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Step back into another era on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Deborah Stone | Jun 23, 2014, 6 a.m.

There’s something about rail travel that’s special. It forces you to sit back, relax and just enjoy the passing scenery from the comfort of your window seat. Time slows down and the stresses of day-to-day life start to ebb the further you get from the station. You ease into the rhythm of the train’s motion and realize how much you revel in the simplicity of the situation. This is how travel used to be when rails dominated the landscape.

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Southbound train arrives into Osier, carrying passengers who began their journey in Antonito, Colorado. Photo by Deborah STone

Today, sadly, many historic trains and their routes are no longer in existence. Only a few remain, saved by state governments and operated by private organizations whose mission it is to preserve and interpret the railroad as a living history museum. Of these, there are just a handful that continue to be run by steam engine, once the power of American industry before the widespread use of gasoline and electric engines. The most authentic of them is the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a proud vestige of the spirit that conquered the West.

Built in 1880, the Cumbres & Toltec was part of the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad with tracks running from Denver through the Rockies to Silverton, Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Its route through steep passes and deep gorges was an engineering feat for the time. Crews surveyed, graded roadbed and laid track from Antonito, Colorado through breath-taking Toltec Gorge, over 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass and down the four percent grade into Chama, New Mexico. Narrow gauge was chosen so that the railroad could make tighter turns in the mountains and thereby reduce construction costs. The expanded system opened up the region and helped develop its natural resources. It was responsible for hauling ore, timber, cattle and sheep, as well as passengers.

The decline of silver mining in the 1890s, however, ended the railroad’s vital role and over the years, most of the narrow gauge lines in the Rockies were scrapped. By 1967, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had filed for abandonment. Fortunately, the most scenic part of its route, its equipment and its buildings were saved by the states of Colorado and New Mexico. Comprising 64 miles of what once was the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the finest example of narrow gauge, mountain steam railroading in the country. It is America’s longest and highest narrow gauge railroad and has been designated both a National and State Registered Historic Site and National Civil Engineering Landmark.

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Trains depart from either Chama in New Mexico or Antonito on the Colorado side. Photo by Deborah Stone

Thousands of folks ride this famed train each year between the months of May and October; embarking on the ride of a lifetime as they travel between Colorado and New Mexico, from the Mountains of the San Juans to the Conejos Valley. Trains depart from either Chama in Northern New Mexico or from Antonito on the Colorado side. Passengers can ride the train for the full 64 miles and then hop on a motor coach for the return journey or they can opt to take it to the halfway point, Osier, and then return by train. Both itineraries include an all-you-can-eat cafeteria style lunch in the dining hall at Osier. Families with young kids will want to choose the Cinder Bear Experience, a two-hour ride led by a costumed conductor that includes storytelling, games and sing-alongs. There are additional special trips including weekly sunset dinner rides and various themed excursions such as the Geology Train, which is hosted by famed geologists in the region.

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