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Rocky Mountain Exploration Part 3: Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Rocky Mountain Exploration
Part 3: Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

    Our visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park had produced some great views of massive sand dunes set amid the arid southern Colorado topography in front of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.  John had enjoyed climbing to the top of a 750 foot tall dune during our time in the park.

    The drive to Alamosa then took about a half hour and we settled into the comfortable Holiday Inn Express Hotel for the next three nights.  During the evening we drove 17 miles northwest to the neighboring town of Monte Vista to attend the San Luis Valley Ski Hi Stampede (pronounced “Sky High”), a major stop on the rodeo circuit.  The rodeo featured all the usual rodeo events from bull riding to barrel racing to steer roping and it was obviously the highlight of the summer in the region.  In addition, the county fair, a dance, and daily parades are held during Stampede weekend.  The Stampede takes place in late July each year and this is a family friendly activity to include with a visit to the Alamosa area.

A bucking bronco at the San Luis Valley Ski Hi Stampede

Steer roping at the Ski Hi Stampede in Monte Vista, Colorado

    Our destination the next morning was the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a 64 mile long narrow gauge rail line that is billed as the longest and highest operational narrow gauge line.   During the summer Cumbres & Toltec trains depart from opposite ends of the line at Antonito, CO and Chama, NM and meet in the middle of the route at Osier.  The eastbound and westbound trains pause for lunch at the railroad dining hall then each continues its run to the respective end of the line.  Passengers may choose to ride the entire line one way and return to their point of origin by special motorcoach or may switch trains at Osier to return to the origin thus saving about an hour of travel.  The former itinerary suited us fine as we wanted to experience the entire route as both halves include some splendid scenery and challenging mountain railroading.

    Rather than drive from Alamosa to Antonito we elected to take advantage of a new offering this summer as the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad scheduled a shuttle train to ferry passengers between Alamosa and Antonito on weekends.  Our train consisted of RGS SD90MAC # 116 and open window coach 1660.  Needless to say, this train was terrifically overpowered but the beautiful maroon and gold paint job on the locomotive and access to the coach’s rear facing vestibule made for a great morning trip. 

    The shuttle train departed Rio Grande Scenic’s headquarters station at 8:15am with a small crowd and passed houses, farms, and fields as it paralleled US 285 to Antonito.  South of Romeo we passed a farmstead where an auction was being held and we noted the buggies of several area Amish who were in attendance.  The train loped along at 30 mph as we relaxed and enjoyed the vistas of this dry region.  On some Fridays and Saturdays the shuttle train carries a few freight cars. The 29 mile ride ended at 9:32am as we pulled to the end of standard gauge track adjacent to the Antonito station and the start of Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge rails.

The Rio Grande Scenic shuttle train prepares to depart Alamosa

Rear view from the shuttle train

Cumbres & Toltec steam train (left) and Rio Grande Scenic diesel train (right) at Antonito.  This is the point where standard gauge meets narrow gauge.

The rear C&T car displays a customized drumhead while San Luis & Rio Grande SD90MAC wears Rio Grande inspired speed lettering

    Our Cumbres & Toltec train waited on the next track and at 10:00am we were on our way toward Chama.  K-36 2-8-2 steam engine # 489, built in 1925, led 8 passenger cars.  The line started out flat but began a quick, steep climb as it entered New Mexico at 10:28.  This was the first of 11 crossings of the state line as the former Rio Grande line weaves along the Colorado/New Mexico border.  Scrub brush dotted the dry land outside our open window coach with long views of a deep valley stretching in the distance.  By 10:43am we passed an old D&RGW water tank at Lava where a siding led to a balloon track where trains can be turned.  Fifteen minutes later we reached Whiplash Curve where the twisting narrow gauge line climbs via tight curves.  We could see three track levels from this point and it was fascinating to see where we would travel a couple minutes ahead then look back upon the tracks below where we had traveled a couple minutes later.

Parlor car “New Mexico” on the Cumbres & Toltec train at Antonito

C&T engine # 489 and the water tank at Antonito on July 28, 2012

The westbound train prepares for departure from the Antonito depot

Cumbres & Toltec diesel switcher # 19 at Antonito

Profile of the 489 and tender

Crossing Hangman’s Trestle near milepost 286 approximately 5 miles west of Antonito 

Entering New Mexico near milepost 288, the first of 11 crossings of the Colorado-New Mexico border

A sweeping curve approaching Lava Tank

Passing Lava Tank, elevation 8,506 ft. near milepost 291

The rail line offers views of mountains and valleys west of Lava Tank.

The curving line passes above a valley as the tracks gain elevation

Three track levels (including the one we are riding on) can be seen at Whiplash Curve

At the top of Whiplash Curve the site of the former Big Horn section house can be seen below

    By 11:15am the scrub brush had given way to a forest of pines and aspen trees followed by a high shelf in which the train was perched above a deep valley then an area dominated by aromatic fir and spruce trees.  The constant in this section of the journey was the winding nature of the rail line with many curves revealing some sort of valley below.  A seven minute stop at Sublette beginning at 11:41 allowed the steam engine to be watered via an underground watering system.  An old section foreman’s house dating from the 1800s stood next to the railway here.

The locomotive puts on a good show of coal smoke

Sublette section house, elevation 9,276 ft. near milepost 306

    High noon found us easing along another high shelf and through a rock cut followed in the next 15 minutes by passage through Mud Tunnel.  Just beyond the tunnel came Phantom Curve where interesting volcanic spires stand sentinel over the railroad.  During most of the scenic ride, John and I stood in the open air car directly behind our coach.  Interesting narration was provided in the open car by one of the C&T’s volunteer docents; the narration was not audible in our coach which allowed riders to ride in relative solitude should they prefer.  One of the most interesting stories offered by our guide was the tale of eerie shapes and sounds heard at night when trains rounded Phantom Curve.  This was also the site of a bad derailment of the San Juan Express in 1948 caused by an avalanche.

Curving along the edge of another mountain

    Exiting Rock Tunnel at 12:33pm we passed the deepest part of the gorge approximately 600 feet below track level.  The Los Piños River could barely be seen at the floor of the gorge.  The rails at the point had reached 9,600 feet elevation.  A few minutes later a herd of cows grazed on a hillside dropping off from track level.  Two of the cows paid strict attention to the passing steam train leading us to quip that the pair must be railfan cows.

Entering 342 foot Mud Tunnel near milepost 311

View of Toltec Creek Canyon exiting Mud Tunnel

Riders in the open air car enjoy the entrance to Rock Tunnel

    At 12:49pm our train pulled to a stop at Osier where everyone detrained for lunch at the Cumbres & Toltec dining hall.  The eastbound train which had left Chama in the morning was stopped on the adjacent track and its riders were already through the serving line prior to our arrival.  A hearty lunch is offered here with a choice of meatloaf or turkey, mashed potatoes, peas, corn, rolls, salad, and dessert along with a few other selections.  The stop provided enough time to eat leisurely then inspect the trains before climbing back on board for the rest of the trip.  We had covered about 39 miles leaving 25 miles to go.

The eastbound train can be seen beside the dining hall at Osier as our westbound train approaches the lunch stop

Approaching Osier where the eastbound Chama to Antonito train waits

K-36 locomotive # 487 equipped with a large plow leads the eastbound train

    When we climbed back aboard our westbound train we noted a much larger crowd as many people had opted to start their trip in Chama, ride to Osier, then swap trains and return to Chama.  A few who joined us out of Antonito were returning on the other train to Antonito but most of our original fellow travelers also continued on to Chama.  Both trains departed Osier simultaneously at 1:45pm and we enjoyed watching the eastbound recede across the valley east of Osier.  Soon we crossed 137 foot tall, 408 foot long Cascade Creek Trestle which was constructed in 1889.  Long Creek Trestle followed six minutes later and beautiful Los Piños Valley came into view marked by its winding namesake river and herds of cattle.  At Los Piños we rounded another hairpin curve as the line passed another water tank and again gained elevation.  In the midst of the curve a wedding party was spotted in a field adjacent to the tracks and everyone in the party waved enthusiastically at the train with the bride and groom leading the greeting.

Looking across a valley at the eastbound departing Osier

Rio de Los Piños Valley west of Osier

Crossing Cascade Trestle

Cascade Trestle standing 137 feet above Cascade Creek

Passing a wedding party at Los Piños as the train prepares to round a horseshoe curve

Los Piños water tank

A small lake in the scenic section beyond Los Piños

    Tanglefoot Curve was rounded at 2:41pm and at one point the tracks upon which we were riding were 60 feet higher than but a mere 30 feet across from the tracks we had traversed moments earlier.  The 20º curve was more evidence of the advantages of narrow gauge railroads in this mountainous region.  About five minutes later the train paused at the summit of Cumbres Pass, at 10,015 feet the highest point on the line.  Here the locomotive was watered once more and retainers were set for the 4% descent toward Chama.  In the next couple of miles the train passed Windy Point then steamed 250 feet above the impressive Wolf Creek Valley.

Tanglefoot Curve near milepost 329

Winding track at Tanglefoot Curve

Track is visible below and in the distance near Tanglefoot Curve

The old station at Cumbres Pass

Wildflowers at Cumbres

    The final hour of our all-day journey took us through Coxo, past the Cresco Water Tank, and across Wolf Creek Trestle.  Along the way a large buck was spotted in a thicket and a young doe was seen standing in a forest near the railway.  Our westward journey ended at 4:05pm in Chama, NM.  Soon we boarded the return bus for a non-stop ride back to Antonito, arriving at 5:25pm.  Our one car Rio Grande Scenic shuttle train waited for our return and departed at 5:33pm with a 6:45pm arrival back into Alamosa.

Broad valley at Coxo

The stream below at Wolf Creek Trestle

Old locomotives at Chama, New Mexico

    The Cumbres & Toltec steam train operates seasonally from late spring through the fall.  The line is owned by the states of Colorado and New Mexico and currently is operated by American Heritage Railways who also runs C&T’s sister line, the Durango & Silverton which once was physically connected to the C&T.  The volunteer group “Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec” performs maintenance and restoration of much of the C&T physical plant.  That group welcomes volunteers who are interested in the preservation and continued operation of the Cumbres & Toltec.

    While many riders on the Cumbres & Toltec originate at Chama, perhaps due to its relative proximity to Albuquerque, it is worth noting that lodging and services are limited in Chama.  The same can be said for Antonito, however neighboring Alamosa is a perfect spot to spend a few nights due to better lodging and dining options as well as the presence of the Rio Grande Scenic excursion train to LaVeta which will be covered in Part 4.  Additionally, on weekends the Rio Grande Scenic offers the connecting train to Antonito though it is wise to check schedules in advance as that service is dependent on demand.

    During our three night visit to Alamosa we stayed at the pleasant Holiday Inn Express which is located along the Rio Grande Scenic branch line to Monte Vista.  That line sees regular freight and occasional passenger service.  The hotel contains quiet, well appointed rooms including a few larger suites.  Our suite’s two large flat screen TVs were perfect for watching the Summer Olympics while preparing for the next day.  The hotel also includes a nice indoor pool, convenient laundry facility, and an excellent complimentary breakfast buffet featuring Holiday Inn Express’ iconic hot cinnamon buns.  As noted in Part 2, a late July visit will coincide with the Ski-Hi Stampede in nearby Monte Vista while any summer visit with allow wonderful rides on the Cumbres & Toltec and the Rio Grande Scenic steam trains.  Alamosa is located in the San Luis Valley and is about 100 miles from the nearest Amtrak stop in Trinidad, CO.  Denver and Santa Fe, NM are about 225 miles away.

Holiday Inn Express, Alamosa, Colorado is a convenient place to stay while riding the Cumbres & Toltec


Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

San Luis Valley Ski Hi Stampede

Holiday Inn Express Alamosa, CO

Alamosa Visitors Bureau

Click Here for a Slide Show of all Images used in this Report.

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