The Vacation Express: Tracking Down Colorado’s Best Train Routes

Published on: June 25th, 2018

June is now officially upon us, and that means it’s time to start getting those summer vacays planned! While the temptation to book an exotic beach getaway may be palpable, let’s not forget about all the outstanding, more under the radar options available to us right here in Colorado. So this year, instead of taking to the sky, try riding the rails and keep it local…or more specifically, local-motive…by checking out some of our state’s best train-centric vacation options. (Honestly, that was the least painful of the train puns I came up with, so count your blessings.)

In all seriousness, these awesome rail based journeys offer lots of fun filled activities for just about every type of traveler. So whether you’re looking to hit the trails, strike it rich in the casinos, or just want to live out your own personal Westworld style fantasy (minus the creepy robot sex), there’s a train holiday option with your name on it. As an added bonus, none of these carefully selected vacation destinations require you to prep your beach bod, so pack your bindle, strap on those overalls, and hop aboard the next boxcar headed out of town. Next stop, summer fun!


Rio Grande Scenic Railroad—Alamosa, CO

The Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges in southern Colorado feature some of the most ruggedly beautiful vistas in the whole country, and there’s no better way to take in all of the stunning views and natural wildlife that the region has to offer than by riding the historic Rio Grande Scenic Railroad through the famed La Veta Pass.

Completed in 1878, the railroad, which travels from Alamosa to Fort Garland was originally used for transporting ore, lumber and cattle, but today passengers aboard “La Veta Mountaineer” can enjoy the creature comforts of first-class, air-conditioned cars, and a delectable lunch menu as they traverse the region’s steep mountain passes and lush, elk filled meadows, on a ride that USA Today ranked as one of their Top Ten in the country.

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad also offers a number of special events for you to plan your trip around. There’s a regular concert series set in a natural meadow amphitheater, as well as annual boozy happenings including a Local Wine Tasting (Sat. August 11) and the wildly popular Rails & Ales Craft Brewfest (June 16th), featuring over 40 local breweries to please even the most persnickety of beer nerds.

Located in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is a historic mining town that’s only a short drive away from a number of scenic day trips. Most famous among them is Great Sand Dunes National Park. Featuring a sprawling 30 square mile sand dune field encircled by the craggy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the park offers plenty of opportunities for visitors to camp, hike and even sandboard down the dunes if you didn’t get enough time on the slopes this past ski season.

Zapata Falls should also be on any Alamosa visitor’s short list of must see attractions. Boasting four miles of well-marked hiking and mountain bike trails, dramatic waterfalls, and a breathtaking view of the sand dunes, Zapata Falls is an ideal destination for the outdoor lover in the area that wants to see the Dunes National Park from a distance where they don’t have to worry about dealing with finding sand in their shoes and bodily orifices for the next week or so. Am I the only one that has this issue?

The Alamosa region also features some of the best geothermal hot springs in the state. Check them out for yourself at any of these great locations.

Splashland

Located just a mile North of Alamosa and in operation since the 50s, the outdoor geothermal swimming pool at Splashland is now fully modernized and better than ever!  Complete with waterslides, lap lanes, and even a concession stand, the pool is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. Just make sure you remember to wait 30 minutes before getting in the water if you hit up those concessions

Joyful Journey

If you’re more of the holistic, yoga, Erykah Badu type, then head 45 min out of town to the northern end of the San Luis Valley and visit the serene surroundings of Joyful Journey Hot Springs. The spa’s three pools, breathtaking panoramas, and massage therapists have made it a popular retreat, where the granola eaters amongst us can really recenter themselves and channel their chi or whatever

Valley View

The most natural of the area’s hot springs, Valley View’s pools are made of river rocks and are actually situated within the river itself. Plus, there’s a chlorine free swimming pool, hot tubs, and sauna. You should also be warned that the entire hot springs is clothing optional. Yeah, it’s a real Garden of Eden vibe over there. Now this could make the springs even hotter, but is it just me, or are nudists rarely the type of people you want to see naked?


Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad—Durango, CO

The 45-mile railway connecting the historic towns of Durango and Silverton has been in continuous operation for an impressive 130 years! The route, which was originally used as means of transporting miners is now an officially registered Historic Landmark according to the National Park Service, and today, travelers can ride their way through the lush San Juan Forest, alongside the Animas River, experiencing the journey just as the miners did over a century ago…minus all the black lung of course.

For your journey, there are four distinct seating options, ranging from the bare bones basic ticket all the way up to the downright luxurious Presidential Class ticket (21 and over) complete with a Victorian era parlor room, and a private outdoor observation deck.

There are also a number of ways you can make the journey extra special. For starters you could book a ticket aboard one of the train’s regular historically narrated journeys. But if costumed history enthusiasts aren’t your thing, then you should consider looking into the railroad’s annual Brew Train (Sep. 1, 29), Wine and Rails (Sep. 2, 30) event, or T-Rex Express dinosaur themed trip for the kids (Jun. 16,17, 23, 24).

Durango itself offers historic hotels, award-winning restaurants, shopping and plenty of watering holes, including six craft breweries, because miners loved IPAs. Always a bustling little town, Durango also hosts its fare share of events and festivals including the popular Durango Fiesta Days (July 23-29) which includes a rodeo, parade, cook-off and plenty of other Durango-centric activities.

One of the best things about this quaint mountain community is its proximity to some of the most stunning natural beauty in the state. Visitors are only a short drive away from the San Juan Forest and Mesa Verde National Park, which feature hundreds of miles of hiking and biking paths, daring rock climbing opportunities, and secluded fly fishing streams. So whether you’re a hiker, camper, biker, fisher, rafter, climber, or drinker Durango has you covered this summer.

History minded travelers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to take an archaeological themed day trip to one of the area’s nearby UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Mesa Verde National Park

With over 4,700 archaeological sites dating back to 650 A.D open and many more still to be uncovered, Mesa Verde is rich with the history left behind by Ancestral Puebloans. We strongly recommend checking out the ceremonial Sun Temple and the incredible masonry of the villages in the Far View Sites Complex.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Just across the border in northwestern New Mexico, Aztec National Monument features a half-mile trail through Pueblo Ruins, preserved pueblo dwellings and a carefully reconstructed Kiva, the ceremonial heart of a pueblo community.

Chaco Canyon

Also in the northwest corner of New Mexico, Chaco is a ten-mile high desert canyon that can only be reached by dirt roads. Native inhabitants of this unforgiving area built massive four to five story buildings with up 700 rooms. Thousands of visitors a year make the trek to Chaco to see the well maintained, excavated great houses, and the famous Sun Dagger used to mark the cycles of the sun.


Royal Gorge Route Railroad—Canon City, CO

Located in the central part of the state, Royal Gorge Route Railroad is a journey so scenic that Teddy Roosevelt once described it as “the trip that bankrupts the English language!” The ride, which leaves daily, not only offers up unsurpassed scenery, but it also features top-notch service, and impeccably prepared, locally sourced food.

There are plenty of options to make the trip extra special as well.  For example, you could embrace your inner sommelier by trying out their Five Course Wine Meal (Aug. 21), or if you’re more into Agatha Christie than fermented grapes, check out one of their Murder Mystery Train Rides for some grade-A dinner theater.

While the Royal Gorge Railroad will definitely be spectacular, the real reward of reaching your final destination may be even better. Cañon City is the third oldest city in Colorado and sits in a natural mountain bowl nestled alongside the Arkansas River. Despite increased tourism, and plenty to offer in terms of restaurants, antique shops and museums, Cañon City has still managed to maintain its quaint small town feel. While in town, we particularly recommend checking out the thriving art scene at either the Fremont Center for the Arts, the Artist’s Gallery or Backyard Carvings by Audrey.

Given Canon City’s proximity to the river, Pike-San Isabel National Forest, and The Royal Gorge, the area is a haven for rafters, campers, and just about every other variety of outdoor enthusiast. Families should try out the Royal Gorge Tunnel Drive, a beautiful, but easy 2-mile, and entirely flat hike with great views of the river and tunnels carved through rock that’s nearly 2 billion years old.

But if your looking to combine unparalleled natural beauty with adrenaline pumping rides and attractions, then Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is a must visit. In addition to being home to one of the highest suspension bridges in the world, the park also boasts America’s highest zip-line, aerial gondolas, and the truly exhilarating Royal Rush Skycoaster, only for the park’s bravest visitors.

The Arkansas River features some of the best white water rafting opportunities in the country. Try your hand at taming the rapids with one of the experienced guides at…

Whitewater Adventure Outfitters:
(719) 275-5344

Arkansas River Tours:
(800) 321- 4352

Echo Canyon River Expeditions: (800) 755-3246

Royal Gorge Festival: June 22-23

If you want to compete with other skilled rafters, look on as others take on the rapids, or just enjoy some live music and other great events on dry land, then you don’t want to miss the 10th Annual Royal Gorge Festival at White Water Park.


Georgetown Loop Railroad—Georgetown, CO

Located 45 minutes outside of Denver, the Georgetown Loop Railroad is the perfect option for city dwellers looking to escape the hustle and bustle of modern living by stepping back in time for a Victorian era getaway. This summer, riders can choose between coach and parlor class cars while they traverse the same set of rails used by silver miners in the 1870s, and if that’s not enough of a time warp for you, passengers can also choose to add on a silver mine tour or a gold panning expedition to their journey. But for an even more immersive, wild west experience you’re going to want to sign up for a trip during the Buffalo Bill Daze, a two-day extravaganza (August 25-26) with wild west style performances, BBQ, and of course some good old fashioned, old-timey face painting. People don’t realize how much face painting happened in the 1800s.

Once in Georgetown, visitors will find themselves in one of the best preserved and downright cutest little towns in the state. Full of history, Georgetown has a number museums, and is also home to a thriving literary community, holding their annual IndieCon independent literature festival June 6-8.

For those more interested in nature than the written word, we recommend trying your hand at trout fishing on Georgetown Lake, or tearing up the trails on a mountain ATV tour.

If you’re a cyclist, mark July 14th down on your calendar as you won’t want to miss Georgetown’s famed Triple Bypass Race. Started in 1988 this challenging charity  ride takes bikers through some of the most scenic mountain passes in the country as they pedal their way from Evergreen to Vail, where they will finally dismount their steed and enjoy a well-deserved feast with their fellow riders.

If you’re not sure you can handle the full race, but still want to show off your skin tight speed suit and get in on the action, then you can try signing up for two of the shorter courses they are offering. Whatever the case, make sure you sign up ASAP at triplebypass.org.


The Southern Railroad—Leadville, CO

The historic Southern Railroad is less than an hour to the southwest of Denver, but considering its access to untouched, natural panoramas, it may as well be on the other side of the globe. The ride is an open-air ,two-and-a-half-hour adventure through the San Isabel National Forest. Riders will soak in majestic views of the two tallest peaks in the state while being filled in on the captivating history of the railroad, and the region as a whole.

In terms of unique experiences, the railroad offers special Devil Trail’s BBQ trips on July 7th and August 31st, which should be perfect for those that fall into the center of the meat lovers and old timey train enthusiasts Venn Diagram. Wild Flower Tours on July 21st, July 28th, and August 4th will guide riders on a short hike, allowing them to see a wide array of the region’s flora and fauna, up close and personal. So remember to pack appropriate shoes.

Leadville is a tiny town, but in terms of character, and quality of recreational activities available, it holds its own against any of the bigger tourist destinations in the state. There are plenty of dining options, museums, and even the Mining Hall of Fame, where you can see the best of the best to ever pick up a pick-axe and don one of those hard hats with the lights on them.

Just 15 minutes outside of town, travelers can go kayaking, or fishing in the gorgeous Twin Lakes. There, they can even check out the the historic remains of Interlaken Resort, which was once considered to be the most beautiful resort in Colorado during the late 19th century. Those that want to be outdoors, should consider taking their 4 wheel drive vehicle up Mosquito Pass or Hagerman Pass for an awesome off road experience.

There are few better ways to experience the untouched beauty of the Rockies than by gliding above their vast canyon, and lush pine forests. See for yourself by booking a trip with Top of the Rockies Zip Line! With over 8000 feet of zipline, Top of the Rockies offers you three separate tours: a basic 2-hour Prospector tour, a 2-hour tour with lunch, and a deluxe 5-hour tour with train ride that also covers your ticket from Leadville on the Southern Railroad! Head to www.topoftherockieszipline.com for more info on booking!


Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad—Cripple Creek, CO

Just west of Colorado Springs sits the famed mining, and gambling town of Cripple Creek, which also functions as the starting point of the Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. Narrow Gauge is a preserved historic route with stunning views of Pikes Peak that takes travelers south from Cripple Creek past Midland Terminal Wye and many historic mines all the way to the abandoned mining camp of Anaconda, before heading back to town. The short 45 minute trip also features informative narration regarding the area’s gold mining past, and a truly scenic locations for photo opportunities.

As for the town, Cripple Creek is one of the most dynamic tourist stops in the state. Even though it’s probably best known for its casinos, there are lots of other activities to keep travelers busy who don’t feel like risking it all. We strongly recommend taking in a show at the century old Butte Theater, or learning about some of the famous outlaws who have passed through town at the Cripple Creek Jail Museum.

With its nine unique casinos and highest recorded casino paybacks in the state, Cripple Creek is a great place to win it big! And with its 24/7 cocktail service, it’s not a bad place to forget about how you lost it all.

 

Bronco Billys Casino

(719) 689 2142

See why Bronco Billy’s was named “Best Casino” in the state multiple times by the Colorado Springs Gazette by trying your hand at their bounty of slots and table games, or just stop by for their live music and juicy steaks!

Century Casino
(719) 689 0333

With budget conscious penny slots alongside the latest models of fancy poker machines, Century Casino offers no shortage of ways to win. Serious gamblers can join the Players Club to earn free play, food, and lodging!

Johnny Nolons Saloon
and Gambling Emporium

Founded back in 1891 by a former Pony Express rider, Johnny Nolon’s has without a doubt the best name of any of Cripple Creek’s gambling establishments. Beyond the name, they offer a full selection of slots, friendly service and 24 hour-a-day dining.


Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad—Antonito, CO to Chama, NM

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad was voted the best scenic railroad trip in the whole country by USA Today, and for good reason, as this old-school, coal-fired steam engine takes travelers on a 64 mile journey traversing steep mountain inclines, high deserts, and verdant meadows before reaching the train’s terminus. The sheer natural splendor and diversity of landscapes on this trip can’t be overstated. From the Labato Sheep Ranch, with its rolling hills, and abundance of wildlife including deer, bears, and elk, to the jagged rocky walls of Toltec Gorge, this trip really manages to capture the full spectrum of the region’s landscapes.

Trains leave daily from each station and meet in the middle at Osier, CO for a hearty buffet style lunch. Other than the complimentary meal, and top of the line passenger cars the ride itself offers little in the way of frills and showmanship, allowing the rider to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The region offers no shortage of outdoor activities, with plenty of opportunities for hiking, camping and swimming. While in the San Luis Valley one shouldn’t pass up a chance to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park as it boasts the highest sand dunes in the country and is home to a unique set of wildlife including bobcats, mule deer, and kangaroo rats. On the other side of the New Mexico border adventurers should look into some of the great rock climbing and horse riding options available in the stunning Chama Valley.

A Sea of Sand

Great Sand Dunes National Park is an environment like none other in our state, and there are plenty of ways to get out and enjoy this natural wonder.

Sandboarding

If you’re an avid skier who just can’t stand not being on the slopes, rent a sandboard from one of the local sporting goods retailers in the area, and start carving up those dunes!

Fat Biking

The dunes themselves are off limits for mechanized vehicles, and completely impractical for most bikes, however “fat bikes” with extra wide, sand ready tires are perfect for pedaling your way through the park. The Medano Pass Primitive Road, with its sand sections, creeks and rocky paths should be a fun challenge for an avid mountain biker.

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