In an era of fast-paced, perpetual connectivity, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad provides an opportunity to disconnect, to step back into the raw, rugged, majestic beauty of the American West, complete with lack of cell phone reception.
Voted by the readers of USA Today as the most scenic train ride in the nation in 2020, 2019 and 2017, the historic steam train chugs along at a top speed of 12 mph, providing guests with a leisurely 6-hour sojourn through the scenic San Juan mountains between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. The train travels the original 64-miles of tracks laid in 1880, winding across the borders of Colorado and New Mexico 11 times through high mountain passes, alpine meadows, and conifer and aspen forests that are mostly inaccessible by car.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the longest, highest, and most complete example of late 19th and early 20th century narrow gauge, steam-powered railroading in the United States. The railway is named based on its two most-prominent features, the 1,000-foot Toltec Gorge, which is one of the sheerest drops in the United States, and Cumbres Pass, which, at 10,015 feet, is the highest railroad pass in the country.
The railroad, designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2012, has the country’s largest collection of narrow-gauge locomotives and cars. Volunteers meticulously restored engines and rolling stock, operating between 5-8 steam engines manufactured between the 1880s and the early 1900s. In total, they have 185 cars stored in the railroad yards at Chama and Antonito, including 11 locomotives. Additionally, they have restored numerous historic structures on the route, including two tunnels, bridges, section houses and water tanks.
TIP: There are a lot of wildflowers in June, particularly wild Irises. The aspens usually start turning gold in late September. However, it varies every year based on weather and water.
History of Cumbres Toltec
The Denver & Rio Grande Western provided essential transportation and freight service between Denver and the remote mining camps around Silverton, Colorado during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The rugged terrain in the San Juan Mountains required a narrower, 3-foot gauge track, because it allowed them to lay rail where standard gauge tracks wouldn’t fit. Additionally, the narrower rails allowed the train to navigate tighter curves and, best of all, the track was much cheaper. Engineers also had the foresight to build the railroad on south-facing slopes (when it was possible) to maximize sun exposure. It speeds up melting, which is an important consideration in an area where heavy winter snow pack is common.
The Denver & Rio Grande Western
The Denver & Rio Grande Western had multiple goals when establishing their rail lines in the Southwest. First, they wanted to link Denver with Salt Lake City. Second, they wanted a main corridor connecting Denver to El Paso, Texas via Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Third, they wanted a line to connect to the lucrative San Juan mining district via La Veta and Alamosa. Though they pulled off two of their goals, they never reached Texas due to prolonged legal battles with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) over access to New Mexico’s Raton Pass.
They did connect the mining communities in the San Juan mountains to Durango and Denver, with the line arriving in Chama on December 31, 1880. In total, the track runs 64-miles, through two tunnels, over a 10,000-foot mountain pass, along a 600-foot gorge, on the way to Durango, Colorado.
Due to the inability to interchange cars with standard-gauge lines, the Rio Grande began phasing out their narrow-gauge tracks in 1890. They converted profitable lines to standard-gauge. Unfortunately, the Federal Government repealed the Sherman Act in 1893, which discontinued the use of the silver and gold standard to back American currency. The ensuing “Silver Panic” decimated mining communities throughout the west, with many of the mines in the Silverton area closing. Though the narrow gauge lines continued to operate based on transporting of livestock, timber, and farm produce, they were no longer profitable enough to justify the expense of upgrading to standard gauge tracks.
End of an Era
Rail transportation continued to wane through the 1950s. The last passenger train ran in February, 1951. However, the freight line remained in service, propped up after World War II by the oil and gas boom in the Four Corners area and southern Colorado. However, that also dwindled in the 1960s. Finally, the Rio Grande ceased freight service in 1968. They petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1969 to abandon the remaining narrow gauge trackage. With that, the use of steam locomotives in freight service in the United States came to an end.
New Mexico and Colorado Team Up for Tourism
Fortunately, Colorado recognized the tourism potential and quickly mobilized to save the Durango – Silverton section. That became the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge as of 1970. Additionally, Colorado teamed up with New Mexico to purchase the scenic 45-mile, scenic stretch between Chama and Antonito for $547,120. The deal included all line-side structures and equipment. In total, they got 9 steam locomotives, over 130 freight and work cars, as well as the Chama yard and maintenance facility. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, along with its sister operation, the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge (D&SNG), were operational and toting tourists by 1971.
Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
Currently, the railroad is operated for the states of Colorado and New Mexico by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, an interstate agency authorized by an act of Congress in 1974. Care of the historic assets and interpretation of the railroad is entrusted to the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a non-profit, member-based organization whose mission is to preserve the railroad as a living history museum for the benefit of the public.
Cumbres Toltec in Film
20 documentaries, mini-series, and films have featured the Cumbres Toltec over the past five decades. For example, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Bite the Bullet, Wyatt Earp, Butch & Sundance: The Early Days, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, A Million Ways to Die in the West, directed by and starring Seth MacFarlane, the PBS American Experience: Billy the Kid, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feature the train. For fans of the Indiana Jones franchise, the Jones’ childhood home is located in Antonito, Colorado.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TSRR) will begin its 51st season on June 5, 2021, running coal-fired steam locomotives from Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico through October 24, 2021.
Bathrooms and concession car with snacks and gifts are available on the train.
The standard, full-day trips are the Chama All-Aboard and Antonito All-Aboard. Full day round-trip trains will climb the steep grade to Cumbres Pass at 10,015 feet, steam over Cascade Trestle, passing through the beauty of aspen and conifer forests, canyons, and streams, with a full lunch stop at beautiful Osier Station. All of the food served is sourced locally in northern New Mexico and is entirely homemade.
June 5 – September 12, 2021 | Round-trip trains will depart five days a week from Chama at 10 AM to Osier, then return to Chama at 4:05 PM. Additional trips will be added for six departures a week starting September 13.
June 8- September 12, 2021 | Round-trip trains will depart five days a week from Antonito at 10 AM to Osier, then return to Antonito by 4:40 PM. The roundtrip train from Antonito CO will operate daily, seven days a week from September 13-October 24, 2021. Full day round trips will steam through two tunnels, pass through Phantom Canyon and along the lip of Toltec Gorge, with a lunch stop at Osier Station.
Shorter Trips for 2021
The C&TSRR is introducing three shorter trips for the 2021 season. These tours are designed for folks who want to enjoy the train, with time left to explore the beauty of the New Mexico and Colorado border.
New route will depart from the top of Cumbres Pass at 11:10 AM. The trains heads to Osier Station for a full lunch and returns to Cumbres Depot by 2:45 PM. Trains will operate five days a week from June 5-Sept 12, 2021 and six days a week from Sept 13-Oct 24, 2021.
Chama High Noon
What could be more exciting than listening for the train whistle at High Noon in Chama and catching a thrilling ride to the top of Cumbres Pass and back? This quick excursion train will operate on Fridays from June 11 – Oct 22, 2021. The train departs Chama Station at 12 PM, returning at 2:30 PM. No lunch on this ride.
This shorter, family friendly ride chugs along the high mountain desert and offers views of a shield volcano just miles away. This trip departs Antonito at 11 AM, travels to Big Horn, returning to Antonito at 2:30 PM. No lunch on the ride; however, there are snacks, beverages, and a full bar available in the concession car. The Antonito Express will depart daily from May 29-June 4 and will run three Sundays per month through mid-September.
San Juan & New Mexico Express
For train buffs around the world, this ride is an unprecedented historic railroading experience. Historic 1883 steam locomotive No. 168 will pull a train of all authentic 19th century Denver & Rio Grande cars on the exact same tracks across the Rocky Mountains that it originally did from 1883-1938. What is truly remarkable is that engine No. 168 sat outside in Antlers Park, Colorado Springs for 75 years. Though the engine was completely exposed to the elements of snow, hail and rain, it has been completely restored to its original 1883 appearance. In fact, it is one of only two locomotives of its class left in the world.
Special excursions from Antonito are limited to 60 people. Departures are scheduled for one Sunday each month: June 27, July 25, August 15, Sept. 19, Oct. 24. The train will depart Antonito at 10 AM. The train travels to Osier Station for lunch, returning to Antonito at 4:40 PM. Make reservations!
A Rain Fan Fantasy | Rent Your Own Car
Rent your own private rail car and get together with up to 20 friends. Fun experience for family reunions, special birthdays, and anniversaries, or for people who simply want more privacy. Additionally, if you are traveling as part of a larger group, renting a private car is actually cheaper than full ticket prices. Private cars of any class can be reserved with lunch included for the 2021 season.
- Coach Car: Classic seating, includes cushioned benches.
- Deluxe Tourist Car (all ages): Cafe seating, with complimentary beverages and snacks. Beer wine, and cocktails available for purchase.
- Parlor Car (21 yrs+): First class service at the end of the train (caboose), with chairs and tables facing the windows for an epic view. Continental breakfast, complimentary snacks, and beverages (non-alcoholic) are included; however, there is an additional charge for beer, wine, and cocktails. You can also step out the back for fresh air and fantastic photo opportunities.
- Open Air Gondola: Spend a few minutes, or the entire ride, enjoying fresh mountain air. Volunteers from The Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad provide an overview of the landscape and history of the area.
500 S Terrace Ave
PO Box 1057
Chama, NM 87520
Phone: (575) 756-2151
Fax: (575) 756-2694
5234 B US Hwy 285
PO Box 668
Antonito, CO 81120
Phone: (719) 472-3984
Fax: (719) 376-2467
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is “The Best Train Ride in America”
USA Today 10Best