Riding the historic, narrow gauge steam engine on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, over 9,000 feet, in the Rocky Mountains, between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado and back; an all-day train and bus excusion.
All aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
It was that time of year, and my husband, my son, and my 15 year-old grandson embarked on our annual train excursion. This time, we decided to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs between northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, at well over 7,000 feet high in the Rocky Mountains. A little background for those not familiar with this historic railroad is in order. The railroad was part of the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which was completed to Chama, New Mexico in 1880, connecting Chama to Antonito, Colorado, thus eliminating a long and treacherous trail. From May through October, trains depart simultaneously from Chama and Antonito and meet half way at Osier, Colorado before returning to their original stations. This arrangement allows either a one-way trip across the entire line, with a charter bus return, or a round trip to Osier and back to either end. This scenic railroad is American’s longest and highest narrow gauge railroad, built to a gauge of three feet between the rails instead of the American standard of 4 feet 8-1/2 inches. The steam engine pulls parlor class, tourist class, coach class cars, and an open-air observation platform (gondola). The downside of a steam engine is that it emits smoke and small ash particles, so passengers are advised to wear sunglasses. C&TSR claims it is not responsible for soiled clothing or cinders/ashes in the eye. That was the least of our worries.
Our grandson’s school was out and in late June 2010, we boarded Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner 583 to ride from San Diego to Los Angeles. From there we transferred to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief that travels from Los Angeles to Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Kansas City and Chicago. Upon boarding the train, we settled into our cozy bedroom, unpacked and relaxed before dinner. After a leisurely supper, we “strolled” to the sightseer lounge to enjoy the night-lights of California’s Mohave Desert. Very relaxing and enjoyable, but it was time to “turn in”. The conductor had laid out our bedding. The rumbling sound from the tracks lulled me to sleep and I woke up refreshed and eager to go. We had breakfast while traveling through Arizona and in no time we were in Albuquerque, where we stopped for a longer than usual stopover; the air-conditioning in the dinning car and kitchen malfunctioned. My son and I stepped out, breathed in 90 degrees air, and quickly returned to our rooms. Fortunately, the problem was fixed and we were on our way to Lamy, New Mexico, a small way station where a shuttle was to take us to Santa Fe, New Mexico. about twenty miles north. The Southwest Chief dropped us off and roared eastward. From 90 degrees heat, we encountered cool, heavy monsoon rain. By the time we walked the short distance from the train to the small station, we were soaked. Soon the shuttle arrived and we veered north. The driver dropped us off at the Hertz Rental office located in a small shopping mall at the edge of Santa Fe. From there we drove 100 miles north to our final destination, Chama, New Mexico, home of the Cumbras & Toltec Scenic Railroad, elevation 7,859 ft. The next day we were scheduled to take the all day scenic excursion starting from Chama by train to Antonito, Colorado and return by bus to Chama, an eight-hour trip.
We chose a motel directly across the street from the station and railroad yard. About 10 p.m., exhausted and ready to turn in, we heard a loud explosion and popping noises. Since it was just a week before the Fourth of July, we assumed someone was celebrating a little early. The following morning, we walked across the street to the train yard and station and were informed that the train from Chama was cancelled. During the night, a fire had partially burned the Lobato Trestle located about eight miles from Chama, where the train crosses 100 feet above Wolf Creek. A rumor spread that arson was suspected but no one could verify it. Located near the trestle are remnants of a stock pen and a water tank, made for movie scenes, namely Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Other films shot in the area were Missouri Breaks, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among others.
A bus was to be provided for everyone who was still interested in taking the trip. Since we had plenty of time, we toured the historic yard where several cars were in various stages of restoration by the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Several volunteers of that organization were hard at work. The Friends has 2,300 members from around the world.
Soon two buses appeared. The air-conditioned bus was comfortable and we enjoyed some spectacular mountain scenery, with the bus climbing up steep grades, taking us through tunnels, careening along narrow roads above breathtaking gorges below. Not the exact route the train takes, but it was impressive. Straining through tall ponderosa pine trees, we saw train tracks and thought how much more exciting it would have been on the train! We finally arrived at the Antonito, Colorado station (7,890 ft. elevation) had time to go through the gift shop and then boarded the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad to Osier, Colorado.
My husband reserved four seats in the Parlor Class, an elegantly restored Victorian-era car. We should have gone coach class since most of the time was spent in the open-air observation platform, also known as the gondola. The scenery was spectacular, as I will describe. The brochure laid out an informative track route to follow, starting with Chama all the way to Antonito. Although we missed about a third of the route by taking the bus, there was still much to see as the tracks cover a total of 64 miles. Leaving the flat, open San Luis Valley, we looped back and forth from Colorado to New Mexico. Colorado is a beautiful, mountainous state, but this southwest section of the valley is dry and monotonous compared to the rest of that state. The one thing it has going for it are the high, majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. However, soon the vast, flat openness disappears and we commenced climbing. White-barked, slender aspen trees escort us throughout our trip. Although we didn’t see much wildlife, bears, elk, and deer roam the forest and hawks and eagles fly overhead. We came across some shady names and places, like Hangman’s/Ferguson’s Trestle. A villain, Ferguson was convicted for an unknown crime and hanged from a bridge on Hangman’s Trestle. In 1988, a television movie Where the Hell’s That Gold, starring Willie Nelson and Delta Burke was filmed on location. For several miles, we looped down, up and around, crossing Lava Loop, used for turning snowplows in the winter. As the train climbed up a ledge, a Lava Tank appeared, sitting on a high mesa. This tank once held water for the engines, pumped from the Rio de Los Pinos below. Leaving New Mexico, the track winds around a horseshoe curve in Colorado to Whiplash Curve, named Whiplash because steel wheels on steel rails slip on steep hills, so the railroad must loop back on itself to gain altitude. Heading west, the train loops around the sides of mountains taking us to Sublette, New Mexico, a water stop. Leaving Sublette, we passed Toltec Siding, used to accommodate long pipe and oil trains in the 1950s. Shortly after, we enter a long tunnel, Mud Tunnel, lined with wooden pillars to support its 342 length of soft volcanic ash. Veering north into Colorado, the train works around Phantom Curve, named for the ghostly shapes and shadows seen in the locomotive head light at night. Heading south into New Mexico, we enter Rock Tunnel, a long tunnel bored through 360 feet of solid rock. Soon the train inches its way along the rim of 800-foot-deep Toltec Gorge, 600 feet above the Rio de Los Pinos and 800 feet from the opposite rim of the gorge; a truly awesome view! As we leave Toltec Gorge, we passed Garfield Monument, dedicated to the memory of President James Garfield after his assassination in 1881.Our next stop was lunch at Osier, Colorado.
Before the railroad arrived in 1880, Osier (elevation 9,637 ft) was a toll station on the road from Conejos, New Mexico to Chama. It had a section house, bunker houses, a coaling platform, a water tower, a turntable, and RR sidings. During its peak, there were several hundred residences. Some of these items are still on display but we didn’t walk around to view them. Today, Osier is a ghost town. Its claim to fame is a stopping place for lunch. Out of nowhere, a large, wooden, two-story building stands alone in this beautiful wilderness. Food is driven into Osier daily from 40 miles away. Satiated with good food, we boarded the train back to Antonito. From there the bus transported us back to Chama. For those who are interested in trains and viewing stunning, breathtaking scenery, wild flowers, exotic desert plants, spruce, ponderosa pine and shimmering aspen trees, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has it all.
If we had come a day earlier to Chama before the fire, the train would have taken us to Cumbres Pass, 10,015 feet in elevation, the highest mountain pass reached by rail in the United States. From there we would have looped across Windy Point. The rails are laid on a rock shelf, carved out of the face of the cliff. The train then descends a 4% grade into the Rio Chama valley and loops around Tanglefoot Curve, a loop so tight it appears the locomotive will meet the caboose.
No one in Chama knew how damaging the fire was, nor when the train would once again cross the Lobato Trestle. In August, the Friends have planned a 40th anniversary to commemorate its 40th year of being co-owned by the state of Colorado and New Mexico as partners. According to their updated website, until the trestle is repaired, Chama Depot passengers will take a luxury motor coach trip to Cumbres station and return, bypassing the damaged trestle. It’s not too late to plan this exciting, historic ride.