Bagging Peaks by Train in the Colorado Rockies

Durango Train Embankment
The Durango train rounds a bend as it begins ascending into the mountains. Photo by Jack Bohannan.

We board the Durango train late, later than is comfortable, because trains keep tight schedules. They will leave without you.

The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge is an 1890’s style coal burning steam train. My wife and I are using it to access the backcountry near Silverton, Colorado high in the mountains of the southwestern US. The train runs all the way to Silverton, but also lets passengers off and then picks up a few days later, allowing outdoors enthusiasts to fish the Animas River, camp or backpack even further in, like we’ll be doing.

I’ve been here before. We’re essentially making another pilgrimage. Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak are about 7 miles and several thousand feet of elevation gain from Elk Park, where the train drops us off. The ride saves us the 36 switchbacks we would have subjected ourselves to if we had elected to park at Molas Pass and descend. The last time we were here, we counted every one of those 36, and then counted them again on the way out as we gained 2,000+ feet of elevation.

The time the ride saves us is good. The last time we attempted Arrow Peak we were denied by the cold and repeated trouble connecting with the trail along Vestal Creek. We’re hoping for better luck now.

The train jostles along the tracks out of Durango and into the lower mountains. The engine nearly brushes the rock walls, many of which were dynamited extensively to make space during construction in the 1880’s. Its narrow track width allowed passage to mining encampments where standard width trains would have had difficulty.

The river is accessed at several points to give the train the water it needs to make steam along the climb to Silverton. As we chuff and whistle into the hills, the locomotive lets off sudden geysers of thick steam, purging itself of river sediment that could create wear on the engine. Coal cinders gently rain down outside between the covered cars. We pass close by the river, then high above it and back again.
The turquoise water is nearly ice cold, having been snow pack just hours earlier.

Arrow from Beaver Ponds
Arrow Peak as seen from the Beaver Ponds. Photo by Jack Bohannan

We’re dropped off along with a group of preteen backpackers and their guide, wearing a Telluride Academy t-shirt. What a field trip! I speak with the guide to clarify the situation with the trail – we follow an initial section different than the one from the pass – and he asks where we’re headed. The kids are hiking in the same direction as our route to the peak, but stopping at the prime camping spots near the beaver ponds.

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