Chugging Into the Past on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

By Janna Graber, GoWorldTravel.com
October 22, 2017 Updated: September 3, 2018    

The rhythmic sound of wheels hitting rail is loud but strangely soothing. We’re aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, and the route has taken us across open prairie and up into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. We’re nearing Cumbres Pass, the highest mountain pass reached by rail in the United States, and the historic steam engine must work hard.

My parents, who have joined my husband and me on the journey, want to see the view from the pass, so we make our way to the outdoor observation car. Walking through a moving train is never easy, but we take our time.

Passing through the Victorian-style cars of the Cumbres & Toltec is like going back to the past. The cars have been beautifully restored to their original look, and listening to the whistle of the steam engine, you can almost imagine what it was like back then.

Part of Historic Railroad Preserved

Built in 1890, this narrow-gauge railway once played an important role in the booming mining towns of the American West. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad carried passengers—it even had a first-class parlour car—as well as needed supplies.

Railroad access to this remote region of the country meant the opening of northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. Ranches soon spread across the valley and timber and other businesses took root. Those vibrant mining days eventually wound down, though, and demand for the railway declined. By 1969, the railroad owners had filed for abandonment.

Fortunately, the states of Colorado and New Mexico saved the most scenic part of the route, a 64-mile track that runs from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado. The route crosses the Colorado-New Mexico border in 11 different spots. The two states jointly purchased the track, along with steam locomotives and 130 freight and work cars.

Today, the route has been designated a National and State Registered Historic Site and is operated by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission.

Riding the historic train, I’m grateful to those visionaries who saw the value in preserving the past. As we reach the outdoor car, the scenery gets even better. The vast Chama Valley spreads below us as the locomotive pulls toward the 10,000-foot peak. We pass groves of aspen, and I can see for miles. As we near the summit, the train hugs the sheer rock face.

Mealtime in the Deluxe Tourist Car. (Benjamin Rader)

Train Enthusiasts, Families, and More

The Cumbres & Toltec attracts train enthusiasts as well as families and others who want a unique way to see this part of the United States. The train has three classes of cars. The Parlor Car is for those over 21 who want continental breakfast and alcoholic drinks along the way. In the Deluxe Tourist Car, passengers sit at tables, with snacks and drinks provided. Coach class is the most economical, with cushioned bench seating. All passengers enjoy a huge buffet lunch when the train stops midway in tiny Osier, Colorado.

Pagosa Springs, Colorado

After our relaxing day on the train, we make the 55-minute drive to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Since Chama and Antonito have few accommodation options, many choose to make their base in Pagosa Springs, a rightful destination on its own.

For decades, travellers have come to Pagosa Springs to soak in its mineral-rich hot springs, and we’re no exception. We spend our first evening at the world-class Springs Resort & Spa, home to 23 therapeutic hot springs, and later visit the Victorian-style Hot Mineral Baths at Overlook Hot Springs Spa.

Tubers on the San Juan River in front of the Springs Resort and Spa in Pagosa Springs. (Janna Graber)

This town of 1,700 is located 35 miles north of the New Mexico border on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. The mix of mountains and high plateaus means Pagosa Springs has an unusually mild climate with more than 300 sunny days a year, making it a mecca for those who love outdoor adventure.

During our visit we see kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders, and tubers floating down the San Juan River in the heart of town. When we hike some of the 650 miles of trail nearby, we come upon backpackers, cyclists, mountain bikers, and hikers. In winter, skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and snow shoeing are popular activities.

By the end of our trip, I realize that we haven’t planned enough time in this part of Colorado. A return journey is in order, and I’m already planning it as we head out of town.

IF YOU GO

The Cumbres & Toltec can be boarded in Chama, NM, or in Antonito, CO. Passengers take the train one way and return the other direction via motor coach (included in the ticket). See  www.cumbrestoltec.com

Pagosa Springs, CO, is a 55-minute drive from Chama and has many accommodation options. See www.visitpagosasprings.com

The train stops midway in Osier, Colorado, where passengers enjoy a big buffet lunch. (Benjamin Rader)

Enjoying the view from the train. (Benjamin Rader)
The outdoor observation car. (Benjamin Rader)
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad crosses the Colorado-New Mexico border in 11 different spots. (Benjamin Rader)
The engineer poses for a photo. (Benjamin Rader)
Waiting to board the train in Chama. (Benjamin Rader)

Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 40 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine (www.goworldtravel.com).

 

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