The best routes for scenery, families or a day trip

Time travel may not be a thing. But taking a trip on one of Colorado’s legendary railroads gets you a hell of a lot closer. Train tracks wind their way up the mountainside, showing the same views that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write “America the Beautiful” at the turn of the 20th century. They connect legendary mining towns in the Rocky Mountains and, for the sake of drama, trace the rim of Toltec Gorge just south of the Colorado border amid remarkable scenery that has lured Hollywood filmmakers for decades.

Full speed ahead for four of Colorado’s iconic train trips that are the perfect speed for summer.

From left, Denver’s Olivia Espinoza smiles at visiting Shannon Foy and Shreya Patel, visiting from Texas, as they take photos during the Georgetown Loop Railroad ride on Oct. 31, 2021. (Rachel Woolf, Denver Post Special)

Best Day Trip: Georgetown Loop Railroad

With Victorian architecture and the occasional train whistle as a soundtrack, Georgetown is a small town full of charm. But did you know that in the 1800s, this mountain town 45 minutes west of Denver was known as the “Silver Queen of Colorado” and was the third largest city in the state? Today, the Georgetown Loop connects two of the state’s famous mining towns, Georgetown and Silver Plume, and you can admire the sites on a round-trip narrow-gauge steam train ride.

“Those who have never seen a steam engine in operation will be amazed at how impressive these locomotives are, using 19th century technology to pull a heavy train up a steep mountain,” said Mark Graybill, president and director General of the Georgetown Loop. “Unlike today’s locomotives, each engine feels almost human, with its own personality.” It’s almost as if you can hear them breathing, letting out big sighs after working hard, he says.

Complete your trip by adding a mining and gold panning tour, and grab a cocktail at the Bread Bar at Silver Plume, which is housed in an 1800s bakery and names its cocktails after local mining legends.

  • Duration: About 75 mins
  • Cost: Tickets start at $24.95 for kids ages 3-15 and $30.95 for everyone else. Children 2 and under travel free.
  • Information: georgetownlooprr.com
David Esposito takes photos of the...
David Esposito takes photos of the scenery as he heads to the top of Pikes Peak on The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway on May 16, 2021. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Best Scenery: Broadmoor Manitou Cog Railway and Pikes Peak

In the late 1800s, tourists eager to see the view from the top of Pikes Peak made the trip by mule. But Zalmon Simmons (the founder of what became Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Co.) came up with the idea of ​​designing a more comfortable ride up the 14,115-foot mountain. In 1889 construction of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway began. One of Pikes Peak’s first passengers was Katharine Lee Bates, who would conclude that “all the wonders of America seemed to be on display there”, leading her to write “America the Beautiful”.

The cog railway was recently closed for three years so workers could rebuild and upgrade the 9 miles of track that gain 7,795 feet in elevation. In 2021, the railway reopened, coinciding with its 130th year. Aboard gleaming red Swiss-designed wagons, passengers embark on a journey from the Manitou depot to the summit of Pikes Peak, where they can step out and enjoy those awe-inspiring summit views as well as the new Summit House.

Along the way, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, foxes, and marmots, and marvel at the 2,000-year-old Bristlecone pines that dot the route. If you want a little more adventure, arrange to get on the train and then descend on Barr Trail.

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Cost: Tickets start at $48.50 for children up to 12 years old and $58.50 for everyone else.
  • Information: cograilway.com
The Cumbres & Toltec train travels through isolated terrain around the Colorado-New Mexico border and climbs 10,200 feet at Cumbres Pass.  (Provided by Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad)
The Cumbres & Toltec train travels through isolated terrain along the Colorado-New Mexico border and climbs 10,200 feet at Cumbres Pass. (Provided by Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad)

Best for Movie Buffs: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has appeared in over 40 films and is perhaps best known for the circus animal scenes in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. The railroad also received a lot of airtime in the Jay Z produced film “The Harder They Fall” and the recent film “Hostiles”.

Running coal-fired steam locomotives from Antonito as well as Chama, NM, the railroad follows 64 miles of track first laid in 1880 that zigzags, crossing 11 times between Colorado and New Mexico. The train hugs canyon walls through the 600-foot-deep Toltec Gorge, digs tunnels, and crosses Cascade Trestle (137 feet above a stream). It also climbs to the top of the 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass, which is the highest point reached by a steam railway in North America.

You have plenty of train travel options, but this year the 168 Dinner Train and 168 Brunch Train offer a ride on a museum-worthy historic train in all its Victorian glory.

  • Duration: Multiple trips, ranging from express rides to full-day excursions.
  • Cost: Fares start at $25 for children 2-5 years old, $45 for children 6-12 years old, and $90 for everyone else.
  • Information: www.cumbrestoltec.com
Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad trains.
Engines of the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad remind many children of the “Thomas the Tank Engine” characters. Well-behaved dogs are allowed on this route through the former mining area. (Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad)

Great for the whole family (Fido too): Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad

The railroad uses three coal-fired narrow-gauge locomotives during the summer season, but the one the kids especially love is the blue and red No. 2 engine that looks like a real Thomas from “Thomas the Tank Engine.”

Lots of ground is covered during this 45-minute route that goes south of Cripple Creek, passing Midland Terminal Wye on a reconstructed trestle and historic mines, including the deserted Anaconda mining camp. Legend has it that the mine was so rich that the ore was extracted by team of oxen.

The train cars are mostly outdoors and well-behaved dogs are allowed to join the 4-mile ride.

  • Duration: 45 minutes
  • Cost: Tickets are $12 for children ages 3-12, $15 for seniors over 65, free for children 2 or younger, and $17 for everyone else.
  • Information: cripplecreekrailroad.com

Of course, these aren’t the only popular train rides in the state. We also love to ride the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Leadville Railroad, and Colorado Railroad Museum. Some of these railways also offer lunch and dinner rides and special excursions with music and photography guidance.

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