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Colorado's Vintage Railroads

Colorado's Vintage Railroads

Leadville, Colorado and Southern & Georgetown Loop

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Trip Taken: August 25-27, 2015 // Published: September 19, 2015

Author Robert Tabern enjoys some beautiful Rocky Mountain views from the Leadville, Colorado and Southern caboose

The Georgetown Loop Railroad takes passengers high in the Rocky Mountains

In late August 2015, we had the chance to make a quick trip out to Colorado and ride two popular tourist railroads. Since this was just a three day get-a-way, we flew out to Denver and focused on riding the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad and the Georgetown Loop. We did have a few hours to also railfan at the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel and explore Rocky Mountain National Park.

The above map shows stops covered in this blog post about Colorado's Vintage Railroads

The history of the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad dates back to the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad, which was in operation from 1872 to 1889. The focus of this railroad was to be one of the first companies to provide narrow-gauge rail service to many of the towns and mines of central Colorado. The main line began in Denver, gained elevation in the Platte Canyon, and went through the community of South Park; this is how it got its name. The line used by the tourist railroad today ran between Union Station in Denver and Climax, Colorado. When the mineral boom began to fade in the late 1880's, the railroad ran into financial problems and was sold off to the Denver, Leadville and Gunnison Railway. Just a few years later, in 1898, the Denver, Leadville, and Gunnison Railway became part of Colorado and Southern Railway. The Colorado and Southern never really invested much money in its newly acquired narrow gauge lines. In fact, they chose to never own a new narrow gauge engine; all motive power came from its predecessors. The Colorado and Southern decided to slowly abandon most of its the narrow gauge lines between 1910 and 1943. What was left of the former Denver, South Park & Pacific between Denver and Leadville was removed in the Summer of 1938, excluding a short 14-mile segment between Leadville and Climax and Denver and Waterton, Colorado. These lines were converted to into 4 ft. 8 1⁄2 in. standard gauge. The section of the standard gauge line between Leadville and Climax is operated as a passenger excursion railroad called the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad.

Passengers board the Leadville, Colorado and Southern 1:00pm departure on August 25, 2015

A beautiful mountain backdrop and a church steeple can be seen at the boarding location in Leadville

The author poses with a Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad engine

The Leadville Depot for the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad

Leadville, where trips originate from, is about a two hour drive from either Denver or Colorado Springs. If you are coming in from western Colorado, you are looking at about a 3.5 hour drive in from Grand Junction. The operating season generally runs from late May through early October. There is usually one roundtrip daily at 1:00pm, however during the busier summer months and on weekends they will run two daily round-trips which push the departure times to 10:00am and 2:00pm. Adult ticket prices for the 2015 season were $37.00, with child tickets going for $20.00. We honestly didn't do a lot of research about this trip before heading out, as it was a last-minute decision to venture out on this trip. So, we were quite surprised to learn that one can upgrade (either at the depot or in advance by calling their reservations clerk) to a "cab ride" or a "caboose ride". Despite more than 100 people riding on the day we were there (August 25, 2015), no one else knew about or chose to pay for either of the $30 one-way upgrades. We decided to go with the "caboose upgrade", both ways, as the railroad had a policy that once a party books the caboose it becomes their "private car". And yes, that means if even one or two people book the caboose -- they will not sell tickets to anyone else for the car -- even though it really could seat 10-15 people. Either people were thrifty and didn't want to pay for the upgrade, or it's one of the best kept secrets out there amongst Colorado tourist railroads. Options for regular coach seating included both covered and open-air cars, which are pictured below. But, we were quite happy with our private caboose seating choice. Oh, be sure and check out the small railroad museum inside and outside of the depot before or after the departure; there are some historic railroad displays there.

Seating options for the Leadville, Colorado and Southern include an enclosed coach car

Passengers also have the choice of sitting in one of the "open air" coach cars

A view of both the enclosed and "open air" coach cars; seating is on a first come, first serve basis for coach class

One of the best seats in the house, your own private caboose, is available for just $30 more!

Would you rather have a cab ride?  For an extra $30, this seat can be yours too on the Leadville, Colorado and Southern  Railroad

The ride on the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad lasts about 2.5 hours and provides for some nice views of the mountains and the Arkansas River Valley pretty much the entire time. Since we both lived in Arkansas for several years, we found it very interesting that the Arkansas River, which is a pretty wide river that flows through downtown Little Rock, begins in the valley below the train line as just a very small trickle. Starting out, the train goes in reverse for about 11 miles... so we were joined in the caboose by the conductor who stood out on the back platform of the caboose to make sure all cars cleared the crossings and there were no rock slides or other debris on the tracks. She was very friendly and invited us to come out and join her. She explained that the railroad line does run for 14 miles, but due to time considerations, the normal excursion trains only operate for about 11 miles of the line. There was a brief layover at an old water tower and we were on the way back to the station. The conductor ended up walking the rest of the train, so for the final hour going back into Leadville we literally had the caboose all to ourselves. We spent some time up in the cupola, but spent most of the trip standing on the back platform taking pictures.  People generally seemed to enjoy the ride, however, we did hear numerous complaints about "all you can see is trees". We didn't find this to be the case... but that was likely again because of the awesome upgrade to the caboose that we bought where we pretty much had our private open-ended platform to stand out at on the back of the train. So, we would recommend doing this when you are in Colorado, but maybe just go ahead and opt for the upgrade to either the locomotive cab ride or the caboose.

The author enjoys the views from the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad

An engineer's view of the Rocky Mountains near Climax, Colorado

Sweeping views of the Arkansas River Valley can be seen from the train between Leadville and Climax

The following day (August 26, 2015), we were off to ride a round-trip on the Georgetown Loop Railroad; it is located about one hour west of Denver, right off of Interstate Highway 70. This narrow gauge line was originally part of the Colorado Central Railroad; it was constructed in the 1870's and 1880's in the wake of the gold rush. What is now the Georgetown Loop was used heavily during the silver boom of the 1880's to haul silver ore from the mines at Silver Plume back down the Front Range of the Rockies to Denver. The Colorado and Southern Railway also took over operations of this line in 1893 and ran passenger and freight until 1938. Unfortunately, it did not survive through the Great Depression and was dismantled, instead of being converted to standard gauge, like the Leadville, Colorado and Southern was. After remaining silent for almost half-a-century, the line was restored in the 1980's to operate during the summer months as a tourist railroad. Today, it carries passengers using historic three-foot narrow gauge steam locomotives (unfortunately, the day we were there the steam engine was in for some servicing, so we had a diesel replacement).

The author prepares to board the Georgetown Loop Railroad at Silver Plume, Colorado

Talk about a Rocky Mountain high -- the Silver Plume station is more than 9,000 feet above sea level!

A couple of passengers check out the vintage railroad equipment at the Silver Plume station

Historic steam engine #9 was undergoing repairs during our visit on August 26, 2015

The Georgetown Loop provides beautiful views of the mountains and streams

The highlight of the Georgetown Loop Railroad is going over the trestle bridge

The Georgetown Loop Railroad runs for most of the year; the current season operates from May 2015 until early January 2016. There are special themed trains, but the bread and butter of the operations seems to be making round-trips between Georgetown and Silver Plume, which are about three miles apart from each other. The Georgetown Loop Railroad climbs approximately 640 feet between the two towns. Passengers can board the train at depots located in Silver Plume and Devils Gate (which is located about 3/4 of a mile west of Georgetown). The train ride includes an optional walking tour of the Lebanon Silver Mine, located at the halfway point on the railroad, where visitors can walk 500 feet into a mine tunnel bored in the 1870's, with guides pointing out once-rich veins of silver and relating the history of the mine. Unfortunately, since this was a very quick trip, we decided to just ride the rails and not do the mine tour. There are two options for riding this train -- coach class which is $25.95 for an adult ticket -- or a First Class ticket which is $9 more. The First Class car is fully enclosed, with table and chair seating.  Guests in this section receive a soft drink or water and light snacks.  Beer and wine is available for purchase.  Honestly, on a nice day like we had, your better option is one of the open-air coach cars. Who wants to be inside on a nice day?  But, maybe if it was raining or windy, the upgrade to First Class might be worth the extra money. The highlight of the ride, of course, was going over the "loop bridge". People really seemed to enjoy this ride and we would also recommend it. It was only 1 hour and 15 minutes in length, and is located right off of the main interstate, so it makes an easy train ride for someone just passing through the area. Use I-70 Exit #228 for the Silver Plume Station and I-70 Exit #226 for the Georgetown Station.

The author poses on one of the open-air coach cars on the Georgetown Loop Railroad

A look inside the "First Class" car on the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a $9 upcharge for nicer chairs and an enclosed car

The view from the top of the tresle bridge - note the highway, a stream, and the tracks below

Even the conductor enjoys the views from the Georgetown Loop Railroad

Devil's Gate Station marks the opposite end of the line from Silver Plume on the Georgetown Loop

Our final day in Colorado (August 27, 2015) included a brief stop at the summit of Mount Evans (one of the few 14,000+-foot high mountains reachable by car!), the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel, and driving up to Rocky Mountain National Park. "The railroad tunnel is 24 feet high, 18 feet wide, and 6.2 miles long. The apex of the tunnel is at 9,239 feet above sea level. The Moffat Tunnel finally provided Denver with a western link through the continental divide, as both Cheyenne, Wyoming to the north and Pueblo, Colorado to the south already enjoyed rail access to the West Coast." (From:  The west portal of the Moffat Tunnel is located inside the Winter Park Ski Resort and takes some creative navigating to get to. We ended up parking in the lot of the medical center to access the tunnel; the area appears to be for "staff only", but no one questioned us being there. Unfortunately, we stood there for about 45 minutes and didn't see any trains. There appeared to be some track work going on, so that might have explained it. If we stayed another hour or so, we might have been able to see the westbound California Zephyr go through (Train #5), but we opted to continue up Highways 40 and 34 in order to do a quick drive-though of Rocky Mountain National Park, before returning to Denver to catch our evening flight back home.

The author poses for a photo at the top of Mount Evans, which is more than 14,100 feet above sea level

The author makes a stop at the Moffat Tunnel's west portal in Winter Park, CO

Another view of the tunnel - but no trains coming out due to trackwork on the morning of August 27, 2015

No trip to Colorado is complete without a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park

Mountain goats in Rocky Mountain National Park -- Any relation to the Great Northern Goat??


Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad | Georgetown Loop Railroad | Mount Evans Scenic Drive

Moffatt Tunnel Information | Rocky Mountain National ParkMountain Goats & Sheep


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