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South Fork to Wasson at 12 Miles Per Hour

by Kenneth Jessen

At the western end of the San Luis Valley, near the town of South Fork, passengers can enjoy a most unique railroad experience. It is a 12-miles-per-hour trip in a motorcar along the historic Creede Branch of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway. Trips run twice a day between South Fork and Wagon Wheel Gap, with special extended trips to Wasson.

This portion of the original Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway was constructed as a narrow gauge line in 1883 and ended at Wagon Wheel Gap, a resort designed for the wealthy. Just 10 miles away, the silver mines at Creede began to produce large quantities of ore. The railroad was asked to extend the line, but it lacked the financial resources. In 1891, financier David Moffat formed the Rio Grande Gunnison Railway and took the tracks to the mines at North Creede. The Denver & Rio Grande Western leased Moffat’s extension, and in 1908, they purchased the line.

 The motorman makes stops upon request. The cliffs at Wagon Wheel Gap tower over the motorcar, now in its fifth year of operation. Photo by Kenneth Jessen.
The motorman makes stops upon request. The cliffs at Wagon Wheel Gap tower over the motorcar, now in its fifth year of operation. Photo by Kenneth Jessen.

In 1902, the Creede Branch was converted from narrow gauge to standard gauge to allow ore trains to flow directly to distant smelters. Freight continued to move over this branch until 1977, when the last train entered Creede. The line sat abandoned until Donald H. Shank formed the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Historical Foundation in 1997, and in 2000, purchased the track up to the Creede city limits.

Now in its fifth year of summer operation, a great deal of work is being done on the track. Many of the old ties are being replaced, ballast added and curvets repaired. The railroad has two motorcars to take tourists on a bumpy but scenic ride along the river to Wagon Wheel Gap. A distinct advantage of such an operation is that the motorman will stop upon request for photographs.

Passengers travel through forests, across meadows, past campgrounds, across trestles and past the privately owned Wagon Wheel Gap depot. Towering volcanic cliffs add to the scenic nature of this trip. Moose, deer and bear can all be seen along the track. At lunchtime, the motorcar stops at one of two lodges located near the track.

The Denver & Rio Grande Railway operates from Memorial Day to the first weekend in October on a daily basis. The depot is located a half mile north of U.S. Highway 160 along Colorado Highway 149. Trains leave for Wagon Wheel Gap at 10 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. By request, customers can purchase tickets that will take them past Wagon Wheel Gap to Wasson, located within sight of Creede. Call 719-873-2002 for information and reservations to relive this important part of Colorado railroad history.

Loveland resident Kenneth Jessen spends time writing between long sea voyages circumnavigating the globe testing to see if it is still round. Conclusion? It is still round!