Adventurers in the Rockies
Riding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad,
from Antonito, CO - 64 miles - to Chama, NM
July 17, 2016
Text and Photos by Author
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After a long day that started in western Nebraska then a
stop in Denver and ended here in Alamosa, Colorado, I had a good
nights rest here at the Rodeway Inn. In the morning we all met for
breakfast at the Country Kitchen in the hotel. Afterwards we met
at the car for the drive to Antonito, CO following US 285 south.
MP - 280.70 Antonito, CO station for Cumbres &
Toltec Scenic Railroad elev 7,888 ft.
After arriving we checked in at the station, picked up our tickets
and browsed the gift shop. With some time before departure we went
outside to see the train and explore the facilities.
Elizabeth, Chris G. and Chris P. heading to check out today's
power and to see what is in the yard.
K-27 2-8-2 built 1903, Baldwin passenger service.
Standard gauge and narrow gauge rails.
This station is the eastern
terminus of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS).
None of the buildings and railroad facilities surrounding the
present C&TS depot were here until after the states
purchased the line from the Denver & Rio Grande Western
Railroad (D&RGW) in 1970. They were largely built with
volunteer labor and a number of financial grants. With a great
deal of hard work and community effort, local residents built
the small depot, a wye, storage tracks and facilities for
servicing engines by the summer of 1971 when the C&TS
officially opened for business.
The small old depot is now an office for the C&TS Railroad
Antonito came into existence
March 31, 1880 when D&RG construction crews reached their
newly platted company "town." From Antonito, two lines were
built. The mainline San Juan Extension turned west toward the
mining camps in the San Juan Mountains, while the New Mexico
Extension was built southward to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Our car for today's ride.
Known as the "Pineapple," It was originally purchased by Scenic
Railways in 1972 from the Oahu Railway in Hawaii and later bought
by the C&TS. GE switcher, built 1943.
Four long - and loud - blasts
of the whistle reminded us to get on board immediately. And we
did. Once on board we went to our car and found a table and
dropped off our things. For most of the trip we wouldn't be
spending much time in here except for an occasional soda. No, we
would be in the next car- the flat-bottom gondola, an open
observation car. Be one with nature in the open air. Elizabeth
planned ahead and brought a pair of work/safety glasses to
protect her eyes. Eye protection is a must when riding behind a
coal burning engine. I left my sunglasses in the car only to get
a cinder in my eyes several times. The crew carries eye drops
for distressed passengers.
Inside our car, Deluxe Tourist Car "Chama." Notice the Fred Harvey
style uniform worn by the hostess.
Now our trip begins.
MP 280.86 - Cross US Highway
285. Between mile 280.90 and mile 283 is one of three locations
on the C&TS route where the track is actually straight. As
our journey progresses, the novelty of this will become
apparent. The meandering, convoluted route chosen by the
D&RG was explained by one wit who said the surveying crews
simply turned their mule loose and followed it to the summit of
Just beyond the highway
crossing, the old, weathered D&RGW Railroad sign stands
along the right side of the track that reads "End of Standard
Gauge." This is the point where the wider standard gauge from
Denver ended. Beyond this point is "narrow gauge country." The
standard gauge third rail was laid from Alamosa to Antonito in
San Antonio Mt elev 10,908 in New Mexico is the only shield
volcano in the continental United States.
The Cumbres & Toltec
Scenic Railroad is America's longest and highest narrow gauge
railroad. It is also one of our country's best preserved
railroad museums, designated both a National and State
Registered Historic Site and National Civil Engineering
This line that we are riding
today is a remnant of the San Juan Extension of the narrow gauge
part of the Denver & Rio Grand Railway (later to be know as
the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, or the "Rio
Grande"). Narrow gauge (3 feet between rails) was chosen instead
of the more common standard gauge (4 feet 8 inches), so that the
railroad could make tighter turns in the mountains and thereby
reduce construction costs. Wishing to tap the booming mining
districts in southwestern Colorado, the railroad headed west
from Antonito in 1880. Crews surveyed, graded roadbed and laid
track through spectacular Toltec Gorge, over 10,015-foot Cumbres
Pass and down the 4 percent grade into Chama, where they arrived
on December 31, 1880.
Vegetation is typical of the
semiarid west. Much sagebrush, rabbit brush, and native grasses
grow with little water. A wide variety of wildflowers bloom when
sufficient moisture is present. Purple bee plants, yellow
clovers and cream-colored stickweeds bloom during the summer. In
the fall, purple asters and other composites are a delight to
The coming of the railroad
was critical factor in the opening up of northern New Mexico and
southwestern Colorado. The railroad was instrumental in
developing the natural resources of the region, hauling mineral
ore, timber, cattle and sheep. The Rio Grande also carried
passengers to and from the region. It even carried a first class
parlor car on its daily passenger trains until ending passenger
service in 1951.
The railroad had its ups and downs over the
years. In 1893 the Silver Purchase Act was repealed and the
federal government stopped purchasing silver. This brought a
calamitous decline in the railroad's revenues. Subsequent
economic booms and busts affected the railroad as well. Good
times in the 1920s resulted in the purchase of "modern" engines
(still in use today) and the rehabilitation of many freight
cars. Except for a brief respite during World War II, the Rio
Grande narrow gauge never recovered from the Great Depression,
and most of the narrow gauge lines in the Rocky Mountains were
scrapped during the 1950s.
The discovery of oil and gas
in the Four Corners area of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and
Utah in the early 1950s led to a revival of the San Juan
Extension, and it was used to transport equipment into the
region. Very likely this single factor prevented the scrapping
of this very line we are riding today. However, even that
traffic died out in the mid 1960s and the Rio Grande was ready
to abandon this line by 1967. It was finally abandoned in 1969,
but the combined efforts of railway preservationists and local
interests led to the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly
purchasing the 64 miles of track and line-side structures from
Antonito to Chama, nine steam locomotives, over 130 railroad
cars, and the Chama yard and maintenance facility.
One of eleven crossings of the Colorado-New Mexico state boundary.
The D&RG placed stone monuments at each of these crossings,
and most are still in place today.
You might see deer, antelope, jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits,
gophers and perhaps a coyote or mountain lion along the track and
on the hillsides.
Lava Tank. Sitting on a high mesa, Lava Tank once held water for
the engines. Water was pumped from the Rio de Pinos river far
The lonesome Lava Phone Booth along the track.
As the track gradually climbs into the foothills of the San Juan
Mountains, rabbitbrush (also called chamisa), Chrysothammus
, sagebrush and mountain mahogany, Cercocarpus
, are abundant.
Looking back to the bottom of Whiplash Curve.
The Yard Limit sign for Big Horn.
The Big Horn wye with the curved tail track.
MP 299.70 Big Horn Phone
Booth. The D&RGW used telephones, placed in booths along the
route, so trainmen could contact the dispatcher in Alamosa to
report problems and get instructions. The Friends of the
C&TS is attempting to preserve the remaining booths.
No block signals or radios were ever used on the narrow gauge
during D&RGW ownership. The train has climbed a steady 1.42
percent grade most of the way from Antonito. One K-36 engine can
pull 36 loaded freight cars. Longer trains need a helper engine
cut into the middle for westbound trips. Many snow-fences were
necessary along this section of track
We have left the scrub desert floor and now are entering the
forests as we climb higher.
Sublette was home for the section gangs, the men who maintained
the right-of-way, the ties, ballast and rails. Bunkhouse for other
workers, coal storage, water spout and speeder shed. During early
railroad operations, the telegraph and trains were the only
communication for folks living here.
The Rio de Los Pinos valley in New Mexico.
Toltec siding was used to accommodate long pipe and oil trains in
MP 311.30 - Nearing the entrance to Mud Tunnel in New
Unlike Rock Tunnel, Mud
Tunnel requires wooden supports over its entire 342 foot length.
This 342 ft tunnel was dug through soft, weathered volcanic ash
and mud of the Conejos Formation. The Rio Grande had many
problems here because the soft rock and mud slides when wet. It
was also necessary to line the tunnel with timber - an
additional hazard for steam locomotives. During the spring of
1982, the C&TS installed concrete sills so the timbers do
not sit on mud, and rebuilt both portals.
Exiting Mud Tunnel.
MP 312.30 - Phantom Curve in CO is named for the ghostly
shapes and shadows seen in the locomotive headlight at night.
This location was named by
early-day D&RG trainmen, who often made the trip at night.
They saw the dim shadows strange shapes darting back and forth
in front of the engine headlight beam during long, tiring trips.
The squealing noises of the wheel flanges rubbing against the
rails as the trains rounded the sharp curve added an eerie
MP 313.20 Calico Cut. A very
descriptive name for the soft, rusty-red, orange, purple, maroon
and tan-colored loose clay and weathered rock the are the result
of the alteration of hard and soft portions of the chaotic
breccias of the Conejos Formation. Avalanches and mudslides
caused many problems along here for the Rio Grande, particularly
during the winter and early spring months when the rocks were
Great views across Toltec Creek Canyon.
MP 315.20 - Rock or Toltec Tunnel elev 9,631. At this point, the
track is about 600 ft above the Rio de Los Pinos. This 366 ft
tunnel was blasted out of the Precambrian rocks using black power.
Because these rocks are so hard, the tunnel did not need to be
Of the approximately 1,600
miles of narrow gauge built by the Rio Grande, only two other
narrow gauge tunnels were ever built. In 1882, one was bored at
Grassy Trail, Utah and in 1884 a tunnel was built at Bridgeport
in the Gunnison River canyon south of Grand Junction. Later,
four tunnels on Tennessee Pass and three in Glenwood Canyon were
built to standard gauge dimensions. With so much mountain
construction, it is amazing that so few tunnels were needed.
Entering Rock Tunnel bored through 366 feet of solid rock
in New Mexico.
It was announced that we
would remain on our own train set all the way through to Chama.
The reason for this was the railroad felt that the Mudhen K27
463 could not handle the train down the four percent grade from
Cumbres Pass to Chama. For Elizabeth and I, this would be great
because we would now be able to ride behind two different steam
engines on the Cumbres and Toltec. So when the train gets near
Osier, our engine will cut off and go around the balloon track
after the engine from Chama did the same thing. This would get
both engines back to their starting points safely.
The engines on the balloon track trading places.
Loco 484 will take us to Chama. K-36 2-8-2 Baldwin built 1925 for
After the engine switched, we
then arrive at Osier and got off the train for lunch. Our lunch
stop will be at Osier, CO, roughly the halfway point in our
journey. The lunch menu has a good variety with something for
everyone. The food is made from scratch in the Osier kitchen
just like Grandma used to make. We follow the lines on the floor
to the serving tables. Meals are all you can eat, and are
interchangeable. You are welcome to go to any or all lines. All
meals include the salad bar, a great dessert bar and your choice
of drink. To serve faster, the main entrees are served cafeteria
style. Soup, salad, desert and drinks are self-serve.
Trains leave approximately one hour after
your arrival in Osier. Four long whistle blasts from the
locomotive is your signal that the trains will depart Osier in
Leaving the train I entered through the West
Entrance of the Osier Dining Hall to the serving tables and
selected the turkey dinner over the meatloaf dinner choice. Then
a stop at the salad bar and drinks then to find an empty seat at
a table. The food was good and was in the style of a home made
potluck meal. The lunch was very well organized and the staff
had both trains passengers in and out in less than hour.
After our pleasant repast, we re-boarded the
cars that we arrived on to continue our trip to to Chama but
with a new engine, # 484.
Looking back at Osier.
The U-shaped valley created by glaciers.
Ranch houses in the Los Pinos River valley
For more pictures of this part of the trip, visit my story of
7/5/16.Chasing the Cumbres & Toltec
A major blow down of the excess boiler pressure of the steam
Looking down on Rt 17, the highway between Chama and Antonito. The
road we'll take back to Antonito on the bus from Chama.
Jukes Tree near Chama, a photo spot.
MP 344.12 - Our arrival in Chama and the end of our journey.
Our power from Osier.
After a stop at the gift shop we, Elizabeth, Chris G., Chris P and
I, boarded the waiting buses to take us back to our car at the
station in Antonito. It was a relaxing trip back to our car after
a once -in-a-life ride on a historic railroad. Many happy memories
were had by all.
We started our drive back to Alamosa but stopped at the Rio Grande
Western station in Antonito and at La Jara and then on to our
hotel in Alamosa for the night.
Text and Photos by Author
author retains all rights. No reproductions are
allowed without the author's consent.