Even though I'm riding safely in this railcar, under a UV-protected, glass-paneled roof, adrenaline courses through my body as I gaze 240 feet down, where the Animas River flows through the canyon below. Remember the famous Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid scene when Sundance (Robert Redford) confesses to Butch (Paul Newman) that he can’t swim? "Are you crazy?" Butch says. "The fall will probably kill you." This scene has never made more sense than now, hanging my head out of the window of the Durango & Silverton railroad car chugging along at 18 mph high on the San Juan Mountains rock ledge. The air outside is cold and crisp—the views from inside breathtaking.
The Knight Sky is the only coach on the train with a glass ceiling that gives you the never-ending overhead scenery of mountains between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. There are other car types to choose from, including enclosed dining cars and open-air gondolas. These historic locomotives are 100 percent coal-fired and steam-operated, as they've been since day one. American Heritage Railways operates the line. For a round trip to Silverton, a fireman (or, in our case, firewoman) shovels about 6 tons of coal per day. On a round trip, 10,000 gallons of water are used to produce the steam to power the locomotive.
As the locomotive winds around each bend of the stunning mountains, the panoramic view like a Planet Earth special on the BBC, our railcar attendant, Alice, plays docent, sharing interesting tidbits of information with our group as she passes out free mugs and tote bags. She takes alcoholic and virgin drink orders, points out a bald eagle sitting atop a nest and offers a complimentary morning pastry, explaining that the railroad’s first movie appearances were in Ticket to Tomahawk and 1949's Colorado Territory, which featured a young Marilyn Monroe. Folks started to buy tickets to ride the train to view first-hand the gorgeous scenery they had witnessed on the screen.
Other movies shot on location—Across the Wide Missouri, Denver & Rio Grande, Viva Zapata!, Around the World in 80 Days, and 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, made this a Hollywood hub, but the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge is also a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
After we cascade through the mountain range for two hours, we land in a wooded picnic and rest area with a large, covered fire pit. Our group spends the next 30 minutes taking photos with the conductors, engineers, and our very petite and sooty firewoman. We hike to a nearby, old-timey wooden bridge crossing the river and explore the area. My 4-year-old daughter, Lanie, and I then warm ourselves by the fire and watch the railway crew turn the train around for our trip back to Durango.
As we make the last half of the journey back to the station and railway museum where we began our voyage, we see all of the breathtaking views all over again from the opposite side of the train. Despite the long ride, even a 4-year-old does not get bored thanks to the scenery and an afternoon pastry.
If you plan on visiting Colorado, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a matchless and memorable adventure to consider. The railway even offers adventure packages where they will let your group off along the way to snowmobile, zip-line, and do other fun activities.
The experience is available year-round with ticket prices starting at $65 for adults in a standard coach car. For our group of travelers, the glass-domed railroad car was worth every extra penny. In the words of Butch Cassidy, the Knight Sky Rail Car will make you feel like you’ve “got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”