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Rails in the Rockies: A Tour Around the Colorado Railroad Museum

You can find stunning locomotives, railcars and cabooses -- covering nearly a century and a half -- at this great museum near Denver.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Of course I rang the bell on a 130-year-old steam locomotive. And so would you. 

Right after you enter the Colorado Railroad Museum, you're greeted by a huge locomotive from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. You can enter the cab and check out the boiler, but the bell is a top attraction. Who wouldn't ring it? 

It was a blisteringly hot day when I toured the museum in Golden, Colorado, on Denver's western outskirts. It wasn't ideal weather since the museum is almost entirely outdoors, but there was enough shade and enough trains to enter and explore that it was fantastic. 

Here's a look around. 

Hear that train a-comin' 

The 15-acre railyard features more than 100 steam and diesel locomotives, plus passenger cars, mail cars, cabooses and more. Making my way around, I was pleased that many exhibits are full train sets with a locomotive, multiple cars and a caboose. Many rail museums place each piece individually, which is fine, but I like having them together.

The museum also has one of my favorite locomotive designs, an EMD F9 in Denver & Rio Grande Western livery. If you think of a mid-20th century locomotive, this is probably what you're picturing. 

As visually impressive as the F9 is, what's next to it is even more interesting: a rotary snowplow. This boxy machine has 9-foot-wide spinning blades of death. Death to snowdrifts, that is. Conventional wedge-shaped snowplows weren't sufficient for the heavy snows in the Rocky Mountains. Plows like these rapidly went through tons of snow, but they required so much power that a coal-powered steam engine existed solely to run the blades.

Later, I was able to check out the roundhouse where the museum's on-site restoration team works. Many of these trains still run, and keeping them in shape requires significant talent and effort: It's not like you can run down to AutoZone and pick up a piston for an 1890 steam locomotive. 

A narrow-gauge track encircles the museum, and several times an hour, you can ride one of the museum's "Galloping Gooses." These are early 20th century cars modified by the Rio Grande Southern Railroad to run passenger and freight services when they couldn't afford to maintain steam locomotives.

The museum, and the Denver Garden Railway Society that runs it, let me place a camera on one of the model flatbed train cars. Pushed by a locomotive, I captured a first-person view of the outdoor track. In the basement of the main museum building, there's even an incredibly elaborate HO-scale model railway.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Before I left, I got an up-close view of the biggest locomotive at the museum: a colossal 4-8-4 O-5B class locomotive, one of the last big steam trains ever made. This one retired in 1956 after only 16 years of service. Apparently, this beast could hit 100mph on the Denver-to-Chicago run. Not bad for something powered by coal and based on technology from the early 1800s.

Railroad crossing

The Colorado Railroad Museum is a lovely museum, with far more charm than many of the bigger train museums I've visited. If you're in the Denver area, I highly recommend checking it out. They have regular events too. 

If visiting Denver isn't on your schedule, check out the gallery above. 

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines and a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.