Friday, September 15, 2023

Riding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

Autumn is a great time to take a ride into New Mexico’s high country to see the trees changing colors from aboard one of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad’s antique trains.

The railroad’s steam locomotives chug along over 64 miles of narrow gauge track spanning the mountains between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo., crossing both state’s borders 11 times.

As the trains wends its way up and over 10,000-foot high Cumbres Pass at a top speed of 12 miles-per-hour, passengers have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. 

The passing countryside includes wide meadows of native grasses bordered by thick stands of aspen and pines trees through which the Los Pinos River meanders. Adventurous anglers seeking a bucket list experience can arrange to be dropped off and picked up later at a predetermined spot along the route.

Passengers can book passage aboard the train’s antique coach, parlor, or deluxe cars, which offer varying degrees of services and amenities. Any passenger can ride out on the open air car where exposure to the elements provides a heightened experience.

And with stations on both ends of the line in either Chama, N.M. or Antonito, Colo., passengers can plan their adventure from either side of the mountains.

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad depot at Antonito, Colo.

Just make sure you remember from which station you’re departing before you hit the road. 

During a recent autumn outing to catch the train we were cruising up U.S. 285 in remote northern New Mexico, about half way to Colorado, when it suddenly dawned on us that we were on the wrong side of the mountains. Out of habit we had taken the turnoff just north of Española where U.S. 84/285 splits because that’s the highway we usually take to go up to Colorado.

But today we were supposed to be on the other side of the Tusas Mountains, headed up U.S. 84 through Chama to catch the midday train at Cumbres Pass. Instead we were cutting through miles of empty sage, spruce and piñon studded countryside headed for Antonito in southern Colorado.

We got lucky though as we were just coming up to the intersection at Tres Piedras where we could take U.S. 64 over the mountains back to Chama. It was a shame we had to hurry because the fall scenery along this highway was at its peak and screaming for us to stop and take photographs.

We hustled to make the train and passed it just as we motoring up the mountain to Cumbres Pass station. The remote mountaintop station in the national forest sits at a jumping off point for Continental Divide Trail hikers and boasts primitive camp sites amid great scenic views.

Once on board we found our assigned seats and soon enjoyed the rhythmic rocking of the train, the clattering of the tracks and the warm sun and gentle breezes flowing through our open windows.

Wren Propp and Karl Moffatt enjoy a recent autumn ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Passing through dark tunnels, creeping along the edge of steep canyons and crossing over towering trestle bridges, the train marked its passage with the hoot and wail of its haunting steam whistle.

Arriving at Osier Station high in the mountains we were treated to a full blown buffet lunch inside the sprawling cafeteria.

The menu included green or red chile enchiladas, grilled chicken and barbecue pork, pinto beans, roasted potatoes, salads, coleslaw, cornbread, dinner rolls, tortillas, peach cobbler and other desserts.

Back onboard the train the bar car was serving up Coors tall boys and other adult beverages during the return trip. When we got back to Cumbres Pass I  surreptitiously stayed on board while my wife got off and picked me up later at the end of the line in Chama.

During the return trip I had the pleasure of hanging out between the cars with a young conductor who told me how much he loved his job but didn’t know if he could still continue doing it every summer now that he was finally graduating from college back in Oklahoma. He would soon be starting his teaching career and had a girlfriend back there too.

Boy, this poor guy sure seemed conflicted so I offered him my best advice about jobs and women, noting how both were in great supply compared to a fun gig like working on the railroad. I wished him the best of luck in getting his priorities straight as we rolled into Chama and parted ways.

Several months later I was watching the local news when they aired a story about the train featuring the same conductor. There he was telling the reporter how he was planning to be a teacher that winter but no matter what would be back on the railroad every summer after that for as long as they would have him.

Smart kid that conductor.
Visit the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad's website at for more information.

No comments:

Popular Posts