Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad – Chama, NM

I did something yesterday that I have been wanting to do for a very long time. I rode the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which is a 64 mile portion of what used to be the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway. As America’s longest and highest narrow gauge railroad, it covers some pretty spectacular scenery as it winds in and out of Colorado and New Mexico.

I chose to park at the Chama, NM terminal and take the tour bus to the other end in Antonito, CO and then ride the train along the entire stretch of railroad back to Chama. You can also ride the train from either Chama or Antonito to the lunch stop in Osier, CO and then back to where you started from. However, I thought it would be really cool to see the entire 64 miles, and I was not disappointed.

The Train

There are two trains running daily. One that starts from Chama, NM and one that starts from Antonito, CO. They meet at Osier, CO where passengers have about an hour to eat lunch and look around before heading either back where they came from, or to the other end of the line.

Each train was pulled by a coal powered steam locomotive that was built in 1925 and consisted of five passenger cars and a concession car where you could by snacks. A single open air gondola car offers unobstructed views for all passengers. There were three coach class cars that were provide the cheapest fare, but also the least amount of comfort with bench seating. There was one tourist class car that offered more seating room and tables. And finally there was a single parlor car that offered the best views and first class service. I chose to splurge for a parlor ticket and very much enjoyed the snacks and beverages while enjoying the unparalleled views from the seats.

The parlor car was just over half full on my trip, with the majority of people lining the side with the best view. With the other side pretty much empty it allowed a lot of freedom to switch sides when the view was on the uphill side. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the parlor ticket  included an nicely embroidered bag, an etched glass, and an enameled lapel pin. The full-time attendant gave a nice narrative of what we were seeing along the route.

As the last car in the train, the parlor car offered great views from the rear platform, and the opportunity to chat with the Brakeman who was in the back looking forward to make sure the train was behaving.

Brakeman at the rear of the parlor car

Brakeman at the rear of the parlor car

All passengers were afforded the opportunity to stand in the open air gondola car and get covered in soot, errr, see the scenery and smell the fresh mountain air (which on that car smells a lot like burning coal). A docent was on the gondola car and was giving information on the passing scenery via a loud speaker system. I didn’t spend much time here as I was able to get all the details of the journey from the attendant in the parlor car. Plus I really didn’t feel like taking a soot shower.

Gondola car

Gondola car

All cars are restored to what they were like back in the day. In other words, they were full of gorgeous woodwork and ornate ceilings. I really felt transported back in time and gained a sense of appreciation for how travel used to be. Let’s just say that if I could shake the hands of the Wright brothers, I would. I can’t imagine traveling across country with a train being the best mode of transportation.

The Ride

Chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug. Sway. Bump. Jerk. Yeah, that about sums up the ride. I sure thought I had ridden a train before (guess I really should ask my memory, aka Mom), but I sure don’t remember the motion of an authentic steam train. Boy, was it a blast! If you get motion sickness, this isn’t the ride for you.

The cars were constantly swaying port to starboard (do they use these terms for trains, or is it just left and right?) and jerking/bumping fore and aft. Let me tell you, I don’t think I have ever had this much trouble walking in a straight line when I was sober. After a few, maybe, but definitely not when stone cold sober. Oh, let me tell you, going to bathroom on a moving steam train in something else. Honest, I tried to hit the target!

I can totally see how one could sleep on this type of a train. The constant motion will rock you to sleep, so I downed two cups of coffee after my turkey meal. I wasn’t about to nod off after a large meal. Not when there were cliffs to look over!

The Route

I chose to park at the terminal in Chama, NM, about 30 miles away from the state park I am staying for the week. The railroad offers passengers the ability to be transported via tour bus to the opposite end of the route to the terminal in Antonito, CO and then ride the train’s full 64 miles back to Chama. I chose this option as I wanted to see the entire route. You can also ride the train from Chama to Anotonito and catch the bus back. Not really sure why I chose to do it in reverse, but I am sure I had a semi-decent reason.

The tour bus took one hour exactly to transport us to the other end of the line, giving us a great view of the scenery through the valleys. It also took me to Colorado for the very first time. Let me tell you, I liked what I saw and can’t wait to see more of this state.

Tour bus that took me to Antonito

Tour bus that took me to Antonito

Departing the Antonito terminal (elevation 7900 feet) took us through high plains with scrub brush and vast open spaces. Apparently this area has been used for many notable films and TV programs.

Soon we were climbing up to eventually making our first stop in Sublette, NM where we took on water for the steam locomotive. Then onward to our lunch stop in Osier, CO at a cool 9600 feet elevation.

The highest point of the route was Cumbres Pass at 10,022 feet. From there it was downhill all the way to our final destination of Chama, NM (elevation 7800 feet). The 4% grade to Chama from Cumbre Pass is apparently the steepest that a traditional train can make. Anything steeper and it has to be a cog train. We stopped at Cumbres Pass to take on more water, giving us the opportunity to gasp for breath in the thin air.

It was very interesting to watch how the flora changed as we gained elevation. Starting out with nothing but scrub brush, as we gained elevation and headed west we ran into conifers and eventually a mixture of trees that included Aspens.

We passed high mountain meadows, hung off the ledge of very steep cliffs that looked down upon the Rio de Los Pinos (river of the pines), gazed upon high mountain peaks, and were awed by some truly spectacular scenery.

Of course we did the typical train things like crossing over trestles and going through tunnels carved from solid rock. We saw deer, elk and cows. It was a very moving ride, not from just the swaying of the train, but because of the sights along the route.

Most of the route passes through either National Forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, which means there is very little development and the scenery would be very similar to what it was when the railroad was constructed.

All along the route were various structures that serviced the railroad back in the day, including numerous water tanks and other support structures. Also very present were old telegraph poles. You know, the way that people communicated before telephones and long before the Internet.

The 64 mile route goes along the Colorado and New Mexico border, winding in and out of the two states a total of 11 times. Sometimes the border would be marked by fencing, or just a sign, depending on whether the train was transiting a relatively flat area or a steep mountain side.

Top speed of the train was around 22 mph, but this was just for a very short time as we departed Antonito, CO and traversed the relative flat lands. Once we started climbing our speeds varied from around 15 mph to 5 mph in the steeper areas.

Total transit time was a lot longer then I expected. I mean it was only 64 miles. But 64 miles in train speak, through the high mountains, is like 300 miles on flat interstate for a car.

It took almost three hours to go from the terminal in Antonito to the lunch stop in Osier. We had approximately an hour break there and then the train continued for another about 2 hours 20 minutes to Chama. So for arguments sake lets say the train took five and one half hours to transit 64 miles. Yeah, not the most efficient means of transportation, but definitely one of the most enjoyable and scenic.

The Terminals

Both ends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway have terminals and rail yards restored to the condition representative to when this was a working railroad. This includes yards to store locomotives and rolling stock, workshops and terminal buildings. You are able to walk freely throughout the yards but cannot enter workshops.

Antonito, Colorado Terminal
Chama, New Mexico Terminal

The lunch stop at Osier, CO includes many of the building and structures that were used back in the late 19th through the mid 20th century when this was a working railway.

All in all a very wonderful, worthwhile trip. While it can be tiring to be on a steam train that long, it is definitely something I highly recommend doing at least once in your life. Especially if you are any sort of a rail fan. Money well spent!

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