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Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad Trip 10/03/2021

by Chris Guenzler

Elizabeth and I awoke at the Branding Iron Motel and had our breakfast while we looked at the Internet. At 9:25 we left and parked at the Chama train station, then picked up our tickets.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS) is a 3 foot narrow gauge heritage railroad running between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. It runs over 10,015 foot Cumbres Pass and through Toltec Gorge, from which it takes its name. Trains operate from both endpoints and meet at the midpoint. Today, the railroad is the highest and longest narrow gauge steam railroad in the United States with a track length of 64 miles. The train traverses the border between Colorado and New Mexico, crossing back and forth between the two states eleven times. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has been jointly owned by the States of Colorado and New Mexico since 1970 when it was purchased from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, saving it from the scrap yards. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad received the Designation of a National Historic Landmark in 2012 by the United States National Park Service.


The railroad line was originally constructed in 1880-1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad as part of their San Juan Extension stretching from Alamosa, Colorado to Durango, Colorado. The line was constructed with 3 foot narrow gauge track to match the D&RGW's other lines. The line primarily supported mining operations in the San Juan mountains, mainly around Durango and Silverton. The longest and highest portion of the railroad, known as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, is 64 miles long and was constructed in 1880 in less than 9 months; an engineering miracle even by today's standards, considering the work was all done by hand.

Today's Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was built in 1882 as a branch line off this main. By the late 1950s mining had dwindled substantially and the line was on the verge of abandonment, but an oil boom near Farmington, New Mexico created a traffic surge that kept the line operating for another decade hauling oil and pipe. By the late 1960s, the traffic was virtually gone and abandonment was applied for. The States of Colorado and New Mexico purchased the 64 miles of San Juan Extension between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico in 1970 and started operating the next year under the name of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad continues to operate daily between May and October of each year with five fully restored steam locomotives. Soon the C&TSRR will have 6 fully restored engines when the D&RGW 168 locomotive is moved from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Antonito, Colorado and restored to service. The 168 will then be the oldest and most authentic steam locomotive in the United States operating. The 168 was built in 1883 and is only one of two remaining of the original twelve locomotives built between 1883 and 1885 for the D&RG line. The other locomotive, 169, is on static display in Alamosa, Colorado and not operational.

Tourist operations

In 1970, the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased the portion of the line from Antonito to Chama, along with much of the equipment that operated on the line. This section is the most scenic portion of the line, and a part that loops back and forth between the two states. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission was created by an act of Congress as a bi-state entity to oversee the railroad.

Over the years the railroad has been operated by several operators under contract by the commission, including Scenic Railways (1970-1981), Kyle Railways (1982-1996), Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Corporation/George Bartholomew (1997-1999), Rio Grande Railroad Preservation Corporation (2000-2002), Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Management Corporation (2003-2011), American Heritage Railways (2012) and Cumbres and Toltec Operating LLC (2013-).

1999 operator change

The lease of operator Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Corporation (George Bartholomew) was terminated by commission due to a failureto properly maintain the railroad and its equipment, replenish used parts and making rent payments. Rio Grande Railroad Preservation Corporation, formed by the Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec, assumed operations of the railroad a few months later.

2002 FRA shutdown

In spring 2002 the Federal Railroad Administration ordered the shutdown of the railroad until specific track bed issues were resolved.

2002 forest fire shutdown

The railroad was closed for much of the summer of 2002 by the US Forest Service due to extremely dry conditions, forest fires across the region, and fears that the steam locomotives would cause fires.

2010 trestle fire On June 23, 2010, a brush fire severely damaged the Lobato Trestle, a long and high deck girder bridge. The railway trucked locomotive 484 and some coaches from Chama to Cumbres so that operations could continue on both sides of the break.

As of Monday, June 20, 2011, the Lobato Trestle was returned to service, and trains were once more traveling the full length of the railroad, from Chama, New Mexico to the summit of Cumbres Pass and beyond, all the way to Antonito, Colorado. This includes the daily lunch stop at Osier.

2012 operator change

In 2012 the Cumbres and Toltec signed a contract with American Heritage Railways to operate the railway; AHR also owns the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and formerly was operator of the Texas State Railroad. AHR gave notice at the end of the 2012 season that they would withdraw as operator. The C&TS formed a special sub-entity, Cumbres & Toltec Operating LLC, to operate the railway after AHR pulled out. John Bush was hired as president of C&TS in December 2012.

Tourist train ride

Trains depart each morning from both Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. In peak season there are trains every day of the week in either direction. They meet at Osier, the midpoint of the line where lunch is provided. Passengers may continue on their train to the other end or switch trains to return to their original terminal. Through riders have the option of a motor coach return to their original terminal. All seats are reserved. Seats are sometimes available to walk-ups, but this is rare in peak season.

All passenger trains are pulled by historic steam locomotives that originally worked on this line and others of the Denver and Rio Grande Western. Heavy trains out of Chama may have two locomotives as far as Cumbres Pass. East bound from Chama is the steepest portion so the steam engines tend to work hard and give off an acoustic and visual show. The remaining 3/4 of the eastbound trip is downgrade and the locomotives are fairly quiet. Westbound from Antonito, the grade is much less but the locomotives periodically work harder, especially on the last couple miles to Cumbres Pass.

The line passes through Rio Grande and Carson National Forests. Most of the line is bordered by rocky ledges, cliffs and formations of varying types. The train passes along the rim of Toltec Gorge, a spectacular, though brief highlight. Conifer and aspen trees dominate with periodic mountain meadows. The aspen trees turn a brilliant yellow in the fall making those trips popular. The easternmost quarter shifts to scrubby and arid rolling hills. There are numerous restored historic structures along the line, including two tunnels, bridges, section houses and water tanks.

The Cumbres and Toltec is highly regarded by both railfans and historians due to its relative authenticity and surviving historic fabric. Chama houses one of the most physically complete railroad yards from the steam era in the US. Although portions of the roundhouse, warehouses, and parking lots have been changed, the railroad yard has the ambiance of pre-1960 railroad operations. The yard tracks contain authentic rolling stock and structures of the Denver and Rio Grande indigenous to the railroad line.

All the steam locomotives at the C&TS were built for and operated their entire careers for the Denver and Rio Grande Western. All 2-8-2 Mikados, these range from the relatively small K-27 "Mudhen", 463, once owned by Gene Autry, to the large K-37s, originally built as standard gauge locomotives. The mainstays are the venerable K-36 fleet, produced by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1925. The only two Surviving D&RGW rotary snowplows are onsite and both have operated for the C&TS.

As Denver & Rio Grande Railroad San Juan Extension, the railway was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The boundaries of the NRHP listed area were increased in 2007.

The railroad was featured extensively in the 1969 film "The Good Guys and the Bad Guys", and was used in the opening sequence of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". The 2014 film "A Million Ways to Die in the West" also featured this railroad.

Railroad operations

The C&TS is 64 miles in length with numerous siding and yards. There are turning wyes at Chama, Cumbres and Bighorn, turning loops at Osier and Antonito and a crossover at Lava. While officially headquartered in Chama, the railroad splits most of its functions between the termini of the railroad. The Cumbres and Toltec Commission offices are at Antonito, along with the railroad's main car shop where repairs to rolling stock are performed. The center of actual operations for the railroad is Chama, the site of the locomotive repair shop and the location of most of the historic equipment.

Our trip

Elizabeth and I walked over to our steam train and discovered it was a new engine for both of us.

Our train to Antonito with K36 487 on the point. This train had a consist of K36 487, coaches 501 Phantom, 513 Conejos, 523 Los Pinos, 515 Cresco, Concession Car 520 Archeluta, open air gondola car 9613 Toltec Vista, tourist coach Antonito and parlor car 512 Colorado. We then started our walk to the shops.

Cumbres and Toltec K37 497. We went to the shop and found a surprise.

Rio Grande Southern K27 455 which is really Cumbres and Toltec K27 463. we walked back to the station and we ran into Roger Hogan and we had an excellent visit. Afterwards, we boarded coach 523 "Los Pinos" taking seats three and four for our trip to Antonito today. At 10:00 AM the train whistled and then took off. Now sit back and enjoy a trip to the summit of Cumbres Pass and autumn colors of the aspen trees.

I hope you enjoyed all the action from the steam train and the fall colors to Cumbres Pass. Now sit back and enjoy more fall colors and steam trains to Los Pinos water tower.

I hope you enjoyed your ride to Los Pinos water tower.

Cumbres and Toltec K36 497 takes on water at Los Pinos water tower. Now sit back and enjoy the trip to Osier.

I hope you enjoyed your ride to Osier. We detrained and were handed our lunches, which I could not eat, and sat in a tent while Elizabeth enjoyed her lunch. This was due to a kitchen fire on September 23, 2021 so no hot turkey dinners could be had. I was in the portable bathroom when I heard a distant whistle of the train from Antonito which was approaching Osier. I walked to a hill for a picture of the train.

First a picture of our K36 497.

The train from Osier had K36 484 pulling it into Osier.

Two trains at Osier.

The drumhead from the train from Osier.

The drumhead from our train from Chama.

Click here for Part 2 of this story