This week’s dream
Riding a locomotive through the San Juan Mountains
There are hundreds of scenic train rides and railroad museums throughout America that promise to take visitors back in time, said Justin Franz in The Washington Post. “But few can truly deliver on that promise quite like the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.” Built in the 1870s, the 64-mile railway through the San Juan Mountains has gone “nearly unchanged” since the last freight train rumbled over the Cumbres Pass 50 years ago. Today, instead of hauling livestock and minerals, the trains carry sightseers between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo. Though the tracks pass through one of the most scenic parts of the Southwest, “for history buffs and railroad enthusiasts, it’s the dozens of vintage rail cars, smoke-spewing steam locomotives, and original buildings that make the journey worthwhile.”
What makes the Cumbres & Toltec most amazing is that it wasn’t torn up long ago. Narrow-gauge rail lines were already historical oddities by the 1950s, but a local natural gas boom extended the need for the route, and by the time the railroad wanted to abandon it, historians and enthusiasts were ready to step in. In 1970, Colorado and New Mexico purchased the old line and turned it into a tourist attraction. Trains now run daily from May through October, consuming 3,500 gallons of water and 3 tons of coal just to travel the 14 miles between Chama and the Cumbres Pass. “It’s a lot of cardio,” says Evan Martinez, a fifth-generation railroader who shovels that coal.
At 10,015 feet, Cumbres is the highest mountain pass reached by any railroad in the U.S. From there, the train descends through the rugged Toltec Gorge, skirting an 800-foot cliff and passing rock formations that date back a billion years. After crossing over tall trestles and through dark tunnels, the train stops for water in Osier, then enters the desert in southwestern Colorado. Signs of civilization are few and far between, as John Bush, the railroad’s president, has often noticed. “Once the train pulls out of town and you’re looking out the window,” he says, “you’re seeing the country as it was a century ago.”
Adult full-day fares start at $100 on the Cumbres & Toltec (cumbrestoltec.com). Trains run through Oct. 21. ■