The whistle of a train echoes through a narrow canyon as the locomotive weaves alongside a rushing river on a historic route once used to transport gold.
In an open-air passenger car, crisp mountain air blows back your hair, allowing you to catch a glimpse of big horn sheep eating small tufts of grass growing along a steep rock face.
As you enjoy the ride, you can’t help but wonder how Colorado’s first pioneers felt as they took in the vast rugged and untamed country.
Trains in Colorado’s history
When settlers found gold in the Colorado Territory in the late 1800s, the rush was on and gold hunters and their suppliers needed a way to transport gold and goods.
The invention of the narrow gauge helped rail expand into the Rocky Mountains by allowing trains to scale steep terrain and make tight turns. Some of these narrow-gauge tracks still transport passengers today.
By 1880, railroad construction in Colorado was booming. The ability to transport goods and people caused Colorado’s population to more than double over the next decade.
Railways still transport many of Colorado’s goods, but for Coloradans and their visitors, scenic train rides on Amtrak routes and historic railways provide a unique view of the state’s amazing landscape and a glimpse into its history that no other mode of transportation offers.
Scenic train rides in Colorado
Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad – Leadville, Colorado
Leadville is the highest incorporated city in North America and has a rich history of mining.
The Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad provides great views of the Arkansas River Valley. By raising 1,000 feet off the valley floor, passengers have views of Fremont Pass and the two tallest peaks in Colorado, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert.
Learn about Colorado history and listen as the conductor tells ghost stories. Visit November through January to hop aboard the “Holiday Express” for a magical trip through the snowy mountains on a light-decorated train.
The station is open year around, but the warmest months are July and August. Be prepared for possible snow as early as September and as late as June. Most roundtrips are 2.5 hours.
Georgetown Loop Railroad – Georgetown, Colorado
The Georgetown Loop Railroad has two “iron horse” steam engines, which were preserved and now operate on the track between Georgetown and Silver Plume.
The 1923 Engine 9 is a three-truck Shay-type locomotive and one of the three largest narrow gauge Shays ever built. It arrived in Colorado in 2011 and underwent 15 months of work to make it operational for the loop.
Steam engine No.111 was built in 1926. It sat on display in Breckenridge until it was moved to the Silver Plume station and began taking passengers in 2016.
Trips are about an hour and depart from Georgetown Devil’s Gate or Silver Plume.
Train rides during the fall are spectacular because the train travels through beautiful aspen groves of brilliant yellow and orange.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad– Durango, Colorado
This 45-mile steam excursion, which has been running since 1882 through the stunning San Juan Mountains between Durango and Silverton, provides a one-of-a-kind experience.
There are several options for riders on its 3.5-hour trips between Durango and Silverton including a layover in the historic mining town of Silverton. Hikers and backpackers can take the Silverton Diesel Train to access trailheads of stunning trails and some of Colorado’s famous 14,000-foot peaks in this area.
In April 2021, the new Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway experience officially opened in Manitou Springs. You can enjoy a roundtrip ride on the Cog or take it one-way if you decide to hike the 13-mile Barr Trail up or down Pikes Peak. You can also take a bike up via the Cog and ride down the breathtaking Pikes Peak Highway.
Royal Gorge Route Railroad – Canyon City, Colorado
West of Canon City, the Arkansas River cuts through igneous rock to create a gorge more than 1,000 feet deep. The history of the railroad that runs through it is one of conflict and war between the Santa Fe and the D&RG railroad companies, which started in the late 1800s when silver was discovered in Colorado. Along with enjoying the rich history of the area, train passengers get up-close looks at this Colorado canyon. It is one of the few places where you will see Rocky Mountain buffalo as well as pronghorn antelope and mule deer.
Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad – Cripple Creek, Colorado
This railroad once carried miners when the valley was home to about 50,000 residents. Now, this historic steam engine — with its pillaring smoke, sounds of steam and working steel — transports visitors back to the gold mining days of Cripple Creek and Victor. By way of a 15-ton iron horse, passengers travel to the old Midland Terminal Wye and past historic mines near the deserted mining camp of Anaconda on this 4-mile trip.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs between Chicago and San Francisco, passing through Denver and Colorado’s rugged mountains along the way. Passengers enjoy a scenic ride through the Rocky Mountains with excellent views of the Colorado River.
The route takes you out of Denver’s recently remodeled Union Station, climbs up the foothills and through several mountain tunnels before a stop at Winter Park. From there, you head into Gore Canyon and follow the Colorado River for several hours. This stretch is a popular day and overnight rafting trip for locals. Along with wildlife and great views, you may also get to experience an “unofficial tradition” of boaters mooning the train riders.
The train stops in historic Glenwood Springs, then heads to Grand Junction before continuing west to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Keep in mind that the Zephyr may run late, though part of the fun of train travel is that it’s relaxing. So, don’t worry too much about delays. An app allows you to track the train’s progress, so you’ll know when it’s really arriving and departing.