The beauty and history of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
By Global Gumshoe Ron Stern
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a narrow-gauge railway that stretches from Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico, across some gorgeous and at times heart-stopping scenery.
Part of the San Juan Extension of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, the track was laid in 1880 from Alamoso to Durango, Colorado (and later extended to Silverton, Colorado) to provide service to the silver mines in the San Juan Mountains. The line continued to operate even after the mining boom had ended, but by the late 1960s traffic on the line had slowed to a trickle, and it was shut down and scheduled to be demolished.
Fortunately, forward thinkers in the state legislatures of Colorado and New Mexico knew that to lose this railway would be to lose a gold mine in tourist and train-lover dollars. The states purchased a 64-mile stretch of track (as well nine pieces of vintage rolling stock – i.e. locomotives and passenger cars) renamed it the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, and it began operations as a scenic railway in 1971.
Today, the Cumbres & Toltec runs seasonally, with a summer schedule from late May to mid-September, and a fall schedule from mid-September to mid-October.
You will board the train in Antonito, Colorado, and if you have an advance reservation, enjoy your trip in one of their Parlor Cars ($179 during summer, $189 during fall). The Parlor Cars are restful because they are for adults only (21 or older). On either side of the corridor are comfortable chairs that face the windows, so no matter which side you are sitting, you have a spectacular view of nature at its finest.
At some point you will want to stroll back to the gondola car — an open-to-the-elements, standing-room-only car for the use of anyone on the train. This affords the best unobstructed views of the terrain and is ideal for taking photos.
The Tourist Cars are ideal for families, as members can pull their free-standing wooden chairs around one of many tables in the car. The windows are so large that it’s easy to watch the action as it moves on by. And where there are tables there are snacks — but don’t let the kids eat too much before the lunch stop at Osier. (In summer, $139 for adults, one child free, any more $69 each. In fall, add $10 to the adult ticket.)
The Coach Cars are the least expensive option aboard the Cumbres & Toltec. Rows of comfortable bench seats flank the aisle, and there’s easy access to the gondola car. Snacks are served in this car as well. (In summer, $95 for an adult ticket, one child can travel free, the rest are $49. In fall, $99 for adults.)
The ride begins in the foothills, with nothing but scrub brush and sage, but once you get up into the San Juan Mountains the scenery changes with pine trees stretching toward the sky, canyon walls, bridges over gorges, and then through tunnels.
About halfway to our destination, the train came to a smooth halt in the town of Osier and everyone debarked into a large dining hall for lunch. It’s an efficiently run operation — everyone gets into a line depending on the type of food they wanted – turkey, meat loaf or lasagna. And at the end of each line were a fine selection of desserts.
After lunch, you may need a light jacket as the higher up into the mountains you go, the cooler it gets, and brave the elements in the gondola car. Standing for a couple of hours while soot and steam from the coal-fired, steam-powered locomotives drift over you is an incredible experience.
Both Antonito and Chama offer three train excursions a day. Depending on which one you choose, you’ll return to your terminus once again by train, or you’ll be taken back by coach — and see lots of different scenery. These trips take a full day — depending on your schedule you can also take half-day trips.
Whatever your choice, you’ll find that the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway offers a fantastic journey back into the past, and you’ll remember it as you steam ahead into the future.
Where to stay:
The Steam Train Hotel
This historic hotel is just a couple of minutes from the train depot. It has individually decorated rooms, free Wi-Fi, homemade breakfast and a wonderful manager who knows a lot about the history of the area.
The Indiana Jones Bed and Breakfast
You can also choose to stay in the Indiana Jones Bed and Breakfast that was featured in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Chama, New Mexico
The Parlor Car B&B
Located right across the street from the Chama depot, this charming inn features lavish furnishings and period antiques. They have three rooms and a homemade breakfast with recipes that the owner has created over many years in the business. Attention to detail and great service are the standard at this bed and breakfast.
—Contact Ron Stern at email@example.com.