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Cumbres & Toltec serves up time travel with spectacular scenery and 1890s ambience

Ready to take a step back in time?

To 1890, or thereabouts?

To a time when digital screen time is replaced by vistas of meadows, aspens, sheer rock faces and wildlife. When cellphones are replaced by face-to-face conversations with fellow travelers. When your quiet, air-conditioned mode of transportation is replaced by the open-air, clickety-clack of a steam-powered train.

Living in Albuquerque, we’d heard about the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad for years. But fitting it into a busy schedule was tough.

It was just so … inconvenient.

The historic train takes off daily at 10 a.m. from Chama, a full three hours from Albuquerque. And the 64-mile ride to Antonito, Colorado, including lunch, is about six hours, with a motorcoach returning you back to Chama around 6 p.m.

There are other, shorter options and special rides offered throughout the season, which ends in mid-October.

Any of the options is worth it.

We signed up for the Friends of the Railroad Moonlight Train ride that left Chama at 5 p.m. on a Friday, traveled over Cumbres Pass to Osier, where we disembarked, had dinner and then returned to Chama at 11:30 p.m.

What made this trip special is that the ride up was in daylight and the ride back was under a spectacular moon, making for two entirely different experiences. (This particular excursion is offered only once a season, but there are at least three more moonlight train rides offered this year.)

When the train leaves Chama, it travels through ranchland and then through aspen forests, with deer, antelope and elk sightings. You cross a high trestle that spans Wolf Creek. The train is traveling at a 4% grade, and the locomotive is working hard by the time you reach Cumbres Pass, at 10,015 feet.

The aspens give way to breathtaking meadows ringed by conifers. Chama gets nearly 100 inches of snow a year. Here, it’s closer to 200 inches of snow. Not surprising, the homes and cabins sprinkled about are used in the summer only.

Then it is into Osier, where a tasty prime rib or cod dinner with all the fixings and delicious desserts was served cafeteria style. There, we switched from shorts into jeans and hoodies for the cooler ride home, which was truly magical.

We had splurged for the parlor car experience, which provides individual, comfy seats that face the windows and has its own bar. The tourist car had facing seats with small tables in between. The coach car had rows of bench seats in a traditional bus-like formation. All offered the spectacular views. There is also a concession car that sells drinks and snacks.

But the best car, by far, is the open platform car, available to everyone, where you can stand and watch the trees and vistas stream by during the day, and enjoy the moonlight, stars and shadows on the return.

In the darkness, volunteers take turns shining a special flashlight into the shadows, and sure enough, we spotted a heard of antelope, several deer and three elk with large racks.

Onboard, the experience is enhanced by the employees and volunteers – all of whom are passionate about the Cumbres & Toltec.

The railroad is owned by both New Mexico and Colorado and is overseen by four commissioners – two from each state. We lucked out in that Commissioner Bill Lock, an Albuquerque attorney, and railroad President John Bush were onboard, stopping by often to offer history, insight and plenty of trivia.

Such as: The train crosses between Colorado and New Mexico 11 times; that it is the highest, longest steam-powered narrow-gauge railroad in the U.S.; that the railroad has 80 employees as well as volunteers who have donated tens of thousands of hours of work.

For them, this piece of metal history is a labor of love. And it offers an experience sure to create lasting memories. Even if it does take several washings to get the soot out of your hair.

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