The Railroad to Copper Canyon

Sierra Challenge about Copper Canyon RR
Destination: Mexico’s Barranco del Cobre (Copper Canyon)

Book: Sierra Challenge: The Construction of the Chihuahua Pacifico Railroad, compiled and edited by Don Burgess

I live so near Mexico, and have explored so little of it.  The most spectacular scenery, hands down, is to be found in Copper Canyon/Barranco del Cobre, a maze of canyons that is so much deeper, wider and rougher than the Grand Canyon that it boggles the imagination.  Sierra Challenge documents the building of the Chihuahua al Pacifico (known as El Chepe) railroad that takes tourists through that rough territory to get a view at the spectacular scenery.

Earle Stanley Gardner, better known for his Perry Mason series of courtroom drama, explored Mexico and wrote about it.  He described the building of this railroad:

You stand there on the brink of that huge canyon, look down into the depths, and think that anyone who expected a railroad to go through that country would have cheerfully entertained a scheme to make a pogo stick large enough to enable its user to jump to the moon.

He is talking about the toughest part of the line. Most of it was easy on its 1,700 mile path from Kansas City to Topolobampo, Mexico–its bay on the Gulf of California. But the final miles through the canyons of the Sierra Madre took decades to complete and provide the tourist with a spectacular journey.

Curve in the Copper Canyon Railroad
Curve in the Railroad Photo by Dean

Don Burgess compiles this book around newspaper clippings and black and white photographs–some of them spectacular–taken by his father Glenn Burgess, a photo-journalist in the 1960s.

Like the book on Canadian railroads that we talked about earlier,  every railroad buff will love Burgess’ book, but it may have more technical and historical detail than will interest the average reader.  It is a good book for skimming if you are planning to travel the railroad, and has many fascinating pieces of trivia.  For instance,

  • Pancho Villa supervised a work gang in the early stages of construction.
  • It took 150 years from the first concept of the railroad to its completion.
  • An early surveyor thought the line could be built across the Sierra Madre without tunnels, when in fact it took 88 tunnels.
  • One of those tunnels was approximately 6,000 feet long (depending on how it was measured).

Bonus information you find in Sierra Challenge includes the derivation of names of the stops along the way, how the line has affected the Tarahumara Indians, two interviews with men who actually worked on the construction, and of course, additional reading references.  The down side of the book is that the independent publishing company, Barranca Press, does not provide high quality production.  (I say Independent publishing company, but it looks like a self-publisher for the Burgess family. So far they carry four children’s books and this railroad book. Time will tell whether it will grow into a legitimate publisher.)

The graphic arrangement of the book is awkward and confusing.  Eventually, I gathered that the only part of the book actually by Glenn Burgess is the newspaper articles and the rest was written by Don Burgess. But that is not made entirely clear by the introduction. Other than the confusion about who is talking and a somewhat disjointed arrangement of material, the writing is standard journalistic and well researched.

Ironically the railroad was conceived as a freight carrier and got its fame because of tourism to Copper Canyon. If you are planning a trip on the Chihuahua railroad in order to see Copper Canyon I can suggest some other sources:


Copper Canyon
Copper Canyon by Dean

Mexico’s Copper Canyon: Barranca del Cobre, Canyon Train Adventure, Sierra Tarhumara by Richard D. Fisher.  (1998) The full-color photos in this book will have you phoning for your reservations for the trip, and Richard Fisher has hiked and ridden the rails through not only Copper Canyon but many other canyons, so he is a marvelous guide.

The Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico: Tierra de Encuentro , another book by Fisher, this one strictly a guide book.

A website called Copper Canyon Lodges  covers lodging, history, what to do, and includes a list of books to read.

One of the Internet’s best travel writers, Barbara Weibel at Hole in the Donut can give you an up close and personal look at her trip into Copper Canyon by bus and train in this 14-part series on Copper Canyon that starts here.

Finally, don’t take their word for it. See this video to see how spectacular the route is.

Check this out if you’re a rabid train fan. If you just want to see Copper Canyon, skip to the 12 minute mark.

Or click on the embedded video below for a slide show–not great quality. See Barbara Weibel’s photography (above) and video for better shots.


Have you traveled on El Chepe? Hiked in Copper Canyon? Please leave your advice for other travelers.

Note: This book was provided for review by the publisher. I give you my honest opinion. If you are a railroad buff or planning a trip to Copper Canyon, just ask, and I will send it to you.

Photos here are from Flickr, taken by a member called only “Dean”. The photos are used by Creative Commons license, and you can see more by clicking on the photo. Videos are from You Tube.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

2 thoughts on “The Railroad to Copper Canyon

  1. Hi Vera: Thanks so much for including my 1series on Copper Canyon. Mexico is one of my favorite haunts and Copper Canyon is one of the country’s great adventures, especially if you manage to do it during Semana Santa (Easter Week).

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