ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When most people think of traveling on the sightseeing Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, from Chama, N.M., to Antonito, Colo., or vice versa, they likely envision riding it in autumn to take in the dazzling gold of aspen leaves and the various and vivid hues of other kinds of foliage.
But riding the railroad’s trains is also a great way to escape the simmering heat of spring and summer. It’s not unheard-of to travel through summer snow flurries in 10,015-feet Cumbres Pass.
“It’s a great thing to do on a summer day,” said Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad spokeswoman Joy Meadows. “Chama is so beautiful and so much cooler. Because we have such a change in altitude, we definitely suggest that people bring a jacket.” Even in the middle of summer.
Owned jointly by the states of New Mexico and Colorado since 1970, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad starts its 49th season Saturday, May 25. It continues through Oct. 20, by which time you’ll probably need earmuffs and mittens.
It’s 10 a.m. in late spring, maybe early summer, in Chama, the Rio Arriba County town, population about 1,000 or so, elevation 7,860 feet, seven miles south of the Colorado border. You’re sitting in a Cumbres & Toltec passenger car as the train starts its 64-mile run along the narrow-gauge tracks to Antonito, Colo., population about 800, elevation 7,890.
You’re not long on your way before the steam engine is pulling you past the meadows of a historic sheep ranch and across a trestle high above Wolf Creek. And then you are out of the aspen stands and into evergreen forest as the train works its way up to Cumbres Pass, the highest point attained by any steam railroad in North America.
Next, you’re into and out of the exceptionally tight Tanglewood Curve and rolling into romantically rough-hewn Osier, Colo., elevation 9,635, for a lunch break shared with the passengers of the Cumbres & Toltec train that started out of Antonito earlier on its run to Chama.
After lunch, your train rumbles toward Toltec Gorge, elevation 8,793, before threading its way along a narrow ledge in a sharp descent during which the only view is straight down – if you have your eyes open. But then things gentle out into hills and aspens and finally broad plains as the train rolls into Antonito.
During your journey, the train has crossed back and forth across the New Mexico-Colorado border 11 times.
Wyatt, Doc and Indy
Opening day on Saturday will feature ceremonies, including Southwestern-style entertainment, starting at 9 a.m. in Chama and Antonito. Then the trains will depart both towns, each pulled by two steam engines, a rare sight in the 21st century. During the lunch stop in Osier, people will have the opportunity to see four working steam locomotives together.
All the steam engines on the line date back to the 1930s. The tracks themselves were originally built in 1880 by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad to connect the silver mining towns in the San Juan Mountains with Denver. Old West legends such as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday may well have ridden those rails back then.
“We know Wyatt and Doc were in those mining camps and those tracks were the only way to get there,” said Cumbres & Toltec spokesman Rich Grant.
Young Indiana Jones, in the person of actor River Phoenix, definitely did ride a Cumbres & Toltec train during the filming of 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” The Cumbres & Toltec train played the role of the circus train on which the movie’s villains pursue young Indy.
The house that was used as young Indiana Jones’ home in that movie is now the Indiana Jones Bed & Breakfast in Antonito.
Worth the time
If you drove by car from Chama to Antonito, it would take you about an hour. Traveling on a Cumbres & Toltec train, which never exceeds 12 mph, it takes six hours. But that’s why they call it scenic. You see things from the train you could not dream about in a car.
“There is an open gondola car,” Grant said. “I’ve seen elk and deer from that car. But the best thing I’ve seen is a sheep herd crossing the track. We had to slow down. And coming out of the Rock Tunnel, you are looking down 700 feet to Toltec Canyon.”
There are a wide variety of train travel options. There are full-day trips and half-day trips. You can travel all the way on a train or partway in a motorcoach. And then there are special trains that take you exploring geology and botany, string you along to mountain pass sunset dinners and pull you back in time to the Roaring Twenties.
Meadows said the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad experience is great for families, something she knows about firsthand because she has made the trip with her kids.
“I’ve just enjoyed the family experience of being off-grid,” she said. “It is a multigenerational experience.”
It does not get much more off-grid than traveling through the high mountains on a steam train along tracks laid out in the 19th century.
“It’s so authentic,” Meadows said. “People want to have an authentic experience, but they are so hard to come by.”