Durango to Silverton – steam trains and snowballs

Thursday 6th October.
It is a well know secret that we love train journeys, especially if it involves a steam engine and a trip through lovely scenery. I get very excited as we park up at the station to see some cars covered in snow.

” There’s been a blizzard in the mountains round Silverton”, we are told. 

We board our vintage carriage hoping that we are not underdressed for the few hours we have in the old mountain mining town.

Durango got its name when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad ( D&RGW) decided that a railway to the isolated mining centre at Silverton would help getting the valuable gold and silver out of the hills. As the road improved and mining slowed down the railway and Silverton itself fell into decline and was threatened with closure. It was the arrival of a burgeoning film industry and an unknown film star, Marilyn Monroe, who starred in ” A Ticket to Tomahawk” that saved the line. As tourism boomed the line was improved, long neglected rails and equipment were restored and the fine heritage line has indeed become a magnet for a quarter of a million or more visitors a year.

The narrow gauge steam train sets off with blasts from the whistle that are so evocative of all those old films and my early childhood when my family would ride the Blue Train to the South of France in the days of steam. 

The train is pulled at a crawling pace up a steady incline that follows the river gorge through forest that is turning more autumnal as we gain height.

We pass the scene of the famous film moment when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid make a plunge into a canyon river 

Butch: I’ll jump first

Sundance: Nope

Butch: Then you jump first

Sundance: No I said!

Butch: What’s the matter with you?

Sundance: I can’t swim!

Butch: (laughing) Why you crazy *******, the fall’ll probably kill ya.

At this point and at several others the train passes inches from the steep ravine and the river torrent hundreds of feet below.

We are on the lookout for bears and elk or moose but see none today. The passing scenery is mesmerising however and we are left wondering about how it was possible to build and maintain such a railway in the 1880’s and the pioneering spirit that would see such a vision through with the limited technology at hand.

We arrive in Silverton to bright blue skies. The blizzard has passed but left the surrounding mountains covered in a thin layer of snow and I find enough lying in a North facing station wagon to make a couple of snowballs with which to pepper Marilyn.

A steam train AND snowballs. What more could a man want!

We take an hour or so after an American lunch to walk around the old town. With a population of just 637 it has four impressive looking churches all of which can see each other’s spires. Perhaps folk here go on a church crawl to pass their Sundays. That would be before or after their visit to the several brothels that sprang up in the shadows of the church spires. They must have been interesting times in these mountain mine towns and times would not have changed much from the 1880′ s through to the 1950’s when tourism sanitised the place and brought a different kind of prosperity.

We get a return journey and arrive back in Durango as the sun begins to go down. We have time for a brief visit to the excellent railway and heritage museum before enjoying a delicious meal at ‘Ken and Sue’s’ – a restaurant I would recommend.

And then it’s back to the ranch, bed and the circling Coyotes.

Lake Powell



Monday 26th – We have left before the Cowgirl has risen this morning. We are heading back on the main Route 89 to Page on Lake Powell with the intention of maybe taking a short boat ride on the Lake.

The landscape along the route is again different to anything we have seen. Rock formations that look like teeth in a skull, huge clay lumps and rock that looks like pumice line the Route until suddenly we see the waters of Lake Powell in startling contrast to the arid desert we have been travelling through for the last couple of hours.

The Lake is another man made marvel designed to control the Colorado flow into Lake Meade further downstream and also to produce electricity.Its planning and construction through the 50’s and 60’s was controversial. Many thought then that it was unnecessary and there is still a body of opinion that thinks so now.
Finished in 1967 it took seventeen years to fill the Lake behind the dam. Its construction has caused havoc with the natural dispersal of silt lower downstream with consequences on the ecosystem of the lower Colorado. It has not prevented the waters in Lake Mead from falling fifty metres.
It exists however and has produced a massive man made Lake that cuts through several National Parks. It has over a thousand miles of coastline and is hundreds of metres deep in places. As well as serving millions of people with water in the surrounding states it has become a focus for tourism since the 70’s and that is why we are here.

We take a short two and a half hour boat ride that takes us around Antelope Island and into the upper reaches of Antelope Canyon. This Canyon can be accessed by road and foot from the south but it is interesting to get a view of it from a boat.

The first part of the trip takes us up Navajo Canyon. We learn the difference between a Mesa rock formation ( think table – longer than tall and flat topped ) and a Butte ( a tower – tall and thin ).

We get up close to the huge rock walls that the Navajo revered as tapestries that told stories in the strange shapes. We can make out dragons and other shapes as well as faces on the oxide stained sandstone walls. Some of the rocks have been sculpted into animal- like forms and we see a huge stone frog that is about to take a leap into the water.
The ever changing rock sculptures are fascinating. So too are some of our fellow passengers. One lady spends the whole trip taking selfies, pouting and preening herself against the changing background. We estimate she has a couple of hundred of them!
It has been refreshing to get onto the water and to get a different perspective of the landscape and the way of life of the many Americans who have a lifestyle built around this man made sea.

img_0474One of the houseboats in the new Marina is valued at over twenty million dollars and they sit there as second homes mostly. A young crowd can be seen on jet skis. Others have taken to canoes to explore quietly the millions of hidden creeks.
And like much of this area there was not even a tarred road or a proper bridge over this river until sixty years ago.

Such is the speed of progress in this country.

On our drive back we notice yet again the complete absence of litter. The roadsides in both town and countryside are utterly free of plastic bags, bottles, cans and all the other detritus that we see every day in the UK. Yet there are not more litter bins, and we haven’t seen anyone sweeping the streets. The only possible conclusions is that despite being avid consumers, Americans just don’t  drop  their rubbish like we do.

This evening we eat out in Kanab, a small town nearby that was a centre of the film industry in the 1930s when it was known as Little Hollywood; a  few films were made here into the 70s, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Photos from the film sets adorn the bars and restaurants including the one where  we get to sample ‘Bob’s famous gravy’ which comes ladled on the mashed potato and on Marilyn’s fried chicken and my chicken- fried steak. No, we couldn’t work it out either, but it tasted ok.