Visiting the Cumbres & Toltec
Chama, New Mexico, might be some of the most sacred ground for 1920s railroad and steam locomotive enthusiasts. That’s the western end of the mighty Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, and it’s the site of an authentic shop, yard, and depot. It’s the start of the dramatic eastbound climb across 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass. It is a place where narrow gauge steam trains put on a show every day on steep grades, and best of all, you can ride and see it.
A ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic from either the Chama or Antonito, Colorado, terminals is easy. Both are easily accessible. Antonito is about 20 miles south of the San Luis Valley city of Alamosa, where food and lodging are easily available. Chama is about 3 hours north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Good two-lane roads connect them.
Trains depart daily from both terminals, pausing mid-point at Osier, Colorado, for a lunch stop (buffet meal of turkey or meatloaf is included), and return. It is not possible in 2021 to ride across the 64-mile railroad, so if you want the whole experience, plan on two days.
Riding the Cumbres & Toltec
For years, enthusiasts have debated the best direction of travel for the C&TS, and both have their appeal. Westbound from Antonito to Osier is a long, sustained upgrade trip. That’s a great show. The eastbound trip across Cumbres is action-packed as the 3-foot gauge 2-8-2 Mikados fight a 4% -grade soon after leaving Chama that doesn’t relent until they reach the summit at Cumbres. For my money, I’ll take the Chama side of the hill, and watch the majesty and grandeur of the timeless struggle of man and machine against gravity and curvature in a place of surrealistic scenic beauty.
Either ride offers spectacular trestles, tunnels, loops, and excitement at every turn. The dramatic Toltec Gorge on the Antonito side is the highlight, and well worth the trip. Passengers can choose from first-class accommodations and coach, and everyone is welcomed into the open-air gondola, where volunteers with the Friends of the C&TS narrate highlights and the view is unobstructed and fantastic.
Highlights at Chama
At Chama, the terminal — shop, coaling tower, depot, water tanks, yard, and more — are all vintage 1920s. Antonito is a relatively new terminal, made for the tourist railroad in the 1970s. Plan to spend a little time carefully walking around the Chama yard and admiring what has been saved so carefully. It is the chance to step back into time. Feel the cinders crunch under your feet. Smell the smoke. Hear the pounding of hammers testing staybolts. It’s all here.
Photographing the Cumbres & Toltec
And after you’ve taken a ride, you can do some photography. Highway 17 out of Chama parallels the railroad to Cumbres Pass and down the other side to Los Pinos, and many good action photos of the train can be taken. Just be safe when on the side of a highway and keep your situational awareness high.
Enjoy your visit to the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic. Revel in this time machine that takes you back to the way American mountain steam railroading was 100 years ago. We are lucky to have such a railroad, and it will inspire and delight you — a true Rocky Mountain high.