Voted one of North America’s most scenic train rides and one of New Mexico’s most popular activities, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad takes railfans on a thrilling journey into an era when steam-driven trains opened up the West and the swaying of train cars marked the slow passage of time. Close your eyes, hear the train whistle, and you’ll be transported back to the 1880s when passengers traveled similar routes in what was then a record time—top speed, 12 miles per hour. Open your eyes and take in the scenery, where every view is a spectacular photo opportunity.
Originally built in 1880 as part of the Denver & Rio Grande’s narrow gauge San Juan Extension, the Cumbres & Toltec served the silver mining district of the San Juan Mountains in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. Silver eventually panned out, and despite major equipment upgrades in the 1920s and a minor natural gas boom after World War II, operations dwindled. The line was abandoned in 1969.
In a testament to the power of a small, dedicated group of railway preservationists and enthusiasts, the most scenic parts of the line were saved. In 1970, New Mexico and Colorado bought the 64 miles of track and side structures that cross the two states’ lines 11 times between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. The purchase included nine steam locomotives, over 130 freight and work cars, and the Chama yard and maintenance facility. Trains carrying pleasure riders rolled out of the two depots the next year across volcanic desert, through alpine meadows, and into evergreen stands, snaking into two tunnels, over the 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass (the highest mountain pass reached by rail in the nation), along the 600-foot drop of the Toltec Gorge and the 137-foot Cascade Trestle.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark for its historic and exceptionally well-preserved buildings and equipment, the Cumbres & Toltec operates from Memorial Day through late October over six unique routes. Half- and full-day excursions travel through some of the most beautiful high-country landscapes around. Many include a lunch stopover at Osier Station, the midway point. That lunch is no afterthought. It’s delicious, especially the famous triple chocolate cake.
Fans of Westerns may recognize locations, engines, and train cars from movies and TV shows filmed along the route. From Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, to Wyatt Earp, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Hostiles, the trains, buildings, and depots have been featured in more than 20 documentaries, mini-series, and films.
“New in 2021 are shorter rides to better serve those who don’t want to invest a full day on the experience. We’ve got special Friday trains at noon, and monthly Sunday trips on our newly restored historic No. 168 steam locomotive, too,” says interim CEO Eric Mason, referring to an engine rescued from neglect in Colorado Springs and brought to Antonito for a 27-month restoration. “We’ve married up some recently restored passenger cars with this beautiful engine after decades apart for the highly anticipated San Juan & New Mexico Express route. Railfans and history buffs will have the most authentic journey on a railroad they have can have right now, as these cars and the locomotive are beautiful.”
During the 2021 season there will be special 50th-anniversary events featuring No. 168 and visiting guest engines offering still and run-by photo ops, plus a planned overnight train with sleeper cars illuminated by an almost-full moon. A “steam fest” will fire up four engines for demonstrations, for whistle blows, and to power the original pile driver and steam derrick, themselves lovingly restored by the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec.
For those who really want to immerse themselves in the history and technical details of steam engines, the in-demand fireman and engineer schools offer a chance to live out the dream of stoking the fires of an antique K-36 Baldwin locomotive and push the throttle as the engine runs the tracks.
The romance of just being a passenger cannot be underestimated, says Mason. “Any journey becomes the ride of your life that cannot be replicated anywhere else. It’s certainly one of the best and most family-friendly ways to see some of the most beautiful and interesting landscapes around.”