My wife, Maura, and I booked a passage aboard America’s longest and highest narrow-gauge railroad from Antonito, Colorado, to Chama, New Mexico, a distance of 64 miles on winding and looping tracks.
We hopped aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad on a chilly October morning as the steam-locomotive engineer blew the whistle to signal our departure. Over one hundred passengers were looking forward to going back in history over 130 years to the Old West when the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado bustled with cattle and sheep farms, and the San Juan Mountains to the west had scores of active silver mines.
Narrow-gauge tracks (3 feet apart), as opposed to the standard gauge (4 feet, 8 inches apart), better enable trains to make tighter curves through high-altitude terrain. These were also less expensive to construct back in 1880. At that time, this particular line connected with other Denver and Rio Grande rail lines from Chama, New Mexico, to Durango and Silverton, Colorado. In addition to passengers, it hauled livestock and silver ore until silver was replaced by gold as the monetary standard in 1893.
As the train chugged past a large, yellow water tank, which had filled up our steam engine earlier in the day, we immediately caught sight of the high volcanic dome of San Antonio Mountain rising several thousand feet above the surrounding landscapes of the border country. Its circular dome looked as if a small planet had fused with ours.
We gained speed up to 10 miles per hour across a high-plateau terrain of gray-green sagebrush, yellow rabbit-brush, and dark green yucca mixed with multi-colored wildflowers.
Within an hour’s time, we reached a scrub forest of pinyon pine and juniper, which gradually yielded to ponderosa pine forests at an altitude of 8,500 feet, a thousand feet higher than Antonito. Then came bursts of golden aspen that flowed down like a river from the higher slopes. We chatted with an Iranian immigrant who said that one of the most important factors of his leaving Iran over forty years ago was to experience the incredible beauty of the American West, with its national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. He also mentioned traveling on Japan’s high-speed shinkansen from Tokyo and chuckled about the difference in speed of 185 mph versus our slow train at 10 mph.
The steam locomotive continued to increase in altitude as we crisscrossed the New Mexico-Colorado border nearly a dozen times in our ascent toward spruce and fir tree-covered Cumbres Pass at 10,015 feet. Before arriving at this highest point of our trip, however, we stopped at Osier, Colorado, for a delicious, early Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, with gravy and a cranberry sauce—it certainly hit the spot.
Just below Cumbres Pass, we chugged by an old freight train with old box cars that had been leased by a group of railway photographers, who took plenty of pictures of our train as it steamed through sub-alpine meadows. Of course, we all waved to them with big grins on our faces.
Our engine blew its whistle loudly and repeatedly as we crossed over Highway 17 at Cumbres Pass and slowly descended a 4% grade to Chama, New Mexico, and through a beautiful valley of golden aspen.
Once we stepped off the train at our final destination, we rejoined modern times and took a bus back to Antonito. It was fantastic to spend six hours back in the 1880s amid a countryside that hadn’t changed one bit.
To experience a journey through America’s Old West, which bursts with history and stunning beauty, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad will certainly leave a lasting impression.