Cumbres/Toltec: Ridin’ the rails through the scenic San Juan’s

September 15th, 2013

I have a good friend who is an avid train enthusiast…when he learned of my plans to visit Pagosa Springs, he highly recommend that I stop in Chama, New Mexico beforehand to take a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. I decided to make plans to spend a few days in the area before heading to Pagosa Springs.

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.

Not only is the location convenient, the accommodations are as cozy as the breakfast is delicious.  The morning I was there, I enjoyed a fresh fruit cup with a scoop of sorbet. This was followed by an amazing egg/potato entrée…with the final course of a freshly baked blueberry scone with some heavenly goodness drizzled on top.

At precisely 10am each day from mid-May to mid-October, trains from Chama, NM and Antonito, CO leave their respective stations—two and a half hours later the trains meet in the middle at the Osier Depot for lunch. Lunch is served cafeteria style with several meal configurations to choose from. This is how the schedule normally works; however, my trip was hindered slightly due to a mechanical issue with the train coming from Antonito. With century old trains, you might think mechanical issues would be a fairly frequent occurrence, however as I chatted up our conductor during the delay, he informed me that it was actually quite rare. The trains, as well as the track, are constantly being monitored and maintained. The delay in Osier gave us an opportunity to peruse this once old town and toll station, while snapping up some extra pictures. I even saw a couple of folks hike down to the river, and at over 9600 feet, I did not envy their potential rapid assent to the train should the blasting of four long whistles take place [explained in next paragraph]. We even witnessed ranchers moving their herd of cattle through the area, which for most city slickers, is a rare sight.

At the beginning of your journey, soon after the train leaves the station, the conductor comes down the aisle to punch your ticket—shortly thereafter some basic information follows…such as what the train whistle blasts mean. The first signal we learned were that four long blasts means that the train will depart in 5 minutes. Apparently the guy seated a few rows in front of me after lunch did not pay attention during the morning orientation…as soon as the train began to depart the station, he realized his mom was not next to him. By the time the conductor was alerted and radioed the other train, it was too late—Mom, apparently got on the wrong train and would have to take the bus back to the other end…to meet her oblivious son.

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.

In Antonito I had reservations at the River’s Inn Bed and Breakfast. The owner/innkeeper (Ursula,) told me to give her a call when the train got in and she’d come pick me up.  At first I thought it was because I was a VIP, but come to find out, it’s a service she offers all train riders. The B&B is certainly within walking distance (about half a mile or so), however if you have luggage and your car is at the other end, it’s nice to know that someone is willing to pick you up.

Ursula was kind enough to give me a quick tour around the small town of Antonito. To be honest, there isn’t much to see or do right in town, but there are a few interesting sights. For starters…if you go, you have to check out “Cano’s Castle.” This extremely odd, yet creatively unique home, was built by a Native American Vietnam Veteran. One might assume that Cano did not come back from the war in the same state in which he left—anyone who would build such an odd structure, has to be, well, a bit odd himself. Nonetheless, Cano has created a structure that continues to inspire a community, while captivating onlookers. Some might call “Cano’s Castle” Antonito’s, “Ball of String, “ or “Cadillac henge,” two other odd creations that attract visitors by the thousands.

Cano began building his castle in 1980 and has not slowed down to this day…he just continues to add on. Cano’s never-ending construction is enabled and fueled by what most would describe as, “junk” donated by his fellow neighbors.  Nothing goes to waste, Cano makes use of even the strangest items in the most intriguing ways…his imagination seems boundless.

The most refined place in Antonito’s has to be Ursula’s “River’s Inn.” This 1907 home was restored to its glory back in 1999, showcasing beautiful hardwood floors, wonderful craftsmanship and a porch beckoning its use. There are four rooms to choose from, each with a distinct look and feel.  Ursula hails from Switzerland, and in an attempt to share some of her heritage with guests breakfast is prepared more European style.

The next day I had a decision to make…should I take the train back, or the motor coach. I decided to take the motor coach, that way I could get back to Chama before the train departed and I could get some photo and video footage. Come to find out, “chasing the train” is a big lure for folks. Once the train leaves the Chama station, enthusiasts hop in their cars and find a plethora of vantage points in which to take pictures as the train chugs up Cumbres pass.

The Cumbres Toltec Scenic Railroad operates daily from mid-May to mid-October, however they are looking at the possibility of adding some future winter rides with a massive rotary snow removal engine clearing the tracks to make way.  Watch the video below and you’ll see what an amazing experience this would be.

If you’ve ever ridden the Cumbres & Toltec train, please leave a comment below and share your experience with my readers and me.

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