The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad takes visitors on a rail trip that crosses the Colorado and New Mexico border 11 times along tracks that were built in the 1880s.

Riding the Rails with the Cumbres & Toltec

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A coal-powered steam locomotive was once the way to get there fast. It’s not the fastest any longer, but remains one of the best ways to enjoy the journey.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad takes visitors on a rail trip that crosses the Colorado and New Mexico border 11 times along tracks that were built in the 1880s.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad takes visitors on a rail trip that crosses the Colorado and New Mexico border 11 times along tracks that were built in the 1880s.

The old saying “life is a journey, not a destination” comes to mind when riding the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, one of a handful of trains in America that are still powered by an authentic, coal-powered steam engine. Considered by train aficionados to be among the best preserved and restored, the Cumbres & Toltec makes daily trips from the small Colorado town of Antonito to Chama, New Mexico. It’s a 64-mile trip at an average speed of 12 miles per hour and takes almost 7 hours to complete, including an hour stop for lunch.

The Cumbres & Toltec is also the longest and highest narrow-gauge railroad in the country. Narrow gauge means the distance between the rails is 3 feet instead of the more common 4 feet, 8 inches. The narrow footprint was engineered so the train could traverse the tight turns of steep mountain passes. This particular narrow gauge railway was built 140 years ago by crews that carved a path for the rails through a breathtaking array of landscapes, from high desert carpeted with mint-green sage to acrophobic-inducing rocky passes some 10,000 feet above sea level.

Preparing for the daily departure from the Antonito, Colorado depot, the coal-powered steam engine will consume up to 4 tons of coal and 5,000 gallons of water on the 64-mile trip to Chama, New Mexico.
Preparing for the daily departure from the Antonito, Colorado depot, the coal-powered steam engine will consume up to 4 tons of coal and 5,000 gallons of water on the 64-mile trip to Chama, New Mexico.

The views from the large windows, that you can open fully, are stunning. But it’s not only a treat for your eyes, it’s a treat for the senses. Besides seeing details you’d never catch traveling in a speeding car, you can smell the delicious clean, crisp air, feel the occasional mist of steam from the engine, hear the haunting train whistle, and rock with the chug-chug-chug rhythm as the wheels roll along the tracks. It’s all in the details – details that are lost when flying 10,000 feet above the ground. If you enjoy hiking, horseback riding or bike riding, you understand the perspective of seeing nature up close and personal.

Amara, one of the docents who volunteer their services on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
Amara, one of the docents who volunteer their services on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Some of the fascinating sights include Hangman’s Trestle, which became a convenient spot for a posse to hang a convicted “bad guy”; two tunnels, one requiring wooden supports and the other cut through solid rock; and Toltec Gorge, some 600 feet above the river that runs below.

The highest point of the trip is at Osier, where you enjoy lunch; and then it’s on to Windy Point, where the rails, attached to a narrow rock shelf, take the train down a steep decline, with brakes expertly applied by the engineer, before finally reaching your destination in Chama, a town in New Mexico that was settled in 1865.

Docents on each passenger car, besides providing refreshments, fill you in on fun factoids about the train, including a Wild West ghost story or two. One such story was how the train was derailed during an avalanche while traveling though Phantom Pass, so named for the odd shadows the engineers would see dancing in the engine headlight. Instead of crashing down the side of the mountain, the train seemed to float gently down, coming to rest at the bottom of the mountain with no injuries aside from the engineer sustaining a broken arm.

Enjoying the train and hearing its tales, it’s easy to imagine what it was like to be taking that trip some 140 years ago. Easy to imagine a Native American village on the horizon or a gang of outlaws galloping along the side of the train with pistols drawn. Easy to drift back to a time when the Iron Horse changed the face of the American West.

Cumbres & Toltec Basics

The train leaves daily from either Antonito, Colorado, or Chama, New Mexico.

There are full and half day trips available.

Departure times vary depending on trip selected.

Select from premium parlor car, deluxe tourist car or classic tourist car.

Buffet lunch in Osier is included in the ticket price.

After reaching your final destination, return to your point of origin by bus.

Elevation ranges in altitude from 7,863 to 10,015 feet. Temperatures can vary, so dress in layers.

Copyright © Kim Calvert/2019 Singular Communications, LLC.

Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful city living.

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