Colorado Train Rides And Railroad Museums Guide

Arguably no other place in America boasted such a fascinating collection of railroads like Colorado.  The state's history with the iron horse coincided with the Transcontinental Railroad's development although it did not see its first train until after that project's completion.  When the great "Silver Boom" began in 1879, following the precious metal's discovery near Leadville, railroading took flight.  Due to the rugged topography many lines were built to the 3-foot, "narrow gauge," to both navigate this terrain and also reduce construction costs.  As a result, Colorado would boast densest such network in the country with lines criss-crossing its borders.  Some of the more notable include the Denver, South Park & Pacific; Denver & Rio Grande (later the Denver & Rio Grande Western, it originally had no connection to the mining boom); Rio Grand Southern; Colorado Central; and Uintah Railway.  Some of the spectacular routes engineers carved out of the Rocky Mountains for these enterprises live on today as tourist attractions with names like the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge (D&SNG); Cumbres & Toltec Scenic (C&TS); Royal Gorge Route; Georgetown Loop; and others.

A Brief History Of Colorado's Railroads

The state's involvement with the railroad began just after its 1859 gold rush although had nothing to do with this endeavor.  Instead, it related to the Transcontinental Railroad.  The Union Pacific, formally organized in May, 1863 was heading west from Omaha, Nebraska (where it held its groundbreaking ceremonies on December 1, 1863) with intentions of joining the Central Pacific (building east from Sacramento, California) somewhere near the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.  However, officials opted against building through the fledgling community of Denver, Colorado Territory (it achieved statehood on August 1, 1876).  Instead, the line would be turned north through southern Wyoming.  According to an in-depth analysis Trains Magazine published in its January, 2007 issue entitled, "Great Railroading: State-By-State," Denver's jilted businessmen felt compelled to right this wrong and decided to build their own railroad to meet Union Pacific.  As the book, "All Hail The Denver Pacific: Denver's First Railroad" by author Thomas Noel points out, what was known as the Denver Pacific Railway & Telegraph Company was formally incorporated on November 19, 1867.  Construction began south from the small outpost of Cheyenne in 1869 and reached Evans, Colorado on January 1, 1870.  After less than a year of work the line was completed to Denver (106 miles) on June 26th that same year.  On January 24, 1880 the Denver Pacific merged with the Union Pacific Railway and Kansas Pacific (linking Kansas City with Denver) to form the Union Pacific Railway.

Colorado's involvement with the narrow-gauge railroad began when William Palmer chartered the Denver & Rio Grande Railway on October 27, 1870 to link Denver with El Paso, Texas running along the Front Range in an effort to establish through service into Mexico.  He also envisioned a secondary main line reaching the Central Pacific at Salt Lake City/Ogden.  Finally, with the mining industry growing branches would infiltrate northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado.  The D&RG was the first railroad in America to successfully pioneer the 3-foot gauge concept.  After Palmer went to war with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe for access over New Mexico's Raton Pass and serving the mining boom, tycoon Jay Gould acquired the D&RG.  His efforts abandoned the route towards Texas and instead, sought the other endeavor of reaching Salt Lake City.  This undertaking was eventually realized.  In time, the company became known as the Denver & Rio Grand Western, switched most of its trackage to standard-gauge, and proved to be a vital artery operating through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.  However, as Dr. George Hilton notes in his book, "American Narrow Gauge Railroads," numerous narrow-gauge systems sprang up throughout Colorado to serve the mining industry (to read about all of these enterprises a copy of his in-depth title is a must!).  In his book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," author John Stover notes that mileage peaked in the state at over 5,500 during the 1920's and slowly declined from that point.  Today, the Association of American Railroads notes Colorado currently has 2,452 miles in active service, operated by 10 different railroads

Colorado Train Rides And Railroad Museums, 2018

Please note!  This information related to vacation/tourism destinations-only.  Also, if you are interested in Colorado train rides that pertain to specific events, such as "The Polar Express," Halloween, Thomas the Tank Engine excursions, or fall foliage events please visit the main tourist trains section of this website.

Boardwalk Park Museum

This museum is part of Windsor's historical exhibits related to the area's history.  Part of their collection includes a preserved/restored Greeley, Salt Lake & Pacific Railway (Organized on January 17, 1881, financed by the original Union Pacific Railroad.  Following its bankruptcy, the GSL&P became a part of the Colorado & Southern in 1898, acquired by the growing Chicago, Burlington & Quincy on December 19, 1908.) wooden depot built in 1882, a caboose, and other railroad exhibits to view. Other available exhibits within the greater Boardwalk Park to see include the Eaton House, a schoolhouse, a German-Russian farmhouse, a beet-shanty, and a prayer-meeting house.  The museum is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day each season from Thursday through Sunday (please visit the town's website to find out exact hours of operation).  Admission is free although donations are welcome.

Castle Rock Museum

The Castle Rock Museum is operated by the Castle Rock Historical Society, housed within the town's preserved and restored Denver & Rio Grande stone (rhyolite) depot built in 1875.  The building does not sit at its original location, however, and was moved from its trackside location in 1970.  In 1974 it was placed on the National Register Of Historic Places and Castle Rock's Register Of Local Landmarks in 1994.  According to the historical society, which was formed in 1991 to preserve the structure, it still carries its original interior, ticket window, baggage area, and more than a century "of graffiti on its walls."  There are various exhibits on display and admission is free of charge.  The museum is open year-round although only on select days of the week.  To learn more and plan a visit please visit the society's website.

Colorado Railroad Museum

The Colorado Railroad Museum, based in Golden, is the state's largest such facility which aims to keep alive the state's fascinating railroad history. The organization was formed in 1959 and has grown considerably over that time.  They currently feature two replica depots and preserve thirteen steam locomotives of either standard or narrow-gauge.  A few are operational to host train rides around the grounds (along with other special events during the year).  These include American Oil 0-4-0T #1; Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway 0-4-2 #1 (cog); Union Pacific 0-6-0 #4455; Colorado & North Western 2-8-0 #30 (36-inch); Denver & Rio Grande Western 2-8-0 #318 (36-inch); Denver, South Park & Pacific 2-8-0 #191 (36-inch); Denver & Rio Grande 2-8-0 #683, Denver & Rio Grande Western 2-8-0 #346 (36-inch, operational); Denver & Rio Grande Western 2-8-2 #491 (36-inch, operational); Chicago, Burlington & Quincy 4-8-4 #5629; West Side Lumber 3-truck Shay #14, and West Side Lumber 3-truck Shay #12 (operational).  Other equipment on the grounds include diesel locomotives, rare "Galloping Geese" rail cars operated on the Rio Grande Southern, and several passenger cars.

Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, based in Cripple Creek, Colorado, is another of the state's many narrow-gauge tourist attractions.  It is somewhat unique in that its width is only 2 feet, not the standard 3-feet of most others.  The little railroad has been in operation since the summer of 1967, growing into a popular entertainment venue since that time.  Its operation covers a total of 4 miles, utilizing former segments of two historic narrow-gauge systems; the Midland Terminal Railway and Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad.  They currently have four small steam locomotives on the property, all of various historical stature: 0-4-0 #2 (built by Henschel & Sohn of Germany in 1936), 0-4-0T #3 (H.K. Porter, 1927), 0-4-4-0 #1 (another German-built locomotive, a product of Orenstein & Koppel in 1902), and 0-4-4-0T #4 (a Mallet-type locomotive built by an English firm, W. G. Bagnall, in 1947 for a South African sugar plantation). The CC&VNG operating season is normally from late May through early October.

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is another of Colorado's famous and very popular narrow-gauge excursions, witnessing tens of thousands of visitors annually.  Its heritage interweaves with the nearby Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge as both utilize former sections of Rio Grande's famed 36-inch gauge network in southwestern Colorado.  The creation of the C&TS begins in the 1960's when the D&RGW sought abandonment of this unprofitable trackage which had garnered only lukewarm profits for years.   In its final years the railroad witnessed an increased interest in the property as a tourist attraction, playing host to many excursions.  As a result, the state stepped in and purchased the Durango to Silverton section in 1970.  In addition, together with New Mexico, they also acquired the Antonio - Chama segment, creating today's Cumbres & Toltec Scenic.  The original steam locomotives and all structures can still be found along both preserved sections.  

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

One of the most popular of all Colorado train rides is the marquee Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge which operates the fabled narrow gauge lines of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.  Folks from far and wide have ridden this national treasure which continues to use the same steam locomotives that operated under the D&RGW.  After completing the deal with the Rio Grande in 1970, Colorado received all remaining steam locomotives, freight cars/equipment, and buildings/shops (some of which were donated by the Rio Grande). In total, the D&SNG received eight original Denver & Rio Grande Western steam locomotives while the C&TS picked up nine. Today, nearly all are operational.  Currently, the Durango & Silverton’s passenger trains are pulled by these vintage and authentic narrow gauge steam locomotives that operate over a 45-mile route between Durango and Silverton.  The railroad also hosts special events and trains throughout the operating season that include lunches and barbecues.

Forney Museum Of Transportation

This organization, established in 1961, is located along Brighton Boulevard in Denver with more than 600 transportation-related artifacts.  Their slogan "Anything on Wheels" rings quite true as you can see everything from locomotives and automobiles to airplanes and bicycles.  The museum's locomotives include 0-4-0 #7 (built by Henschel & Sohn o f Germany in 1930), Cora-Texas Plantation 0-4-4T #108 (a 36-inch tank engine built by H.K. Porter in 1897), Chicago & North Western 4-6-0 #444 (built by American Locomotive in 1906 as a Class R-1 "Ten-Wheeler"), and Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" #4005 (manufactured by Alco in October, 1941).  The latter is the group's prized piece and one of the largest steamers ever built.  Their were 25 of these giants constructed in the early 1940's to tackle the stiff grades over the Wasatch Mountains and Wyoming's Sherman Hill.  Today, eight are preserved with one, #4014, owned by Union Pacific. Except major holidays the Forney Museum is open throughout most of the year.

Fort Collins Municipal Railway

Based in Fort Collins, Colorado this tourist train operates on 1.5-mile stretch of the former Denver & Interurban Railroad, an interurban public-transit system that once served the city. The history of the D&I, a subsidiary of the Colorado & Southern, can be traced back to its opening in Fort Collins on December 29, 1907.  This system also operated a much larger network stretching 51 miles from Denver to Boulder which then looped back to former city.  It also maintain a short branch to nearby Eldorado Springs.  Early on the D&I enjoyed some success as few steam railroads served its cities.  However, as the automobile's popularity grew, Dr. George Hilton notes in his book, "The Electric Interurban Railways In America," deficits first appeared in 1920.  As a means of curbing loses, service throughout Fort Collins was suspended on July 10, 1918.  Today, the Fort Collins Municipal Railway operates restored Birney Safety Car #21. They normally run on weekends and host special excursions throughout the year.

Galloping Goose #5

This uniquely restored, historic rail car was returned to operating condition in 1998. It now offers rides on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic and Durango & Silverton during select times of the year.

Georgetown Loop Railroad

The narrow-gauge Georgetown Loop Railroad (maintained by the Colorado Historical Society as the Georgetown Loop Historic Mining & Railroad Park) operates a 2-mile segment of the former Colorado Central Railroad's narrow-gauge (36-inch) trackage between Georgetown and Silver Plume.  Its heritage can be traced back to 1881 as a subsidiary known as the Georgetown, Breckenridge & Leadville Railroad to serve thriving silver mines in the area.  The Colorado Central was a far-reaching endeavor envisioned by William A.H. Loveland to build a standard-gauge main line from Golden to Hazard, near Cheyenne, Wyoming.  The narrow-gauge lines would subsequently serve the aforementioned mining but due to the very rugged nature of the topography in the Clear Creek area engineers had to devise some incredible design features to maintain manageable grades including horseshoe curves, 4% grades, and four bridges across Clear Creek, and the Devil’s Gate High Bridge.  This structure rose 95-feet over the gorge and is the Georgetown Loop's featured attraction today.

Hugo Roundhouse Preservation, Inc.

This group's goal is to preserve and restore the Union Pacific's former roundhouse in Hugo, Colorado. They eventually plan to open a museum on the grounds.  To learn more about their efforts please visit their website

Limon Heritage Museum & Railroad Park 

Located in the town of Limon this museum is housed within the preserved Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific and Union Pacific union depot built in 1910.  Originally constructed from wood it was later modernized in 1936 and is currently listed on the National Register Of Historic Places.  While the latter railroad served much of eastern Colorado and directly reached Denver, the former was somewhat of an outlier.  It also enjoyed service to Denver and Colorado Springs (which split at Limon) but only via a single main line running west across Kansas.  According to the museum they currently feature several displays along with a Union Pacific caboose and boxcar dating from the 1890's.  While there also be sure to see other exhibits on display such as lunch counter-diner, sheep wagons, a Cheyenne tipi,working chuck wagon, and a one-room schoolhouse.  Their open season runs from Memorial through Labor Day.

Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad

The Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad is based in the historic mining town of Leadville (also known as the "the highest incorporated city in North America") and takes passengers through the spectacular Rocky Mountains on a 2.5 hour trips, which depart from the town's restored Denver, South Park & Pacific (Colorado & Southern) brick/stone depot constructed in 1883.  The DSP&P grew into the second-largest narrow-gauge railroad throughout the Rocky Mountains with a network that wound its way some 340 miles from Denver to Gunnison and Leadville along with various branches.  The DSP&P, also knwon as the "South Park Line," was incorporated on October 2, 1872, and remained profitable until about 1883.  It was reorganized as the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison Railway in August, 1889 at which time it came under Union Pacific's control.  Following UP's bankruptcy on October 13, 1893 the property became a part of the new Colorado & Southern in 1898, which itself came under Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's control in 1908.  Most of the DSP&P was abandoned over the years except for very short segments, such as the LC&S's 10.5 miles which allows for 21 mile round trips.  The tourist line utilizes a diesel, GP9 #1714 painted in LC&S colors, to pull its trains although there is a preserved steam locomotive on display, Colorado & Southern 2-8-0 #641 (built by Alco's Brooks Works in 1906).

Manitou & Pike’s Peak Railway

Arguably the most unique of all Colorado train rides, this cog railway operates up Pike's Peak, along a line that covers nearly 9 miles and hosts trips which last over 3 hours. While this isn't a traditional tourist train it's tough to find one that affords such spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and countryside.  By the 1880s with tourism to Pike's Peak and the surrounding mountains already well-established the first attempt at constructing a railroad to the summit for visitors was chartered in 1884. It was to use standard adhesion to scale the mountain with a ruling grade of 5% and switchbacks to keep grades as manageable as possible. While some grading was completed the plan stalled due to money issues. So, a cheaper alternative was decided upon by building a plain dirt road for wagons up the slope. Before this latest plan could be completed Zalmon Simmons rode a mule to the top of the famed summit and was so awestruck by the beauty that he firmly believed it should be available for the general public to see and experience. Realizing that a railroad would be the best and most efficient means of transporting guests to the top of Pike's Peak, and with resources already available, Simmons founded the Pike's Peak & Manitou Railway in 1888.  In 1889 the road was renamed as the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway and began construction within the year.  In 1890 the M&PP was opened about half way to the appropriately named Halfway House Hotel and by 1891 the route was completed to the Pike's Peak summit at 14,115 feet, 8.9 miles from Manitou.

Museum of Northwest Colorado

This museum is located in Craig and, as its name suggests, focuses on the history of northwest Colorado.  Most of their collection focuses on subjects not related to the railroad.  However, some noteworthy displays in this regard include a small model layout based on David Moffat's Denver & Salt Lake Railway as well as his private business car, named for daughter, Marcia.  It has been beautifully restored and is available for tours.  Moffat's D&SL began in 1902 to build a secondary route from Denver to Salt Lake City.  However, he ran out of money in 1913 having only reached Craig, Colorado.  According to Mike Schafer's took, "Classic American Railroads," part of the D&SL crossed 11,680-foot Rollins Pass.  It was situated somewhat northwest of Denver and was only surmounted via a series of tortuous switchbacks, carrying grades as high as 4%.  So difficult was this stretch that 23 miles of railroad were required to connect two points just 8 miles apart.   To improve operations the city agreed in 1922 to help fund a new tunnel under James Peak.  Following six years of work the $18 million project was completed in 1928 and named for D&SL's founder.  Moffat Tunnel was 6.1 miles in length and reduced the trip from hours to a mere 15 minutes.  After the Rio Grande gained control it completed a short connector in 1934 known as the Dotsero Cutoff which ran from D&SL at Bond to D&RGW's Tennessee Pass main line at Dotsero.   This essentially completed Rio Grande's modern network which contained 2,569 route miles (including standard, narrow, and third-rail gauge).  Alas, with the ongoing depression and lingering monetary troubles another bankruptcy occurred on November 1, 1935.

Platte Valley Trolley

The Platte Valley Trolley operates from mid-April through the end of October every weekend using trolley cars along a route that allows for about a 25-minute ride.  This heritage streetcar system is maintained by the Denver Tramway Heritage Society and was inaugurated on July 4, 1989.

Pueblo Railway Museum

The Pueblo Railway Museum is based in Pueblo, Colorado and one of the state's growing such facilities. Its home is next to the beautifully restored Pueblo Union Depot, a large three-story stone building that opened in 1890, originally used by the Denver & Rio Grande Western, Missouri Pacific, Colorado & Southern, and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe.  The museum's featured displays are located outdoors on its storage tracks.  It houses one notable steam locomotive, Santa Fe 4-8-4 #2912, a late-era design manufactured by Baldwin in 1944.  In addition, there are several diesels on the property including Colorado Fuel & Iron 25-tonner #11 (General Electric), Fibreboard Products 44-tonner #1 (General Electric), Department of Transportation U30C #001, and three Chicago & North Western GP7's (#102-104, built in 1951, they are fully operational). In addition to these locomotives the group also maintains a fleet of preserved freight and passenger cars.  Admission is free.

Ridgway Railroad Museum

The Ridgway Railroad Museum, based in Ridgway, Colorado, states its primary mission is to preserve the railroad heritage of Ouray County. Along with its collection of mostly narrow-gauge equipment the museum also offers excursion train rides on its grounds.  The group does not have a steam or diesel locomotive preserved within its collection but does house one of the rare "Galloping Geese" operated by the Rio Grande Southern (RGS).  This railroad was one of Colorado's largest and most interesting narrow-gauge networks.  It was the last endeavor built to serve the mining boom within the San Juan Mountains, running from a connection with the Rio Grande at Ridgway to a Durango, utilizing a network that formed a rough "C."  By the 19th century's the D&RG carried full control of the system.  Much of it was abandoned and dismantled between August and September of 1952. While there is no restored depot on the grounds they do feature an RGS outhouse/coal storage building (the Denver & Rio Grande's depot in Ridgway is preserved albeit is currently a private residence). The museum is open only during the summer months from June 1st through September 30th.  To learn more and plan a visit please visit their website.

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

One of the newest Colorado train rides is the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad based in Alamosa and has been operating since 2006. The railroad utilizes former-Rio Grande trackage and connects with the popular narrow-gauge tourist line, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic at its southern terminus of Chama, New Mexico.  The railroad has garnered quite a following due to the stunning stunning scenery of southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  For power they emplos two steam locomotives, 2-6-0 #1744 (built for the Southern Pacific by Baldwin in 1901) and 2-8-0 Consolidation, #18 (manufactured by American Locomotive's Pittsburgh Works in 1910).  They also own a sister to #18, #20 (built by the Pittsburgh Works in 1910) as well as 2-truck Heisler #3 (built for Craig Mt. Lumber in 1917) and Great Lakes Carbon Corporation (US Navy) 0-4-0F #7 (a product of H.K. Porter, outshopped in June, 1941). Along with its steam fleet the railroad also retains a small operational fleet of General Electric B39-8E diesels, which are the true workhorses of the operation when their services are needed.

Royal Gorge Route Railroad

In what many would argue is the most breathtaking of all Colorado train rides, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad operates part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western’s trackage through this stunning natural wonder.  It also near other very popular lines like the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, and Durango & Silverton Narrow-gauge the Royal Gorge Route operates 24 miles of Rio Grande’s legendary "Royal George Route," departing daily from Cañon City, Colorado (it should be noted that the railroad is one of the few in the state to operate year-round). The Royal Gorge Route Railroad was created in 1998 after Union Pacific decided to sell 12 miles of the pass through the Royal Gorge although the Class I railroad continues to own the rest of the dormant route. While the river and gorge remain the top reason folks continually return to ride the train its notable design feature is the hanging bridge constructed by the Santa Fe. The structure uses angled supports anchored to each side of the canyon walls to sustain the bridge's weight over the river. It is a fascinating design that remains the keynote feature of the route (even during the Rio Grande's days, photographers tried to catch trains crossing the bridge). Today, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad offers guests a variety of adventures from cab rides and group charters to several different trains. For instance, they host special trains throughout the year, particular during the holidays including the Santa Express Train, Easter Bunny Special, and Oktoberfest. Additionally, they offer passengers several accommodation options from standard coach to Vista Dome service and gourmet lunch and dinner trains. On top of all of this the train is bedecked in classic Rio Grande orange, silver, and black featuring the railroad's classic speed lettering. One thing is for sure, a trip aboard the Royal Gorge Route Railroad is something to remember!

Tiny Town Railroad

The Tiny Town is located in Morrison offering scale-train rides using authentic, miniature steam locomotives.  This attraction is somewhat unique in that the railroad operates through an entire, scale town, complete with every store and building one could of!  Its history can actually be traced back over a century when George Turner built the "town" of "Turnerville" as an entertainment venue for his daughter in 1915.  Just five years later it had garnered so much interest it opened to the public.  By 1924 it contained some 125 buildings with roughly 20,000 visitors making the trek each year to see the the town!  Since that time it has had boom and bust periods although its modern era can be traced back to 1987 of what by then was known as "Tiny Town" was underway.  By 1989 more than 60,000 folks were visiting the site annually, a number that has grown considerably since that time.  Admission to the town is required with an operating season lasting from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

More On Colorado Train Rides And Railroad Museums

If you would like to learn more about Colorado train rides and railroad museums, Kalmbach Publishing/Trains Magazine releases their Tourist Trains Guidebook each year, which highlights most such destinations throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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