After a brief delay, it’ll be full steam ahead for the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad season beginning on July 1.
Originally scheduled for a June 11 opening, the railroad, which follows a 64-mile path between Chama and Antonito, Colorado, while crossing the two state’s borders 11 times, delayed those plans by approximately three weeks due to the dry conditions and ongoing threat of wildfires in the area.
“We evaluated it and did a couple of trips across the railroad looking at conditions, and we said, ‘You know, it’s so dry that running through from Chama to Antonito, the risk of setting a fire is substantial,'” said C&TSRR president Scott Gibbs. “We just didn’t feel like (that was) being good stewards of what we’re entrusted with by these people of Colorado and New Mexico.
“There just aren’t any firefighting resources left in the state,” he added. “If we were to set a fire, my concern was we would take and pull resources off some of these other fires that are threatening people’s homes and lives right now. A lot of what we run through is not populated.”
The railroad has long adopted a proactive approach to fire safety. Last year, one of the coal-fired steam engines was converted to burn oil, which according to Gibbs reduces fire-starting potential. And for at least a decade, C&TSRR has employed a motorized firefighting railcar that follows the train on its routes.
“These are equipped with wildland firefighting gear,” Gibbs said of the cars. “They have water tanks and they’re set up for the crew member to do the initial attack on anything that gets started, and then serve as the initial incident commander if they need to bring in additional resources if the fire is more than the individual can handle. We sometimes will put two people on one of the cars, particularly out of Chama, to give it additional resources to fight it if there is something that we do start. It’s a way of protecting and making sure we don’t have something that gets out of hand.”
The brief delay hasn’t dampened the public’s enthusiasm to ride the train. After a 2021 that set a new record for revenue, advance reservations for the upcoming season approached 10,000 prior to the delay, according to Gibbs. That hiccup resulted in approximately 2,800 of those reservations either being postponed or refunded, but for the most part early returns are quite positive
“To put that in context we handled 37,750 (reservations) last season,” Gibbs said. “We were well over a quarter of last year’s total ridership already booked when we pulled the three weeks off the schedule. We’re already back over 8,500 advance ticket sales so far (through mid-June). We’re doing very, very well. As you listen to people making reservations, they’re excited to get here. We’ve got people booking from all over the world.”
The C&TSRR has run for more than 140 years and takes riders through a variety of off-the-grid wilderness including canyons, miles of aspen and conifer forest, a variety of wildflowers and abundant wildlife. Passengers can move between cars or ride outdoors on a gondola car – all while reaching top speeds of 12 miles per hour. The train reaches the top of the 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass, which is the highest point reached by any steam engine in North America.
Ride options can range from a full- and half-day trips to short express options, including the Chama Express, which runs on Fridays in July and is approximately two-and-a-half hours from Chama to Cumbres Pass and back. Special trips include the Geology and Botany Trains along with the newly added 168 Dinner and Brunch Trains, which feature a historic steam engine from the 19th century pulling a line of fully-restored wooden cars. A full list of trips and booking options can be found at cumbrestoltec.com.
“Much of this railroad is above 8,000 feet, and so (in) summertime it’s a nice place to come where it’s cool,” Gibbs said. “The canyon that we run along, Toltec Gorge Canyon, is absolutely spectacular. We’ve got two tunnels that are along that canyon edge. The Los Pinos river runs down through the bottom of that canyon. It’s spectacular scenery. And then you’re riding something that has been in service for 142 years and much of the scenery has not been altered. We have some customers that love to get away from their cell phone connection and just have a day they can turn off.”