If you believe the stereotypes, two kinds of people love trains: little kids and old men. I’m way closer to being the latter at this point, and a recent trip on the Georgetown Loop Railroad outside of Denver has me thinking I might be even closer than I realized. I didn’t care about trains as a kid, and outright resented them when I had to take one (or two) to work every day in my 20s and 30s. Now, though, as I steadily creep outside any reasonable definition of “middle age,” I have to come to grips with a startling discovery: trains are pretty awesome?
I didn’t just realize this while riding the Georgetown Loop, but the hour-plus trip through the Rocky Mountains underscored everything I’ve come to love about the railroad. This scenic trip from Georgetown to Silver Plume, an old mining town that sits over 9,000 feet above sea level, offers both a gorgeous panoramic view of the Rockies and an immersive history lesson on what transportation in this remote part of the country was like over a century ago. For as hard as mining was in Silver Plume in the 1880s, getting that silver down from the mountain and to a place where it could be sold was even harder—at least until the Georgetown Loop Railroad opened in 1884.
Today’s railroad isn’t the same one built 140 years ago. It was dismantled by the end of the ‘30s, but rebuilt in the ‘80s as a tourist attraction—a role it also served during its original lifetime. The current line is a faithful recreation of that 3 ft narrow gauge railroad, chugging along a winding, four and a half mile track as it climbs over 600 feet between the two towns. Expect breathtaking views of Clear Creek Canyon below and Georgetown in the distance, especially when the train passes over a tall trestle bridge early in the trip. A tour guide dressed like a brakeman tells the history of the area and the railroad loop during the journey, and a small museum with a cursory look at the line, the type of trains that rode on it, and the mining camps of the 1880s silver boom awaits in Silver Plume.
You don’t have to care about trains or history or mining to enjoy the beauty of the Georgetown Loop. Sitting in one of the uncovered cars on a glorious late spring afternoon, with the sun out and the temperature topping off at just under 70 degrees, while rumbling through the Rockies and from the adorable Victorian village of Georgetown to the fading, barely alive town of Silver Plume, is a glorious experience, and one that you can’t just have anywhere you go. Yes, there are other scenic railways, other sites that mix pop history with the nostalgic buzz of archaic transportation, but the unique beauty of the Rockies, the thrill of circling higher up into the mountains, and the inherent warmth and charm of the railroad all combine to turn the Georgetown Loop Railroad into something truly special. It’s well worth the 50 minute drive from Denver, although heed the warning on the official website: you do NOT want to rely on Uber or Lyft to get back to the city when you’re done.
Like I said, I found myself especially susceptible to the Georgetown Loop’s appeal. Trains are rad. Riding an old train is like living in a half-dozen fantasies at once: I’m in the old west, but also Disneyland, and I’m a hobo, but also I’m my grandpa just going into town as a kid, and hey is that brakeman over there Jimmie Rodgers, and wait did I just go back in time because if so maybe I can get these old timers to take this climate change stuff seriously while I pop over to Europe and kill baby Hitler. That’s what it feels like to ride a train in an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sense; physically riding a train is the most pleasurable kind of jostling, like a group of burly but tender old men lightly rocking you back and forth. Trains are old enough to feel like a direct line to our past but also rare enough now that they feel like a new and unknown mystery to unravel, like an ancient machine uncovered at an archaeological site. Is an old school narrow gauge train some alien technology bestowed upon our forebears, never quite understood in its day and largely forgotten in the present? No, that’s stupid, of course, but we’ve strayed so far from trains that they kind of feel like that today, and that’s part of what makes them so remarkable.
I’m only talking about the old trains. The scenic trains. The new trains that make getting around Europe and Japan so convenient and fun don’t feel like ancient technology descended from the cosmos. They just feel like really fancy subways. They’re cool, too. Let’s build some of them over here, right?
No, if you want to get the full train experience, that weird combination of history and myth and physically enjoyable bumpiness, you need to find something like the Georgetown Loop Railroad. It sums up everything I love about trains while also providing an unparalleled journey into a mountainous land unlike anything I can explore in my own home state. Even if you aren’t a young kid or old man in love with trains you’ll probably find something to love about that.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.