The Wild West Meets 'Game of Thrones' on This Revitalized New Mexico Railway
Dragons and wolves ride the rails through the desert to Santa Fe.
Darley Newman, host, creator, and producer of the PBS show Travels with Darley, was waiting for the train. She stood in the depot in Lamy, New Mexico, wearing cowboy boots and jeans, ready for the Wild West adventure she planned to film for her show. As her ride pulled in, she admired its vintage cars, which were covered with splashes of draconic graffiti. “The train looked like a dragon rolling through the countryside. I really hadn't seen a train quite like that before,” she says. The paint job might seem out of place for a historic railroad, but one key detail explains it: George R.R. Martin co-owns the train.
In 2020, the 141-year-old train then known as the Santa Fe Southern Railway was on the brink of extinction and looking for a savior. The railroad had first been built in 1880, and in the years since, it had carried presidents, Manhattan Project scientists, and other notable individuals, connecting Santa Fe, New Mexico with the rest of the country. But by the time the railway’s owners asked Bill Banowsky, founder of Magnolia Pictures and Violet Crown Cinemas, if he was interested in purchasing the train, the line had ceased regular operations and was facing an uncertain future.
Banowsky was initially hesitant to take on the project, but that changed when he spoke to his friend and Game of Thrones creator Martin. “George got super excited about owning a railroad and said, ‘that would be such a fun thing to do,’” he recounts. “So we decided that day that we would investigate the possibility of acquiring the railroad.” When they finally purchased it, they did so alongside bestselling mystery author Douglas Preston and five other Santa Fe investors.
As part of the railroad’s revival, Martin used his creative talents to design an original immersive experience for passengers. It wasn’t the first time the novelist had branched out into crafting IRL adventures—he is, after all, co-creator of Meow Wolf—and his vision for the revamped train, now dubbed Sky Railway, combined history and fantasy into something totally unique. He enlisted local graffiti artist Jorael Numina to paint one train like a wolf and the other as a dragon, giving passengers like Newman that intriguing first glimpse of the train as it approached the station. “He wanted the wolf to ‘howl’ and the dragon to ‘roar,’” says Banowsky.
According to Newman, the theme continues on the interior of the train cars. Once on board, she noticed plenty of historic details, along with some updated Game of Thrones-themed ones. “My armrest was a wooden dragon,” she says. “It's important to keep those historical touches so it's old, but they then updated it in a way that is still tasteful to the past. So that was cool.”
Each train car also has a local musician playing tunes and a bartender serving drinks.“We have curated a great group of local artists who we've kept busy on these trains,” says Banowsky. “It's like going out to a little pub and listening to music and you get to watch the scenery pass by.”
Speaking of the scenery, “This is a train line that doesn't go super-fast and you get to see this really Southwestern type of high desert environment,” Newman says. “You're passing through communities and then you're literally just in nature and seeing the mountains rising in the distance.”
The experience goes far beyond drinks, music, and views for those who want a more engaging adventure, though it’s possible to book a peaceful scenic ride. As part of his creative role, Martin has designed a series of adventures for passengers. These are sometimes seasonal, like the current Pablo’s Holiday Train, which features a recounting of how Santa helped Pablo the Dragon save Christmas and the requisite mugs of hot chocolate, as well as a recent sold-out Halloween experience. “We had actors that appeared to be buried in the ground,” describes Banowsky. “George owns a lot of movie sets, so we took one of his graveyard sets, and we put it out there in the middle of nowhere. We stopped the train and these actors came out of the grave in various scenes.”
Other adventures aren’t seasonal at all. Banowsky relates the theatrics of a Wild West experience previously offered by Sky Railway, explaining, “The train stops and then someone gets on the train and says, ‘Oh my gosh it's bandits, everybody hit the deck,’ and then horses ride up and the train stops.” The train’s current and upcoming offerings include Jazz Under the Stars, Murder on the Lamy Line, the Stargazer Train, themed ‘60s and ‘80s trains, and more, all of which leave from either Santa Fe or Lamy. Newman chose the Lore of the Lands from Lamy adventure, during which a docent shared the history of the train and surrounding landscape.
On Sky Railway, she explains, “you get the history and knowledge, but you do it in a different way. This is an example of how the travel industry has evolved over the years and how people are offering really unique things out there.”
If you’re wondering what to do after a ride on the train, you could take a page out of Newman’s book and hit up the Legal Tender Saloon, whose structure was originally built in 1880—the same year as the original train line. She describes it as a typical Old West saloon, with different rooms, decorations, and memorabilia. In Newman’s case, she was there to interview Martin about the train for her show—“He's into preserving history from what he relayed… he thinks it is an important thing to do,” she says—but you can simply take a seat, grab a drink, and reflect on the day’s adventure.