"And we're off like a herd of turtles," the 1880 Train guide jokes as the vintage steam engine haltingly pulls out of the Hill City depot. But speed isn't the point of this popular attraction; it's more about the sentimental wail of the whistle and the picturesque red and black passenger cars that chugga-chugga through the Black Hills.
Bicyclists, motorcycle riders and cars sometimes follow the train just for photo opportunities. Inside, benches fill with families, couples and friends for one-hour excursions and two-hour round-trips between Hill City and Keystone. The tracks thread up Tin Mill Hill, past pines and rocks, a distant view of Harney Peak, and free-roaming cattle and occasional deer and antelope. Locals know to watch for event trains, such as the popular fall Wine Express and winter holiday trains that deliver kids to the “North Pole,” where Santa reads a story, gives them bells, and turns them loose for cookies and hot cocoa.
The ride doesn’t quite compete with the Needles Highway-Iron Mountain Road drive, but the sheer nostalgia factor makes it a fun journey for all ages. The regular schedule runs May through October; adult rates are $23 one-way and $28 round-trip.