MBI's Moving Stories


Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

2019 Volume I, Issue I

MBI deals with key players in big infrastructure projects designed to keep people and goods moving. Our business began 30 years ago assisting on railroad-related projects, and even as our business expanded to many modes of transport, we still have a great attraction to railroads and their important place in the national economy. As we work with planners and stakeholders on major projects today, it’s helpful to step back, take a deep breath and see just how far transportation technology has advanced.

" We sometimes call these breaks a vacation ".

So we direct your attention to roads less traveled on the remote Colorado-New Mexico border, specifically the towns of Chama, NM and Antonito, CO, connected by 64 of the most spectacular railroad miles in North America.

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad 2-8-2 489 drifts downgrade on Cumbres Pass approaching Chama, NM. Paved roads did not come to this rugged area of New Mexico until the early 1970s. For many years, the narrow gauge tracks were the only way to haul heavy freight into this part of the state. Regular passenger service on this line ended in 1951. David R. Busse photo.

This is the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, where volunteers and paid staff operate and maintain the largest remnant of the one-sprawling network of Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad narrow gauge tracks in the Colorado Rockies. Built in the 1870s as a fast, economical way to tap the rich ore deposits of the San Juan Mountains, the D&RGW 3-foot gauge network survived into the 1960s as a transportation anachronism, and would have been scrapped entirely had not a partnership of the two states bought the 64 miles between Chama and Antonito in 1970, renaming it the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Ride the entire line on a day-long excursion and you’ll go where automobiles can’t take you, climbing and crossing 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass (highest railroad pass in the US) in the shadow of aspens, snaking through the tunnels, cuts and high trestles of rugged Toltec Gorge, all while crossing the Colorado/New Mexico State line eleven times, in habitat of deer, elk and bears, all the while hearing the “I-think-I-can” cadence of the steam locomotive at the front of your train.

50 years after Colorado and New Mexico bought the tracks, bridges, structures as well as vintage coal-burning steam locomotives and rolling stock, the Cumbres & Toltec thrives as a tourist attraction, and more important, as a living monument to show how cooperation among politicians of two states, dedicated workers and volunteers can accomplish great things.

The daily Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad passenger train crests the 4-percent grade at Cumbres, Pass, Colorado, elevation 10,015, the highest active railroad pass in the USA. The train will stop for water here, next to the Cumbres Pass depot and section house on the right, restored to it’s original appearance by Friends of the Railroad volunteers. The train features coaches with open windows, an open-air gondola fitted with bench seats, as well as first class parlor cars at the rear serving snacks and beverages. Bring safety glasses to protect your eyes from coal cinders!

During summer tourist season, May 25-October 20, the railway operates daily passenger trains over the entire line, and guests may choose to ride the entire line or portions of it, in several classes of accommodations. Trips include a stop at Osier, a “middle-of-nowhere” railroad section camp, where passengers are served a delicious buffet meal in a modern mess hall designed to look “just right” in the mountains.Autumn brings a change of color to the mountains and attracts railroad enthusiasts from around the globe, when special freight trains, with locomotives re-lettered in historic “Rio Grande” livery roll strictly for the cameras on days-long photographer charter trips. Much of the rolling stock and a great deal of the line side structures have been repainted and restored by well organized groups of volunteers who gather for six weeks of annual work sessions. The result is a living look into the past. Hollywood discovered this railroad years ago, and visitors may recognize scenes from “Indiana Jones” movies and a long list of others. Even without additional movie props, this railroad is, as they say, the “real deal.”

Visitors are welcome at the C&TS locomotive roundhouse at Chama, NM. Watch your step!
Another view of the “ready track” at C&TS locomotive shop, Chama, NM.

Visitors to the railway headquarters in tiny Chama are encouraged to stroll around the locomotive shops as crews ready the steam engines to do battle with the 4-percent mountain grades each day. The smell of grease, oil and coal smoke is from another era, and except for hard hats and safety glasses, the workers perform the same tasks in the same manner their predecessors did a century earlier. In fact, some of the railroad’s regular employees are fourth and fifth-generation workers on this line. Visitors are encouraged to usecommon sense when visiting the railroad yard, but are free to ask questions, take pictures and savor the experience.

This is still a remote area, hours away from the closest Interstate highway, and you won’t see many chain restaurants or motels (if you must ask, there is cell service here). If you want a good “road trip” this summer, this is a great destination. Take an all-day trip on the Cumbres & Toltec. We like the first-class parlor car accommodations, and we recommend the eastbound trip starting each morning at Chama for “first timers.”

Vistas along the Los Pinos River in Colorado suggest the calendar has been reset to 1925, but it’s really an August, 2018 two-day photographer’s charter on the Cumbres & Toltec.
Daily passenger train departs Cumbres Pass station on the downhill run to Chama.
Scenes like this one remind everyone associated with the Cumbres & Toltec that it is important for a young generation to see, hear and ride their trains.

For more information on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway, visit their web site at cumbrestoltec.com

The Cumbres & Toltec gets our vote as “best visit to the past.”