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The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad East to West 7/17/2016

by Chris Guenzler

Robin, Chris Parker, Elizabeth and I woke up at the Rodeway Inn in Alamosa and I put the corrections into the stories before we had breakfast at the Country Kitchen. After breakfast, I uploaded the stories then met at the car to drive to Antonito. Once there, we started to look around after we picked up our tickets.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a three foot narrow gauge heritage railroad running between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. It runs over 10,015 ft Cumbres Pass and through Toltec Gorge, from which it takes its name. Trains operate from both endpoints and meet at the midpoint. Today, the railroad is the highest and longest narrow gauge steam railroad in the United States with a track length of 64 miles. The train traverses the border between Colorado and New Mexico, crossing back and forth between the two states 11 times. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has been jointly owned by the States of Colorado and New Mexico since 1970 when it was purchased from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, saving it from the scrap yards. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad received the Designation of a National Historic Landmark in 2012 by the United States National Park Service.


The railroad line was originally constructed in 1880-1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad as part of their San Juan Extension stretching from Alamosa, Colorado to Durango, Colorado. The line was constructed with three foot narrow gauge track to match the D&RGW's other lines. The line primarily supported mining operations in the San Juan mountains, mainly around Durango and Silverton. The longest and highest portion of the railroad, known as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, is 64 miles long and was constructed in 1880 in less than 9 months; an engineering miracle even by today's standards, considering the work was all done by hand.

Today's Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was built in 1882 as a branch line off this main. By the late 1950s mining had dwindled substantially and the line was on the verge of abandonment, but an oil boom near Farmington, New Mexico created a traffic surge that kept the line operating for another decade hauling oil and pipe. By the late 1960s the traffic was virtually gone and abandonment was applied for. The States of Colorado and New Mexico purchased the 64 miles of San Juan Extension between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico in 1970 and started operating the next year under the name of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad continues to operate daily between May and October each year with five fully-restored steam locomotives. Soon the C&TSRR will have six fully restored engines when D&RGW 168 locomotive is moved from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Antonito, Colorado and restored to service. The 168 will then be the oldest and most authentic steam locomotive in the United States operating. The 168 was built in 1883 and is only one of two remaining of the original twelve locomotives built between 1883 and 1885 for the D&RG line. The other locomotive, 169 is on static display in Alamosa and not operational.

Tourist operations

In 1970, the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased the portion of the line from Antonito to Chama along with much of the equipment that operated on the line. This section is the most scenic portion of the line, and a part that loops back and forth between the two states. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission was created by an act of Congress as a bi-state entity to oversee the railroad.

Over the years the railroad has been operated by several operators under contract by the commission, including Scenic Railways (1970-1981), Kyle Railways (1982-1996), Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Corporation/George Bartholomew (1997-1999), Rio Grande Railroad Preservation Corporation (2000-2002), Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Management Corporation (2003-2011), American Heritage Railways (2012) and Cumbres and Toltec Operating LLC (2013-).

1999 operator change

The lease of operator Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Corporation (George Bartholomew) was terminated by commission due to a failure to properly maintain the railroad and its equipment, replenish used parts and making rent payments. Rio Grande Railroad Preservation Corporation, formed by the Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec, assumed operations of the railroad a few months later.

2002 FRA shutdown

In spring 2002 the Federal Railroad Administration ordered the shutdown of the railroad until specific track bed issues were resolved.

2002 forest fire shutdown

The railroad was closed for much of the summer of 2002 by the US Forest Service due to extremely dry conditions, forest fires across the region, and fears that the steam locomotives would cause fires.

2010 trestle fire

On June 23, 2010, a brush fire severely damaged the Lobato Trestle, a long and high deck girder bridge. The railway trucked locomotive 484 and some coaches from Chama to Cumbres so that operations could continue on both sides of the break.

As of June 20, 2011, the Lobato Trestle was returned to service and trains were once more traveling the full length of the railroad, from Chama to the summit of Cumbres Pass and beyond, all the way to Antonito, whihc includes the daily lunch stop at Osier.

2012 operator change

In 2012 the Cumbres and Toltec signed a contract with American Heritage Railways to operate the railway; AHR also owns the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and formerly was operator of the Texas State Railroad. AHR gave notice at the end of the 2012 season that they would withdraw as operator. The C&TS formed a special sub-entity, Cumbres & Toltec Operating LLC, to operate the railway after AHR pulled out. John Bush was hired as president of C&TS in December 2012.

Tourist train ride

Trains depart each morning from both Chama and Antonito. In peak season there are trains every day of the week in either direction. They meet at Osier, the midpoint of the line where lunch is provided. Passengers may continue on their train to the other end or switch trains to return to their original terminal. Through riders have the option of a motor coach return to their original terminal. All seats are reserved. Seats are sometimes available to walk-ups, but this is rare in peak season.

All passenger trains are pulled by historic steam locomotives that originally worked on this line and others of the Denver and Rio Grande Western. Heavy trains out of Chama may have two locomotives as far as Cumbres Pass. East bound from Chama is the steepest portion so the steam engines tend to work hard and give off an acoustic and visual show. The remaining three-quarters of the eastbound trip is downgrade and the locomotives are fairly quiet. Westbound from Antonito, the grade is much less but the locomotives periodically work harder, especially on the last couple miles to Cumbres Pass.

The line passes through Rio Grande and Carson National Forests. Most of the line is bordered by rocky ledges, cliffs and formations of varying types. The train passes along the rim of Toltec Gorge, a spectacular, though brief highlight. Conifer and aspen trees dominate with periodic mountain meadows. The aspen trees turn a brilliant yellow in the fall making those trips popular. The easternmost quarter shifts to scrubby and arid rolling hills. There are numerous restored historic structures along the line, including two tunnels, bridges, section houses and water tanks.

Car and train charters are available. Extensive historic equipment is available for chartering.

There are typically four full-length excursion options:
Antonito to Chama by bus; return by train
Antonito to Chama by train; return by bus
Chama to Antonito by bus; return by train
Chama to Antonito by train; return by bus

and two reduced-length excursion options:
Antonito to Osier by train; return by train
Chama to Osier by train; return by train

Full-length adult fare is $99 for Coach class, $129 for Tourist class, and $169 for Parlor class. One child may ride free with the purchase of a full-price adult ticket; fares for each additional child start at $49. Add a 5% "Historic Preservation Fee" to all fares. All fares include a buffet lunch at Osier Station.

Historic significance

The Cumbres and Toltec is highly regarded by both railfans and historians due to its relative authenticity and surviving historic fabric. Chama houses one of the most physically complete railroad yards from the steam era in the US. Although portions of the roundhouse, warehouses, and parking lots have been changed, the railroad yard has the ambiance of pre-1960 railroad operations. The yard tracks contain authentic rolling stock and structures of the Denver and Rio Grande indigenous to the railroad line.

All the steam locomotives at the C&TS were built for and operated their entire careers for the Denver and Rio Grande Western. All 2-8-2 Mikados, these range from the relatively small K-27 "Mudhen", 463, once owned by Gene Autry, to the large K-37s, originally built as standard gauge locomotives. The mainstays are the venerable K-36 fleet, produced by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1925. The only two Surviving D&RGW rotary snowplows are onsite and both have operated for the C&TS.

As Denver & Rio Grande Railroad San Juan Extension, the railway was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The boundaries of the NRHP listed area were increased in 2007.

The railroad was featured extensively in the 1969 film "The Good Guys and the Bad Guys" and was used in the opening sequence of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". The 2014 film "A Million Ways to Die in the West" also featured this railroad.

Railroad operations

The C&TS has numerous siding and yards. There are turning wyes at Chama, Cumbres and Bighorn, turning loops at Osier and Antonito and a crossover at Lava. While officially headquartered in Chama, the railroad splits most of its functions between the terminuses of the railroad. The Cumbres and Toltec Commission offices are at Antonito, along with the railroad's main car shop where repairs to rolling stock are performed. The center of actual operations for the railroad is Chama, the site of the locomotive repair shop and the location of most of the historic equipment.

Our trip

The end of standard gauge sign.

To my surprise, K27 the "Mudhen" 463 would pull our train today. It was built by Baldwin in 1901, donated to City of Antonito in 1972, restored and put into service in 1994.

Our train consists of Mudhen 463.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad coach 504 "Sublette" built by the railroad in 198 from Denver and Rio Grande Western flat car 6540.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad coach 516 "Lobato" built by the railroad in 1986 from Denver and Rio Grande Western flat car 6543.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad coach 522 "Rio Arriba" built by the railroad in 1993 from Denver and Rio Grande Western flat car AX4606.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad coach 517 "Dalton" built by the railroad in 1997 from Denver and Rio Grande Western flat car AX4629.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad coach 521 "Santa Fe" built by the railroad in 1993 from a Denver and Rio Grande Western flat car.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad open gondola 9613 "Toltec Vista" built by the Denver and Rio Grande Western in 1953 as a standard-gauge box car.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad tourist car 511 "Chama" built by the railroad in 1986 from Denver and Rio Grande Western flat car 6501.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad parlor car 514 "New Mexico" built by the railroad in 1986 from Denver and Rio Grande Western flat car 6538.

The proper end of our train. I then showed Elizabeth around the yard.

Robin Bowers proving that boys will always play with trains. Next we went by the engine house.

Denver and Rio Grande Western 2-6-0 168, built by Baldwin in 1883, being restored.

Chris Parker proving that boys will always play with water towers. Next we walked to the entrance to the grounds.

This is the way you drive into the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad parking lot in Antonito.

The Antonito water tower.

Denver and Rio Grande Western K37 2-8-2 494 built by the railroad in 1928.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic 44 ton center cab switcher 19 built by General Electric in 1943 from the Oahu Railway and Land Company.

I bought a really nice Cumbres and Toltec Scenic T-shirt then boarded the tourist car for my trip to Chama but would not spend too much time in it as the open car is always the preferred car in which to ride. However, I enjoyed the free Coca-Cola during my trip. We departed on time at 10:00.

Leaving Antonito behind.

Crossing US Highway 285.

Looking back into the entrance of the Antonito facility.

Goodbye Antonito water tower.

Inside of the Tourist Car.

Mt. San Antonio, the only shield volcano in the continental United States.

Crossing the Hangman's Trestle.

The train starting up the grade.

Looking through the morning haze at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The train takes curves to gain elevation.

The train takes the first loop crossing the New Mexico and Colorado state lines three times.

A prong-horned antelope scurries into the bush.

The signposts for crossing the state lines.

The train heads toward the Lava Loop.

Crossing another state line sign.

Passing the Lava station sign.

Starting up the Lava Loop.

A view as we climb up the Lava Loop.

Climbing the Lava Loop.

The Lava Tank.

We left the Lava Tank behind as we continued to climb the grade.

The fire speeder following behind our train.

Looking back to where we had been.

Climbing to where we are going.

Climbing toward Whiplash Curve.

Climbing into the hills.

Heading toward Whiplash Curve.

The view across the valley.

Climbing the loop below Whiplash Curve.

The wonderful Elizabeth Alkire on her first trip on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Our train took the Whiplash Curve as it continues to climb the grade.

Mt. San Antonio.

Looking back to the bottom of Whiplash Curve.

Climbing toward Big Horn.

Big Horn Peak.

The Yard Limit sign for Big Horn.

Closing in on Big Horn.

The Big Horn wye with the curved tail track.

The Big Horn sign.

The Big Horn communication shed.

Our train taking the loops as it continues the climb to gain more elevation.

We have left the scrub desert floor and now are entering the forests as we climb higher.

The view looking to the north.

Passing MP 300.

Looking down into the valley.

The train is curving on the next loop.

The train is just below the Colorado state line.

Click here for Part 2 of this story!