Heritage railroads keep the Old West alive across the United States

You never forget your first ride on steam-driven historic train. From Alaska to North Carolina, all across North America, heritage railroads take passengers back in time, to a simpler era, when coal-fired steam engines drove trains over narrow-gauge lines up and over some of the most rugged—and spectacular—landscapes in the country.

The editors of True West tip their engineer’s caps to the owners and preservationists who work so hard throughout the year to provide extraordinary experiences on their heritage trains for tourists of all generations from around the world.  We recommend the following 12 historic railroads to ride and experience the Old West firsthand.

Stuart Rosebrook, editor of True West, hopes that someday there will be heritage railways operating in all 50 states.


Passengers experience thrills around every corner on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Durango, Colorado. Courtesy D&SNGRR


Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Durango and Silverton, Colorado

Durango is a four-season destination. Since 1959 the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has operated as a tourist train from May to October, with limited special trains in the winter and spring. The railroad makes it easy to customize an experience with different travel packages, including the adventurous Discover Silverton Package and always popular Polar Express. When in Durango, enjoy the historic downtown district with its great variety of hotels, restaurants, pubs and specialty shops.

More Info: DurangoTrain.com, Durango.org, DurangoFiestaDays.com

Good Sleeps: Historic Strater Hotel, Strater.com

Good Grub: Derailed Pour House, DerailedPourHouse.com


The Grand Canyon Railway

Williams, Arizona

Grand Canyon Railway (Williams, Arizona)
Courtesy Grand Canyon Railway

On September 17, 1901, the Santa Fe Railway launched the 64-mile Grand Canyon Railway from Williams to the Grand Canyon, and it was a favorite
line on the AT&SF system until 1968. Passenger service restarted in 1989 as the Grand Canyon Railway, with daily service to and from the national park, plus special packages and train events, such as Steam Saturdays the first Saturday, May through October; the Pumpkin Patch Train, every weekend in October; and the Polar Express, November to January.

More Info: TheTrain.com and ExperienceWilliams.com.

Good Sleeps: Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, The Train.com

Good Grub: Cruiser’s Café 66, Cruisers66.com


Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado)
Photos Courtesy Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s San Juan Extension arrived in the Village of Chama in January 1881 and operated until the 1960s. Local boosters and preservationists worked to save the most scenic section of the line between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado, and the two states jointly bought the route, tracks and stations, opening the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad to passenger service in 1970. The 64-mile railroad operates seasonally between May and October, and offers several fare packages with lunch included, and special trains, including firefighter and engineer school.

More Info: CumbresToltec.com and ChamaValley.com

Good Sleeps: Chama: The Parlor Car Bed and Breakfast, ParlorCar.com; Antonito: Steam Train Hotel, SteamTrainHotel.com

Good Grub: Chama: Foster’s Hotel, Fosters1881.com; Antonito: Dos Hermanas, Facebook.com/DosHermanasDos/


Charlie Russell Chew Choo

Lewistown, Montana

Charlie Russell Chew Choo (Lewistown, Montana)
Courtesy Charlie Russell Chew Choo

Gold was discovered near Lewistown in 1880, and the town became an important trading center. In 1903, after eight years of construction, the Montana Railroad connected Lewistown with the Northern Pacific Railway. In 1908, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad purchased the line, and operated it as “The Milwaukee Road” until the 1980s. Today, the Charlie Russell Chew Choo keeps the spirit of the railroad alive with round-trip dinner train trips on a spur track from May to October and the popular North Pole Adventure in November and December.

More Info: MontanaDinnerTrain.com, LewistownChamber.com and CentralMontanaFair.com

Good Sleeps: Circle Bar Ranch, CircleBarRanch.com

Good Grub: Big Spring Brewing, BigSpringBrewingMT.com


Nevada Northern Railway

Ely, Nevada

Nevada Northern Railway, Ely, Nevada
Courtesy Nevada Northern Railway and TravelNevada

Founded after gold was discovered in 1878, Ely has been a mining town ever since. After copper boomed in the early 1900s, the Nevada Northern Railway was built in 1905-06. The 162-mile line connected the copper mining districts and the city with the national transcontinental lines of the Western Pacific Railroad and Southern Pacific Railroad. After the smelter closed in 1983, the train ceased running as well. Soon thereafter, a portion of the rail line was saved and reopened as the Nevada Northern Railway, which operates passenger trains daily,  except holidays and Tuesdays, except in July and August. The National Historic Landmark railway has exciting passenger car options, specialty trains and even hands-
on engineer training.

More Info: NNRY.com, ElyNevada.net and WhitePineCounty.net

Good Sleeps: Hotel Nevada, HotelNevada.com

Good Grub: Cell Block Steak House, JailHouseCasino.com


Georgetown Loop Railroad

Georgetown, Colorado

Georgetown Loop Railroad, Georgetown, Colorado
Courtesy Carol M. Highsmith Archives, Library of Congress

An 1859 silver strike during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush led to the founding of Georgetown. Mining continued to drive the growth of the mountain town, and in 1878 the Colorado Central Railroad reached Georgetown. In 1884, the engineering marvel, the Georgetown Loop, was completed as part of the Georgetown, Breckinridge and Leadville Railroad.
The railroad operated until economic conditions forced it to close in 1938. The line was rebuilt and restored in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Georgetown Loop Railroad & Mining Park is the centerpiece attraction for a long weekend in the historic town.

More Info: GeorgetownLoopRR.com, Georgetown-Colorado.org

Good Sleeps: Rose Street Bed & Breakfast, RoseStreetBNB.com

Good Grub: Coopers on the Creek, CoopersOnTheCreek.com


Skunk Train

Fort Bragg and Willits, California

Skunk Train
Fort Bragg and Willits, California
Courtesy Skunk Train

After its 1857 fort closed, Fort Bragg became a lumber town, and in 1885, the Fort Bragg Railroad Company opened the first rail line to haul redwood timber from the forests to the coast. The line was eventually bought out, expanded and renamed the California Western Railroad & Navigation Company. While it remains a popular passenger line today, the 40-mile line was also a successful freight service until 2001. The Skunk Train offers two major passenger trains: the Pudding Creek Express from Fort Bragg and the Northspur Flyer from Willits.

More Info: SkunkTrain.com, FortBragg.com, Willits.com and VisitMendocino.com

Good Sleeps: Ocean View Lodge, OceanViewLodging.com

Good Grub: Patterson’s Pub, PattersonsPub.com


Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad

Leadville, Colorado

Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad
Leadville, Colorado
Courtesy Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad

Originally the Denver, South Park & Pacific and Colorado & Southern, the railroad reached Leadville in 1880. The engineering marvel crossed the Continental Divide twice and went through the 1,285-foot Alpine Tunnel at 11,523 feet. Over the decades of railroad amalgamation, the Colorado & Southern continued to operate regularly to and from Leadville until 1981. Since 1988, the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad has been thrilling passengers on its two-and-a-half-hour journey through the San Isabel National Forest in sight of the state’s two highest peaks. Popular themed trips offered annually include the Wildflower Special and Fall Photo Weekends Special.

More Info: Leadville-Train.com, Leadville.com and LeadvilleTwinLakes.com

Good Sleeps: Historic Delaware Hotel, DelawareHotel.com

Good Grub: Golden Burro Cafe, GoldenBurro.com


Virginia & Truckee Railroad

Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada

Virginia & Truckee Railroad
Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada
Courtesy TravelNevada

Carson City was founded in 1858 and grew quickly after the Comstock Lode gold and silver discovery in 1859. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad was completed between Carson City and Virginia City in 1870, and by 1872 it was connected to the transcontinental Central Pacific in Reno. The short-line connected the state capital and the rich mining districts to the world, and the towns boomed. With the mines mostly closed in the 1920s and 1930s, the railroad slowly failed, closing in 1950. In 1975, railroad entrepreneur Robert Gray reopened the V&T and operates it as a tourist train between Memorial Day and October. Passengers will enjoy the 35-minute, conductor-led tour between the two historic cities. The train also offers specialty trips, including a Polar Express.

More Info: VTRailway.com, VisitCarsonCity.com and VisitVirginiaCityNV.com

Good Sleeps: Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon, GoldHillHotel.net

Good Grub: Red Dog Saloon, RedDogVC.rocks


Abilene and Smoky Hills Railroad

Abilene, Kansas

Abilene and Smoky Hills Railroad
Abilene, Kansas
Courtesy Kansas Office of Tourism

In the annals of Kansas railroad cowtowns, Abilene, Kansas, is the granddaddy of them all. Joseph McCoy’s entrepreneurial vision of building stockyards and a drover’s cottage next to the end of the Kansas & Pacific tracks in Abilene, and advertising his services to Texas cattlemen in 1867, created the legendary cattle drive era of 1867-87. Abilene has maintained its connection to its Old West past through the Abilene and Smoky Hills Railroad, Old Abilene Town and the Dickinson County Heritage Center. The A&SH RR operates from May to October, with many exciting ride and tour opportunities for passengers, including steam-driven service on a limited basis, dinner trains and the Silver Flyer Railbus.

More Info: ASVRR.org and AbileneCityHall.com

Good Sleeps: Engle House Bed and Breakfast, EngleHouse.com

Good Grub: Brookville Hotel Restaurant, BrookvilleHotel.com


1880 Train

Hill City, South Dakota

1880 Train—Black Hills Central Railroad
Courtesy South Dakota Office of Tourism

Hill City was founded in 1876 during the first years of the Black Hills Gold Rush. The first mine and smelter owners of the Black Hills knew the rugged mountain region would need a railroad to make the mining of the rich, underground veins profitable. It was not until the 1890s that regular rail service reached Hill City. Over time, diesel locomotives replaced all the steam engines driving trains in the Black Hills and America. Since 1957, William B. Heckman and Robert Freer’s dream of the Black Hills Central Railroad’s 1880 Train has been thrilling passengers every summer for nearly 60 years.

More Info: 1880Train.com, VisitHillCitySD.com and BlackHillsBadlands.com

Good Sleeps: Alpine Inn, AlpineInnHillCity.com

Good Grub: Powder House Restaurant, PowderHouseRestaurant.com


Arkansas & Missouri Railroad

Springdale and Van Buren, Arkansas

Arkansas & Missouri Railroad
Springdale and Van Buren, Arkansas
Courtesy Arkansas & Missouri Railroad

The Arkansas & Missouri Railroad line originated with the construction of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway through the Springdale area in the 1880s. The modern A&MRR was started in 1986 and still serves a primary purpose of the original railway, freight, but also has a popular passenger tourist line that keeps a regular, but limited, schedule from January to November. The A&M has two roundtrip passenger train options: Springdale to Van Buren, and Van Buren to Winslow, both of which take tourists through the beautiful Boston Range of the Ozark Mountains. And special trains are offered throughout the year.

More Info: AMRailroad.com and ExploreSpringdale.com

Good Sleeps: Inn at the Mill, InnAtTheMill.com

Good Grub: The Rail, RailPizza.com

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