There are hundreds of railroad museums and scenic train rides all across the United States. Many of them offer the opportunity to “step back in time” or “relive yesteryear.”
But few deliver on that promise quite like the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad – a 64-mile, narrow-gauge route across the rugged San Juan Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado that has gone nearly unchanged since the last freight train rumbled over Cumbres Pass 50 years ago.
Unlike other museums that are a hodgepodge of old trains from different places, nearly all the locomotives and cars of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic are original to the railroad they run on today. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad first put down rails in 1870
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic was voted the “best train ride in North America” by USA Today readers in 2016 thanks to the spectacular mountain scenery it traverses between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado.
Cumbres Pass sits at 10,015 feet above sea level and is the highest mountain pass reached by a railroad in the United States. The location gets its name from the Spanish word for “summit.” Decades ago, it was not uncommon for trains to get stuck here in gigantic snow drifts that can persist well into spring; the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic has needed to use a vintage rotary snowplow – the railroad version of a massive snowblower – to open the line for the first train of the season.
From Cumbres Pass, the train continues east downgrade through the rugged Toltec Gorge (featuring rocks from the Proterozoic Era that are more than a billion years old) and crosses over tall trestles and through tunnels.
Trains stop at Osier so passengers can disembark for lunch at a nearby mess hall and the locomotives can take on water. From there, trains enter the desert of southwestern Colorado for the final stretch to Antonito.
During the 64-mile trip, the train crosses the Colorado-New Mexico state line nearly a dozen times. Though a nearby highway follows the railroad for the first dozen or so miles out of Chama, after that the train is alone on the rugged southwestern landscape.
“Most of this territory doesn’t have paved roads or telephone lines,” says railroad president Bush. “So once the train pulls out of town and you’re looking out the window, you’re seeing the country as it was a century ago.”