the turntable to line it up for the correct roundhouse stall. Normally this is a pretty quick chore, but not today. The turntable is moved by compressed air. I noticed the pit had a lot of snow inside, which may have caused some extra drag on the turntable, plus it was a cold day, and sometimes mechanical things don’t work as efficiently in the cold. One of the the two crew members went for the Case shop tractor and lined it up on the side of the rear coupler. Pushing on the coupler only made the tractor wheels spin on the icy ground. After several tries, he moved to the front of the engine. The other crew member moved 473 forward slightly on the turntable so the coupler stuck out over the edge of the table for the tractor. The ground here was a little less icy and this time the tractor was able to move the turntable.
After getting video of 473 disappearing into the roundhouse we called it a day and went for supper, then did some night photography in the historic downtown section of Durango for possible use in the documentary. It was pretty cold that evening in Durango so we were pretty quick in finishing up this task.
The next day, Mark rode the entire trip and I got on and off the train at Rockwood. This allowed me to get some trackside footage on the part of the trip which is accessible by road.
Mark covered the depot scenes before departure, and I stationed myself on the Animas River Trail to record the train passing in the bright snow. I also caught it between Durango and Hermosa, at Hermosa, and of course, Rockwood. It was challenging but fun to edit these scenes by combining them with Mark’s onboard footage while passing these same spots.
The train was slightly longer today, as there was an elementary school group on a field trip with their own enclosed car and their own open car.
Had a little scare at Rockwood. As we said goodbye to the train crew the day before, we told them about me getting on and off at Rockwood, and they mentioned they would be the same crew on Friday. So, while waiting for the train at Rockwood, I disregarded the sign about signaling the train to stop by waving my arms horizontally across my body. As the train approached it didn’t seem to be slowing down, and then a conductor onboard yelled “you’re not getting on are you?” to which I shouted “yes!” He signaled the head end, and the train came to a rather abrupt halt, with the open car and Mark stopping right in front of me. Turned out there was a different crew!
The rest of the trip was as beautiful as the day before, and there were no mechanical problems, like broken hoses. Cascade Canyon was beautiful once again, and only slightly noisier due to the school group. They looked like they were having fun and were all very well behaved.
On the way back, I got off at Rockwood and raced to the highway overpass to get some nice overhead shots of the train coming and going. I caught up again at Hermosa as the train passed without stopping for water, then as it passed behind the Iron Horse Inn, and finally at the Animas River Bridge in Durango.
I made my way to the depot and met Mark inside the D&SNG Museum, which is in an 8 stall section of the rebuilt roundhouse. The museum is filled with artifacts about railroading in general and local narrow gauge railroading in particular. Displays include locomotives, rail cars, a fire truck, a model railroad, and cases filled with smaller items. It’s definitely worth visiting after riding the Durango & Silverton.
On Saturday we chased the train from Durango to Rockwood. Our first location was in Durango near the Animas River Bridge. Mark was at track level at the crossing before the bridge, and I was high above on Florida Road overlooking the bridge and the river. We both got exciting video footage from our locations.
I picked up Mark after coming back down the hill. Mark got in the back seat so he would have an unrestricted view as we paced the train from the outskirts of Durango to about Trimble Lane. The traffic and buildings in Durango hid the train from view for us, so we just drove in the right direction, hoping we weren’t too far behind. Luckily we saw smoke not too far ahead and we caught up to the train close to where the built-up areas around Durango were ending.
For a morning pacing shot, the sun is on the wrong side of the train, but with the fresh white snow and the light background, there was adequate light for our purposes. The train was more than a silhouette and the backlighting made for some nice shots of the fireman going about his work. The divided highway makes only northbound pacing work. The shoulders are paved and pretty smooth. The train was going around 15-20 miles per hour, so the shoulders kept us from being rear-ended or causing any inconvenience to drivers. And, it was a Saturday morning in the wintertime so there wasn’t much traffic. I don’t know if this could be done as well or as safely during a busier time of year. Mark was an ace at keeping the camera steady in a moving car, and the video footage shows it!
We broke off the pacing so we could get ahead and set up at Hermosa….barely. But we made it and once again it was a fun job stitching video from three cameras together for the scene.
Next it was on to Rockwood, which we had no trouble reaching before the train. I dropped Mark near the curve approaching the settlement and I positioned myself on the far end of the yard not too far from the rock cut where the train would disappear from us. Both of us got some beautiful scenes at this stretch of track, and it became our final footage from the trip.
Once done, we began heading back toward Denver, where we had a midday flight the next day.
We really enjoyed our experience on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Winter Train. All of the folks we met at D&SNG were great to be with and very helpful in making sure we got what we needed for our documentary.
See the Cascade Canyon Winter Train for yourself!
I hope you will be inspired by our experience and the resulting Cascade Canyon Winter Train DVD to make this trip yourself. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wintertime Colorado in the mountains. Take a look at the preview here.
Thanks, Steve Mitchell, www.yardgoatimages.com