Long before the Iron Horse arrived, real ponies from several native tribes etched their hoofprints in this high altitude southern Rocky Mountain countryside.
“Our railroad, originally built in 1880, covers former stomping grounds of the Jicarilla Apache, Comanche, Pueblo, and Navajo Indians,” says rail line spokesman Nick Quintana. “The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a historic artifact of the American West, one of the best-known examples of steam-era mountain railroading in North America and essentially unchanged over the past 130 years.”
The Tourism Association of New Mexico has labeled this train trip “an outstanding attraction of New Mexico” while The Society of International Railway Travelers calls it “one of the best 20 railway experiences in the world” and the American Society of Civil Engineers refers to it as “a national historic landmark” from an engineering perspective.
The line boasts a lot of superlatives as America’s highest and longest coal-fired, steam-operated, narrow-gauge railroad known around the world for its unique machinery, historic structures, and the spectacular scenery found along the route between Chama, New Mexico, and the terminal station in Antonito, Colorado.
Attesting to its popularity, “Some 40,000 passengers a year come from around the country and all over the world to take advantage of the adventurous experience,” according to Quintana.
The high mountain valley departure point in Chama is surrounded by a wooded wilderness visited by black bear, mountain lion, Merriam’s turkey, massive bull elk, and Boone and Crockett record-class mule deer that come to graze on greenbelts among the Ponderosa pine forests and pinion-juniper woodlands. New Mexico Tourism Department spokesman Michael Cerletti, in a travel industry press release, subtly notes: “Chama is much more than a train depot.”
With an altitude range of 6,500-to-9,000 feet, woodlands around the railroad station offer cool summertime temperatures conducive to all sorts of activity from hiking and four-wheeling to kayaking, rafting, and fishing.
Because of the altitude (Cumbres Pass elevation is slightly over 10,000 feet), fierce winter storms can leave snow drifts of 20 feet or more, limiting the operating season to late May through mid-October. During that time, trains operate seven days a week with morning departures out of both Chama and Antonito and six itineraries from a roundtrip train ride to various combinations of train and bus transportation.
The 64-mile to-and-from train trek passes over two trestles with bridges over Wolf Creek 100 feet below and the highest bridge, Cascade Trestle, at 137 feet above Cascade Creek. By the time travelers reach Toltec Gorge, they are 600 feet above Rio de Los Pecos. The view from the open-air gondola is unbeatable, especially at one of the most famous places in American railroading — Windy Point where rails are laid on a rock shelf carved out of a cliff face.
Originally built to serve silver mining operations in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan mountains, the track was constructed to a smaller gauge than what eventually became the U.S. standard. The inability to interchange cars with other railroads led the Rio Grande to begin converting tracks to standard gauge, but a diminishing mining industry lead to decreased traffic and less need to finish that conversion. Over the ensuing decades, the line became an isolated anachronism and operations trickled to an end in the 1960s, ending the last use of steam locomotives in general freight service in America.
Most of the abandoned track was dismantled except for the most scenic portion of the line. What was left of the tracks as well as nine steam locomotives, over 100 freight cars and the Chama rail yard were jointly purchased in 1970 by the states of New Mexico and Colorado and the C&TS started making tourist runs in 1971. Today the care and running of the non-profit line continues to preserve and interpret the railroad as a living history museum for the benefit of the public and the people of Colorado and New Mexico who own it.