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How to visit the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

By Jim Wrinn | May 11, 2021

New Mexico-Colorado tourist railroad appears mostly as it did in the 1920s

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Tractor loads coal into steam locomotive
It’s morning in Chama, New Mexico, and everyone is hungry for breakfast – even the steam locomotives. No. 484 gets a load of coal before making its trip up Cumbres Pass. Trains: Jim Wrinn
Tractor loads coal into steam locomotive
Train snakes through S curve with another track in foreground
We’re at famous Tanglefoot Loop, where this westbound Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad train is gaining elevation to reach 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass. In a few moments, the train will negotiate the loop and pass on the near track. Trains: Jim Wrinn
Train snakes through S curve with another track in foreground
Steam passenger train rounds sharp curve to left
At Tanglefoot, the train reverses direction and heads straight to Cumbres Pass. Trains: Jim Wrinn
Steam passenger train rounds sharp curve to left
Inside of passenger car, with passengers in seats that face windows
First class accommodations on board the Cumbres & Toltec mean great outward facing seats, places for cameras and beverages, and big open windows. Trains: Jim Wrinn
Inside of passenger car, with passengers in seats that face windows
Steam train on hillside.
A Cumbres & Toltec train works its way up Cumbres Pass on a 4% grade. Below is the Chama River valley. Trains: Jim Wrinn
Steam train on hillside.
Overhead view of train approaching curve
A downgrade C&TS train nears the Colorado-New Mexico border as it completes its trip into Chama. Trains: Jim Wrinn
Overhead view of train approaching curve
People take pictures in open-air car as train rounds curve
One of the pleasures of riding the C&TS is the open-air gondola, where the sights and sounds of the railroad and nature work together as one. Trains: Jim Wrinn
People take pictures in open-air car as train rounds curve
Train negotiates curve with mountains as backdrop
With the San Juan Mountains in the background, a C&TS train negotiates an S-curve as it nears Dalton, N.M., just outside of Chama and home. Trains: Jim Wrinn
Train negotiates curve with mountains as backdrop

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.

Conclusion

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.

More information is available online.

 

 

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