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Tuesday, September 1, 2015 : Durango, Silverton, ATV, steam train


Though we are supposed to be on vacation, we nonetheless have to get up way too early for Marie's taste. It is for a very good reason : we are expected at 9:20 for our excursion between Durango and Silverton.


We have chosen a program that will keep us busy most of the day :



It is an American organization, which means professional and relaxed. And it looks like the weather will stay bright the whole day !


I made  an agreement with the hotel. We can leave our car on their parking lot all day long.

Bronze sculpture in front of Durango station, CO

Bronze sculpture in front of Durango station


While we're waiting for the bus, Marie takes a few pictures, including this nice bronze sculpture, right in front of Durango station.


Our bus is exactly on time, boarding at 9:20 sharp and leaving at 9:30 sharp. During the trip, the driver, quite a talkative guy, tells us the history of the region, dominated by silver mining around Silverton at the end of 19th century. The line was built in 1881, precisely to ship silver ore. As soon as it opened, Silverton to Durango shipping times were cut from weeks to hours. Nice for the miners, whose wealth largely depended on how fast they were paid.


The railroad track roughly follows Animas River, the name meaning "River of Souls" in Spanish. During an expedition by an over-confident conquistador, who thought it was a good idea to ignore the locals' warnings, a flash flood suddendly and mercilessly washed away most of the troops. Unable to provide his dead men with a Christian grave, the conquistador recommended their souls to God. The name endured, the River of Souls.


The line was built with a narrow gauge of 3 ft (91.44 cm), instead of the standard 4 ft 8 1/2 in. (1.435 m). A narrow gauge indeed allows much tighter curves. Compared to nowadays, construction techniques of the time were kind of crude, and engineers favored a path pretty close to the river, even if it occasionally meant carving into the canyon walls. Though this is a mountain railroad, it has very few bridges and no tunnel.


The road we are on, US Route 550, does not follow the river so closely, sometimes drifting as far as 5 miles away. It was opened in 1924. According to local legends, it owes its nickname of "Million Dollar Highway" to the staggering construction cost of each mile, a consequence of impressive works : mountainside carvings, supporting walls, and two very high passes : Coal Bank Pass (10,640 ft) and Molas Pass (10,910 ft).


Arrival in Silverton, CO

Arrival in Silverton


Durango is already high, at 6,512 ft. Silverton is even higher, at 9,318 ft. Nested in the heart of San Juan Mountains, at the confluence of two forks of Animas River, Silverton was, at the end of 19th century, a particularly active and thriving silver mining town. Our guide, a real chatterbox, tells us the legend of the town. A journalist, eager to write his paper, was spending one night in a bar talking with the locals, to learn what they were mining for. A less-than-sober guy replied : "here, we find silver, by the ton". Even if the exaggeration was blatant, the town had its name, silver-ton, which has endured ever since.


At that time, Silverton mining district was one of the most flourishing of the United States.


Although we are really high in the mountains, it is not cold at all. No need for sweaters, a T-shirt is O.K. for the time being.


Silverton is not exactly a large town, with hardly more than 500 souls. We quickly reach our destination and are met by Ben, our guide for the ATV ride. After signing the disclaimer, we are given helmets, and meet out ATVs. We are going to spend a few hours with Ben and a couple from Kansas.


Abandoned mine near Silverton, CO

Abandoned mine near Silverton


We ride a tandem ATV, a very basic vehicle with a hard suspension, whose limitations Marie quickly learns the hard way. She soon feels a pretty bad back pain, and I make an agreement with Ben, who rides a much more comfortable ATV, for her to sit with him. She enjoys the next part of the ride much better. I go on with the tandem ATV, which, though quite physical (the following night, my arms were aching like mad !), is really fun to ride.


We follow one of the forks of Animas River, along a valley lined with lots of abandoned mines. Ben takes advantage of the stops to tell us the history of the area.


ATVs and alpine scenery near Silverton, CO

ATVs and alpine scenery near Silverton


We gradually gain elevation in the midst of gorgeous landscapes. We cross a few SUVs with visiting tourists or locals. This part of the road is wide and easy enough for the rookie ATV riders that we are.


We have been driving little over an hour, and it is now lunchtime. Ben has brought picnic bags with sandwiches, chips, cookies and water bottles.


Abandoned house at Animas Forks, CO

Abandoned house at Animas Forks


We are at Animas Forks, about 11,200 ft high, in the midst of beautiful alpine landscapes. Here, from 1873 until the early 1920s, there was a small town where miners used to meet. A few houses remain. A couple have been restored, others are in conditions varying from absolute ruin to relatively good, like the one on the picture.


There are no shops, here. Everything is authentic. We are in the middle of a real ghost town, that was inhabited more a hundred years ago.


Chatting with our guide Ben

Chatting with our guide Ben


During lunch break, I have a chat with Ben. He is 21, studies in Chicago, and spends the summer season in Silverton. He acknowledges there are more frustrating summer jobs than this one. Still, he has responsibilities : he is not supposed to put his group in awkward situations, and he'd better bring back to Silverton as many tourists as he had at the start.


Although this is not his main activity, Ben has been quick to adapt. He already knows quite a lot about the local history and geography. He is also very friendly, so it's a real pleasure to spend the day with him.


Animas Forks, CO

Animas Forks


Animas Forks sits at the confluence of two forks of Animas River, which, at such an elevation, is but a series of less-than-impressive mountain streams. Although we are more than 11,000 ft high, there is not a single patch of snow around us. It requires some effort to imagine the same landscape under 6 or 7 feet of snow. I think about the miners, who spent the whole winter more or less isolated in their log cabins.


It is now time to leave.


Abandoned mine above Animas Forks, CO

Abandoned mine above Animas Forks


We follow Ben on an upward path along the mountainside, occasionally slowed down by a few technical difficulties, yet quite accessible for the rookie ATV riders whom we are.


We stop at about 11,600 ft high, on the site of one of the highest and most remote mines in the district. It made no practical sense to ship silver ore to Silverton and load it on a train, it would have taken way too long. More than just a mine, the building on the picture also hosted a small foundry. Silver ore was refined locally, and a much purer metal, with a much higher commercial value, was shipped to town.


We cross the wooden buildings, where miners slept, cooked or spent their time off. The place has stayed like when it was abandoned, nothing has been changed. Logically, its condition leaves much to be desired, but let's not forget that this building has survived roughly a hundred harsh mountain winters. It's nothing short of a miracle to be able to visit it with minimal supervision.


We have now reached the highest point of our excursion. Soon afterward, we are on our way back.


Alpine landscape above Animas Forks, CO

Alpine landscape above Animas Forks


We drive down the same trail, still in the midst of gorgeous alpine landscapes. The least we can say is that we are not disturbed by tourists. We are the only ones !


Still seated beside Ben, Marie finds some time to take a few pictures, including this high mountain scenery, pretty close to the foundry. We are not far from the summits. What strikes me most is that it is not cold. Of course, I wear a sweater, but it is mostly to shield me from the wind on the moving ATV.


Crossing Animas River with the ATV

Crossing Animas River with the ATV


Just for fun, Ben makes us cross a ford on a fork of Animas River. Staying on the other side, Marie takes pictures of me and of our friends from Kansas, whom I sent the files to after coming back. The pleasure would not be complete if I did not totally wet the bottom of my jeans. They dried very fast, as soon as we resumed driving on the main trail.


Of course, during snowmelt, such an activity is unthinkable, for obvious safety reasons.


Cascade near Silverton, CO

Cascade near Silverton


After crossing the ford, we take the same main trail as this morning, a wide unpaved road that takes us back to Silverton. As we are supposed to have seen most points of interest on the way up, we make fewer stops. Marie snaps a few more pictures, including this beautiful cascade surrounded by fir trees.


I am now riding last. On this much faster stretch of road, I eat all the dust blown by the two ATVs in front of me. Tonight, I will enjoy a much-deserved shower !


Then we are back in Silverton. We take a few more pictures with Ben, and we are on our way to the station. Although our seats have been booked for months, we are not willing to show up at the last second before the train.


Ford model A in downtown Silverton, CO

Ford model A in downtown Silverton


On our way, in a shopping street, we come across this superbly restored Ford Model A, used as a travelling advertisement for a restaurant. I wonder whether it is a replica, but no, after watching it carefully, it looks absolutely authentic.


There is no such thing as a real station in Silverton, no platform and no building other than a small booth. The railroad runs thru the middle of a cross street, and that's it. In front of some of the cars, the staff, already on duty, has put stepladders, and is helping people with special needs climb on board. We easily find our seats in a half-open car, which proves a brilliant choice. For once, Marie's pictures will have no reflections, since there are simply no windows.


Then the train leaves. In theory, it is supposed to take 3 1/2 hours to travel down to Durango. Though we love trains and mountain landscapes, the same route twice in a row might seem kind of boring to some. We are glad to have chosen this combined tour, in spite of Marie's back pain at the beginning of the ATV ride.


Leaving Silverton with the steam train

Leaving Silverton with the steam train


The line, predictably single-tracked, follows the course of Animas River, that soon becomes a narrow, kind of winding, canyon. We quickly understand why the line was built with a narrow gauge.


The train is composed of about ten cars, all authentic, carefully maintained in their original condition. The restoration work deserves kudos, and the result is superb. We are in a genuine train of more than 100 years ago.


Since our car has no windows, it is easy to take pictures. We just have to lean outside ... taking care not to hit the rock, which is pretty close at times.


Landscape seen from the train near Silverton, CO

Landscape seen from the train near Silverton


During this return trip, we enjoy different landscapes than of the way up, which makes sense since, at places, the road is off the railroad by as much as 3 to 4 miles. Anyway, there was not enough room inside Animas River canyon to also build the road.


At Silverton elevation, vegetation is typical of the high Rocky Mountains, with fir trees in abundance. Little by little, it changes as we go down to Durango, almost 3,000 ft below.


We are not too impressed by the few clouds we can see on the pictures. No storm is brewing. It will have been a beautiful day.


Animas River between Silverton and Durango, CO

Animas River between Silverton and Durango


A 3 1/2-hour journey allows plenty of time to socialize with our fellow passengers. A tourist from New Jersey, Bobbie, attempts a conversation with Marie, who is not up to the challenge. Bobbie then falls back on me, and we chat about various topics, our trips, this site, till Durango. I tell her whatever nice thoughts I have about her home state, which I have already visited four times, and happens to also be Bruce Springsteen's.


At places, like on the picture, we are pretty close to the river, which we cross on wooden trestles as genuine as the rest. Later on, we are as much as 400 ft above.


Half-way, our train needs a water refill

Half-way, our train needs a water refill


A steam locomotive uses a lot of water, and ours does not have the range to go to Durango in a single stretch, hence the need for a half-way refill.


I notice that the crew's uniforms are of the same typical, vintage, out-of-time style.


Steam engine and black smoke plume

Steam engine and black smoke plume


We then start again, in a big plume of thick black smoke.


This narrow gauge line with tight curves is finally a good thing. From where we sit, roughly in the middle of the train, we can frequently take pictures of the front or rear of the train, sometimes both. The picture above was taken from our seat inside the train, not outside.


Riding on the edge of the cliff

Riding on the edge of the cliff


The canyon is here as tight as ever, and even a narrow gauge line can't wind its way inside. So the line rises about 400 ft above the river, and we enjoy an unrestricted view.


This picture is a great classic of the Durango to Silverton railroad, it can be seen everywhere, in commercial brochures, on the website, mostly taken on the way up. Let's notice the line carved along the mountainside, just at the edge of the cliff.


A little further, the train slowly crosses a crack in the rock, which we could easily touch on either side, so close it is. Obviously, this is absolutely not recommended.


Red cliffs near Durango, CO

Red cliffs near Durango


After exiting the canyon, the valley becomes wider as we near Durango. The red cliffs facing us are colored by late afternoon declining sunlight.


We have seen almost nobody alive since leaving Silverton, but we are now crossing a much more densely populated area, Durango suburbs, in a way, where upscale residences alternate with trailer parks. This country is really a land of stark contrasts.


Back in Durango, CO

Back in Durango


We slowly cross Durango, as if we wanted to enjoy the trip as long as we can. We pass right behind our hotel and, much later, while sorting the pictures for the site, I realize that our car is still where I parked it this morning. Good thing, for all our belongings are inside !


After exchanging a few last words with a still as talkative Bobbie, we hit the road and leave Durango. We refill the car on the edge of town and take the road to Mesa Verde National Park. It is not very far, about 1 hr 1/4. However, it is almost dark when we reach Far View Lodge, in the middle of the park.


We have dinner at the lodge restaurant, not cheap by any standard, but with great food. Too bad it is now pitch black, the landscape looked absolutely gorgeous.


However, the room is pretty basic, with a quite low-quality wifi. It looks like the price to pay to be already in the middle of the park, and above all far from any city.

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