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CUMBRES AND TOLTEC RAIL TRIPS
BETWEEN COLORADO AND NEW MEXICO

Story and photos by

Marti Fischer looks through window of steam locomotive.
Marti Fischer looks through window of steam locomotive.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Our memories of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad are romantic ones. During our train trip, we met Marti Fischer, the engineer. The petite 29-year-old, her hair in a braid tucked under her cap, handled the steam locomotive controls like a pro.

Why did she become an engineer? It all began 11 years earlier when she took a job in the snack bar to support her way through college. Romance blossomed aboard the nostalgic 1880 train, leading to Marti's marriage to Russ Fischer, who was operations manager for the railroad and an engineer as well.

Marti credited her husband for encouraging her to work her way up the ranks from snack bar attendant to brakeman to fireman and finally engineer.

Cumbres Pass

Besides learning what the valves meant, and keeping the fire and water at the right temperatures, Marti had to shovel two tons of coal in 75 minutes just to get the train up the steep grade to the 10,015-foot-high Cumbres Pass.

Marti Fischer loved working on the best-preserved steam era railroad in North America. "Once you learn the system, it's not as hard as it seems. I like the physical work and the challenges. It's just a fun job!"

Longest narrow gauge railroad in North America

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a Registered National Historic Site, transports travelers back to the first half of the twentieth century. The longest narrow gauge railroad in North America is also the highest train, reaching the highest U.S. mountain pass accessible by rail, at 10,015 feet.

Russ Fischer rides caboose.
Russ Fischer rides caboose.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Cumbres & Toltec was the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which stretched from Denver to Silverton CO and Santa Fe NM and served silver mining camps in southwestern Colorado. The railroad ran for 88 years, until it was no longer profitable and the line was abandoned in 1969.

In 1970, New Mexico and Colorado bought the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, to preserve the track, steam locomotives, freight cars, rail yards and historical buildings as a living museum of railroad history.

Train schedule

The Cumbres & Toltec now chugs its way over 64 miles of narrow-gauge track between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. (Narrow gauge track is three feet across, compared to 4 ft 8 1/2-inch standard gauge rail track.)

When does the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad run? It operates daily between Memorial Day and mid-October. Passengers can travel from Antonito to Osier, Colorado, round-trip or from Chama, New Mexico, to Osier round-trip. One-way trips between Chama and Antonito and vice versa are also available. Passengers also have the option of riding the Cumbres & Toltec train one-way and taking a motorcoach the other way.

Including the lunch stop, one-way train rides are just over six hours long. Before and after their rail trips, passengers can take self-guided walking tours to see the rolling stock in the Chama and Antonito rail yards.

Smoke puffs from steam engine of Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad between Chama and Antonito.
Smoke puffs from steam engine of Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad between Chama and Antonito.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Train trips

Rail travel is comfortable, with a choice of coach class (bench) seats, tourist class seating or first-class parlor cars, which have outside viewing platforms. Passengers can buy season passes for coach seating on regular train routes (excluding special event trains and special train tour packages).

Cumbres & Toltec train tickets are free for children under two, and about half price for kids, aged two to 12, in coach seats. For information on which cars and coaches are wheelchair accessible, passengers can call 1-888-CUMBRES.

Rail route

Pulled by antique steam locomotive #484, our trip began in Chama, a Rocky Mountain town, known for fishing, deer, elk and cross-country skiing. The Cumbres & Toltec train meandered through tunnels and gorges, rumbled over a 137-foot-high trestle bridge, clung to sheer rock cliffs and climbed through groves of pine and aspen to the Cumbres Pass. Here, in 1848, a major encounter occurred between the U.S. army and the Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indians.

The train stopped at the water tower in the abandoned railroad town of Sublette, CO, to replenish the water in the steam locomotive. Its tender holds 5,000 gallons of water.

Many original historic buildings highlight the Cumbres & Toltec train route, including section houses, covered turntables, coal bunkers, equipment sheds, pump houses and stores. Some have been lovingly restored by the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Cowboy on horseback herds beef cattle.
Cowboy on horseback herds beef cattle.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Scenic railroad

The countryside, today, is idyllic. The train route snakes across the New Mexico — Colorado border 11 times, offering views of the Rio de los Pinos river, Toltec Gorge, the Rio Grande Valley and the San Juan Mountains.

We saw mule deer and a cowboy on horseback rounding up beef cattle. The alpine landscape reminded us of Switzerland.

It seemed that views of the Cumbres & Toltec train were as scenic as views from the train, for whenever it snaked its way across Highway 17, there was an audience. Cars and campers parked along the road, while tourists and locals watched for puffs of smoke and listened for echoing whistles that signaled the arrival of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Cameras clicked and people waved as we passed.

There have been some exciting moments on board. Russ, who worked as conductor during our train ride, told us about them. "Many Hollywood movies were filmed along the railroad," he said, "Most were westerns, like The Legend of the Lone Ranger, which was filmed here in 1980." Train scenes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were also filmed on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Romantic train rides

Russ and Marti Fischer certainly weren't the only ones to have an on-board romance. The old TV show, The Dating Game once sent a couple for a ride on the train. Weddings are a common sight, especially at Osier, Colorado, where the trains stop at noon for lunch.

Cumbres & Toltec train crosses steel trestle bridge.
Cumbres & Toltec train crosses steel trestle bridge.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

So, when is the best time for a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad? According to a fellow passenger from Denver, it's in the spring when the meadows are filled with wild irises. Another passenger claimed it's in the fall when the hills are aflame with golden aspen.

Russ Fischer claims it is anytime. "I never tire of the scenery. There's always something new to see." Born in the deserts of southern New Mexico, he moved north and fell in love with the mountains... and Marti.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Driving directions to Antonito Colorado

Where is the Colorado train terminal located? You will find it on 5234 B Highway 285, in Antonito, 29 miles south of Alamosa CO, at the intersection of US Hwy 17. Antonito CO is 193 miles from Colorado Springs (a three-hour drive).

Driving directions to Chama New Mexico

The New Mexico terminal of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is at 500 Terrace Avenue (NM Highway 17), in Chama, just north of the Hwy 17 intersection with US Highway 64/84. Where is Chama? Chama NM is located 49 miles east of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and 77 miles (a 1.5-hour drive) from Alamosa, CO. Flights to Alamosa depart from Denver International Airport.

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad: www.cumbrestoltec.com

Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad: www.cumbrestoltec.org

Colorado Tourism: www.colorado.com

More things to see and do in Colorado:

Sebastian Vail Village Colorado