Colorado train trips: 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 railways gets you pretty darn close. Train tracks wind up mountainsides, showing off the same views that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to pen “America the Beautiful” at the turn of the 20th century. They connect storied mining towns in the Rocky Mountains and, for drama’s sake, trace the ledge of Toltec Gorge just south of the Colorado border amid a remarkable landscape that has drawn Hollywood filmmakers for decades.

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

Best day trip: Georgetown Loop Railroad

With Victorian architecture and an occasional train whistle setting the soundtrack, Georgetown is a small town that’s big on 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 take in the sights during a round-trip narrow-gauge, steam-powered train ride.

“Those who haven’t seen a steam engine operate will be amazed at how impressive these locomotives are, using 19th-century technology to pull a heavy train up a steep mountain,” says Mark Graybill, president and general manager of the Georgetown Loop. “Unlike today’s locomotives, each engine almost seems human, with its own personality.” It’s almost as if you can hear them breathe, taking heavy sighs after they’ve been working hard, he says.

Round out your trip by adding on a mine tour and gold panning, and pop in for a cocktail at The Bread Bar in Silver Plume which is housed in an 1800s-era bakery and names its cocktails after local mining legends.

  • Duration: About 75 minutes
  • Cost: Tickets start at $24.95 for children ages 3-15 and $30.95 for everyone else. Children age 2 or younger ride for free.
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Best scenery: The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway

In the late 1800s, tourists wanting to see the views from the top of Pikes Peak made the journey on mules. But Zalmon Simmons (the founder of what became the Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Co.) had the idea to engineer a more comfortable ride up the 14,115-foot mountain. In 1889 construction of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway began. One of the early Pikes Peak passengers was Katharine Lee Bates, who would conclude that “all the wonder of America seemed displayed there,” leading her to write “America the Beautiful.”

The cog railway recently shut down for three years so workers could rebuild and modernize the 9 miles of track that gain 7,795 feet in elevation. In 2021 the railway reopened, coinciding with its 130th year. Aboard shiny red train cars engineered in Switzerland, riders embark on a journey from the Manitou depot to the top of Pikes Peak, where they can get out and enjoy those awe-inspiring summit views as well as the new Summit House.

Along the ride, keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, foxes and marmots and marvel at the 2,000-year-old Bristlecone pines that dot the route. If you’d like a bit more adventure, arrange to ride the train up and then hike down on Barr Trail.

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Cost: Tickets start at $48.50 for children up to age 12 and $58.50 for everyone else.
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Best for movie buffs: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has appeared in more than 40 films and is perhaps best known for the circus animal scenes in “Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade.” The railway also received lots of air time in the Jay Z-produced film “The Harder They Fall” and in the recent movie “Hostiles.”

Running coal-fired steam locomotives from Antonito as well as Chama, N.M., the railroad follows 64 miles of tracks first laid down in 1880 that zigzag, crossing between Colorado and New Mexico 11 times. The train skirts canyon walls through 600-foot-deep Toltec Gorge, burrows through tunnels, and steams over Cascade Trestle (137 feet above a creek). It also ascends to the top of 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass, which is the highest point reached by any steam railroad in North America.

You’ve got lots of train trip options, but new this year is the 168 Dinner Train and 168 Brunch Train which provide a ride in a museum-quality historic train in all of its Victorian splendor.

  • Duration: Multiple trips, ranging from express rides to full-day excursions.
  • Cost: Rates start at $25 for children ages 2-5, $45 for children ages 6-12, and $90 for everyone else.
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Best 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 one that kids especially love is the blue and red No. 2 engine that looks like a real-life Thomas from “Thomas the Tank Engine.”

A lot of ground is covered during this 45-minute route that goes south of Cripple Creek, passing the Midland Terminal Wye over a reconstructed trestle and past historic mines, including the deserted mining camp of Anaconda. Legend has it that the mine was so rich that ore was plowed out by ox teams.

Train cars are mostly open-air, and well-behaved dogs are allowed to join on the 4-mile ride.

  • Duration: 45 minutes
  • Cost: Tickets are $12 for children ages 3-12, $15 for seniors over age 65, free for children age 2 or younger, and $17 for everyone else.
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Of course these aren’t the only popular train rides around the state. We also enjoy riding on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and Leadville Railroad and at the Colorado Railroad Museum. Some of these railroads also offer lunch and dinner rides and special excursions featuring music and photography tips.

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