Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad in New Mexico and Colorado

I just love a good train journey, for me it’s good for the soul. The train itself doesn’t have to be very grand, and if it has a steam locomotive pulling it, then I am in nirvana. Make the railway narrow gauge and drop it into a splendid location, and you have all the ingredients for a great rail journey.

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs between Chama in New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado ticks all those boxes mentioned above, so, to my mind at least, it definitely has the potential to be the perfect rail journey.

The railroad was originally built in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension, which served the silver mining district of the San Juan Mountains in south western Colorado. When the silver mining industry collapse in 1893, traffic on the line diminished, but the line still kept operating until 1969, when it was the last remaining steam hauled goods line in the United States.

In 1970 the governments of New Mexico and Colorado purchased the locos and other infrastructure and set about turning the abandoned line into a tourist railway, which began operating in 1974. The Cumbres and Toltec Railroad is now the highest and longest narrow gauge railway in the US, and is something of a magnet for rail fans.

The locos and rolling stock are typical of what you would expect of an authentic western railway. The locomotives are 2-8-2 Mikado type steam locomotives and their gauge is three feet (914mm), being about two thirds the width of standard gauge. The track is 64 miles (103 kms) in length.

There are many spectacular elements to this railways, but the pick of them would be Tanglefoot Curve, a loop so tight that it almost seems the locomotive will meet the caboose and the 137 foot high Cascade Trestle, which is the highest on the line.

The mid-point between Chama and Antonito is Osier, which is located between the Cascade Trestle and Toltec Gorge. Here there are two long tunnels, Mud Tunnel and Rock Tunnel, and Phantom Curve, named for a rock spire that casts a ghostly shadow. The rocky gorge plunges 800 feet and the train snakes carefully along a narrow ledge where the view is straight down, which makes for a very exciting journey.

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad operates seven days a week and there are six itineraries and three different classes of carriage from which to choose, and there is an open-air observation gondola on board which is open to everyone. Trains leave from both Chama and Antonito.

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