Monday, September 8, 2014

Riding the Rails - Cumbres & Toltec in Chama, New Mexico

While I was staying at Heron Lake State Park in northwest New Mexico, I visited Chama, about 10 miles north of the park. It’s a small tourist town with the main draw being the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad. This is a narrow gauge railroad that was built in 1880 and in 2012 was designated a National Historic Landmark. I walked around the train yard, took some pictures of the trains in the yard and picked up a brochure. I’d never been on a train and I had been told the trip went through some beautiful country.

The next morning, I drove up to Chama and got my ticket. It’s a one way trip on the train, so they drive the passengers up to Antonito, Colorado to start the trip. Everyone had assigned seats, but the train was not crowded and we could stand in the open car to take pictures or just see the scenery. It was a beautiful day, so I spent most of my time in the open car. It was a bumpy ride and I wasn’t sure how the photos would come out, but I was surprised that they were decent. The locomotives are run with coal, chunks larger than a softball, which creates black smoke out of the smokestack.


We started the trip in Colorado and on the way down to the depot in Chama, we crossed the state border 11 times, yes - eleven. The track snakes around the mountains and each time we crossed the state line, there was a sign stating "Enter New Mexico" on one side and "Enter Colorado" on the other. There were many dirt roads through the desert part and each time they crossed the tracks, there was a railroad crossing sign. It was near one of those signs that we saw a herd of deer run across the tracks in front of us. Unfortunately, the only photo I got was of the back of them running away.

When we got to the mountainous area and we had to pass through the narrow openings they blasted through the rock, the train slowed so that the vibration of the train passing through the rock walls would not dislodge any of the rocks. In some of these areas, the rock walls were so close we could have reached out to touch them. In other areas, trees were also close. There were two tunnels, and after the second one, the track came out right on the side of a large gorge that dropped 600’ - a very dramatic exit from the darkness of the tunnel. There were numerous trestles, the highest one was 137’ over a creek. The highest elevation the tracks reached was over 10,000’.

Halfway through the trip, we stopped for lunch, which was included in the trip, and served cafeteria style. We had a choice of turkey dinner or meatloaf turkey for me!  After that, we boarded the train for the second half of the ride back to Chama. 

It was a fun day and I’d recommend the trip to anyone who is in the area. The scenery is gorgeous with rolling hills, rock formations, valleys far below us and open fields with little rivers coursing through them.

One of the men working on the train as a docent was a volunteer and said that anyone could be a volunteer by becoming a "Friend" of the railroad. Details can be found on their website at


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