Friday, October 9, 2009

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway

Jim & Anne Williams with us in Chama, New Mexico

In May of this year our we visited friends who live in Rociada, New Mexico. Their anniversary was coming up in October and they suggested we return to help them celebrate. They also said they had this little train ride they liked to take occassionally and thought we would enjoy it too.

So at the end of September we boarded the Amtrak again and headed for Las Vegas, New Mexico. THIS Las Vegas is about two hours north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Two days later on Friday October 2, we packed a suitcase and headed out for Chama which is about 3 hours away. The highlight (and money infuser) in Chama is the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway which is America's longest and highest steam operated train. It's such a treasure! Everyone should experience this!!
People head east during the last of September , first of October to see the scenic color change in the trees on the east coast. I’m here to tell you you don’t have to go all the way back east to see this wonderful view. Of course someday I’m still going to do that but being able to see the change here in the southwest is absolutely beautiful!

Arriving in Chama is like arriving in 1880. It is a small village with older wooden structures and the steam engine. Two restaurants, some gift shops and several hotels and that's it...well, in the tourist area anyway. The hotel our friends had reserved was quaint and had been remodeled. Our room had older iron beds (with comfortable mattresses!) and was done in red and white colors. It was more than adequate for the one night and I would recommend it to anyone traveling there.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway runs between the Village of Chama in New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. It’s 64 miles of narrow gauge railway that is a wonder. Steam engines pull passenger cars, a "gondola" (where you can stand in the open air to drink in the sights), a concession car and of course the caboose.

Catching the sights from the "gondola" car

They do run “tourist, coach, and Parlor cars” which all have different price tiers. Tourist class runs $83 per person for the full trip. The brochure says for the Parlor cars you have your own steward where "...personal attendants serve continental breakfast of fresh fruit, delectable confections, fresh coffee, hot chocolate, and your choice of juices" (from ). Not having ridden in Parlor I don’t know if it’s worth the cost ( $139). At any rate you can ride the train half way to Ociers, Colorado and take the train back. OR, like us, you can take the train to Ociers where lunch is served (and is part of the price of your ticket); get on another steam train after lunch and finish the ride to Antonitos, Colorado. At Antonitos you board buses for an hour ride back to Chama. Along the way (either train or bus) if you’re lucky you might see elk or deer or other wildlife. We mostly saw cows and did see Elk – but it was at an Elk Farm!! LOL!! Oh, while on the train we did see three “cowboys” on horseback and we all surmised they were hunters because hunting season is open up there.

The folks that started the railway way back when started in Antonito in March of 1880 and ended in Chama in December of that year. The engineering is amazing when you think about the fact that they only had picks and shovels to carve out the railway along a somewhat treacherous, but scenic, route.

At this time of year the 64 miles of scenery is covered with beautiful firs, aspens and meadows. The aspens are changing colors and are gorgeous oranges, yellows, limes and other soft greens. Some aspens have already lost their leaves and stand in stark groves but still have beauty in their stately stances.

On this day they had twelve coaches and had to have two steam engines to pull all twelve coaches up the incline. The highest point on the route is roughly 10,000 feet but levels out (of sorts) around 7700 feet. Of interest with any steam engine is that they can start little fires along the way. The Cumbres & Toltec have "solved" this by having a fireman (employee of the railroad) follow the train and put out any small fires that may occur (we didn't see any fires on this trip!). The railroad has actually been praised for their efforts by the forestry service.

For the major part of the trip very little civilization is seen. However in some areas vacation homes have been built and are surprising to see. One flat area where homes have been built is actually in a flood zone and the water table is very high. They have no electricity and no water which means they have to have some way to get rid of their human waste. I have no idea what that is…unless it’s similar to motorhomes. The docent said that during the winter the snow can cover much of the houses and they’ve been known to actually have to enter the house through the second floor windows.

I mentioned the docent earlier: there are conductors on the train and volunteers (the docents) who talk to you about the area. They are so knowledgeable and can tell you everything you need to know about the train, the route and it’s history. Being curious about the docents Chet asked one what he did before the railroad. It turns out “Jim” (of Shawnee, Kansas) had been a pilot for 34 years and had been a pre-med student before that. He always had an interest in trains so when he was mandatorily retired at 60 from the airlines he found the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Railway: a volunteer group that supports the railway.

Along the route are water towers (some in use, some not) and in a place called Sublette a few structures still exist where a small development had been. Workers for the railway had lived there but with the years declining use of the railway it was eventually abandoned. We actually stopped in Sublette just to check the train and in another area we stopped for ten minutes while they took water on.

The train travels through beautiful scenery towards lunch at a station in Ociers, Colorado. I have to say that for the number of people they serve they do quite a good job - and the food isn't bad either. We had plenty of time to hang out after lunch so I was able to walk (ok, so I still "hobble" just a bit) down to the steam engine and view it up close.

From Ociers we board a different train that continues the ride up to Antonito. I could say the scenery remains the same, but all that means is we still view beautiful scenery and changing colors. We do see more sparsely covered land and it appears dryer but it's still great scenery.
Once we reach Antonito we boarded a comfortable bus and headed back to Chama. This steam train is something that should be experienced by everyone. This time of year is the best for seeing the color changes. I highly recommend this day long trip and give it two thumbs up on My Personal KarenT scale!