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 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 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.
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, Hostiles starring Christian Bale; Netflix original movie The Harder they Fall, starring Idris Elba, Regina King, and Jonathan Majors, 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 52nd season on June 11, 2022, running steam locomotives from Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico through October 23, 2022.
Bathrooms and concession car with snacks and gifts are available on the train.
The new 2022 schedule features a mix of offerings.
Full Excursion Trips
Travel by train the full line between Chama, NM and Antonito, Colo. and includes a one-hour bus ride. These trips are called the Antonito All Aboard and the Chama All Aboard and include lunch and motorcoach service. Adult ticket prices start at $135 for summer departures and $155 for the fall season.
Half Limited Trips travel half the C&TS line
Departing from either Chama, NM or Antonito, Colo and traveling to the mid-way point of Osier Station and back. Lunch is included and the trips, called the Chama Limited or the Antonito Limited, are solely via train, with no bus service. Adult ticket prices start at $115 for summer departures and $135 for the fall season.
Short Express Options
Perfect for families, people short on time, and people who want to “chase the train” as well as ride it. The three-and-a-half hour Cumbres Express departs from Cumbres Pass at 11:10 am, heads to Osier for lunch (included in the price) and returns to Cumbres at 2:45 p.m. Adult tickets start at $110. On Fridays in July, the Chama Express will depart Chama at 1 p.m. and travel to Cumbres Pass, the highest operational railroad pass in the country and back to Chama by 3:30 p.m. Lunch is not included. Adult ticket prices start at $90, children 6-12 are $45 and children 2-5 are $25.
For 2022, the nation’s highest, longest and most authentic railroad is introducing these new special departures:
168 Dinner Train
Led by the historic #168 Steam Locomotive, experience the original west just as it was from our museum-quality historic train. Featuring all original Denver and Rio Grande 19th century equipment, travel from Antonito to Cumbres Pass in Victorian Splendor. Enjoy dinner at 10,015 ft. Cumbres Pass. Departures scheduled for June 11, August 20, September 10 and October 22. Tickets are $235. For an additional fee, you can book a seat in an original Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) Caboose #0579.
168 Brunch Train
Led by the historic #168 Steam Locomotive, experience the original west just as it was from our museum-quality historic train. Featuring all original Denver and Rio Grande 19th century equipment, you’ll travel in Victorian splendor from Cumbres Pass to Antonito with a stop at Osier Station to enjoy Sunday brunch. Departures scheduled for June 12, August 21, September 11 and October 23. Tickets are $225. For an additional fee, you can book a seat in an original Denver & Rio Grande (D&RGW) Caboose #0579.
Toltec Rattler Redux Photo Freight, October 24 & 25
For the first time ever, the C&TS will recreate the Toltec Rattler Redux, the first ever photo charter run by C&TS, 50 years ago. Pulled by a K-36 engine, the consist will have multiple freight cars, a rider boxcar, a rider gondola, and a caboose. Only 50 seats will be available on this 12-hour historic excursion, which will steam from Chama, NM to Big Horn and back, will include multiple photo run-by opportunities, and each seat selling for $300. The October 24 departure instantly sold out, so a second departure on October 25 was added with limited tickets remaining.
Special Trips are trips that do not run weekly, including the aforementioned monthly 168 Brunch Special, the 168 Dinner Special, as well as the Fourth of July Dinner Fireworks Celebration train, 168 Fourth of July Day Celebration Train, the Geology Train, which will run twice this year, and the annual Wildflower (Botany) Train.
Additionally, there will be a special photography charter and Moonlight Dinner Train Trip only available to members of the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec. Galloping Goose #5 also returns from September 27 – October 2. Tickets prices vary depending on the Special Trip. See website for more information.
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