I arrived in Chama late afternoon and stopped by the train station to pick up my tickets for the next days’ 10am departure en route to Antonito, CO. When I arrived at the Cumbres/Toltec station, I could immediately see why my buddy was so enthralled by this railroad. For starters, there is a lot of moving (and non-moving) stock on various lines for visitors and train enthusiasts to enjoy. Secondly, this authentic, narrow gauge, steam-operated railroad is one of the last remaining remnants that showcases just how the west was won. Built in 1880, the Cumbres/Toltec was part of the San Juan extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Today, it offers visitors a spectacular scenic journey through the San Juan Mountains and Toltec Gorge. The entire 64-mile journey from Chama to Antonito will take you through a remarkably diverse landscape that consists of majestic canyons, dense forest, rolling hills, plateaus, pastures, expansive plains and arid vistas. After getting my train ticket, I made my way directly across the street to check in at the Parlor Car Bed and Breakfast. This B&B is owned/run by Bonsall and Wendy, a lovely couple who enjoy the train as much as they do the various visitors who stay with them. As a matter of fact, Bonsall is a volunteer docent and rides the train one or two times per week providing passengers with an interpretive background on the railroad’s history. As we left the Osier Depot, we soon entered a tunnel bore out of the rock-face cliffs…one of two tunnels the train would go through during its journey. The second tunnel was long enough, with just enough bend to create a few moments of complete darkness—I even tested it by putting my hand in front of my face. Sure enough, no light reflected in order for me to see my five fingers waving back at myself.
The second half of the journey to Antonito offered some dramatic curves in the track that allowed us all to take pictures of the engine and steam car. It’s quite a sight, and, an engineering marvel of the day to have steam powered by coal pull the heavy loads up and over this dramatic set of passes. As a matter of fact, one section of the track has a 4% grade, which for an automobile is no problem, but for a train…it’s quite a big deal.
After we crossed the New Mexico and Colorado borders eleven times, and passed by Whiplash Curve and Lava Loop, we were on the home stretch to the station in Antonito. From a peak elevation of just over 10,000 feet at Cumbres pass, to 7,888 feet at the Antonito station, the terrain changes dramatically. Instead of tall Pine and Aspen trees, the flat vista in front of us was arid, or high plains desert. As I learned the next day from the drive back to Chama, just a few miles away the terrain turns back to forest.