It’s a clear, cool autumn day in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. Beneath your feet, you feel the rumble of a 100-year-old steam engine. You hear the train’s whistle piercing through the wilderness. You see the smoke curling back in the breeze. The aspens, turning golden now, reach their branches out towards the tracks, nearly touching. If you didn’t know better, you might think you’d been transported back to 1880.
The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is the world’s longest and highest steam-powered railroad. It’s 64 miles of narrow-gauge track stretch from the small town of Antonito, half an hour south of Alamosa, Colo. (gateway to Great Sand Dunes National Park) and an hour north of Taos, N.M. and Chama, N.M., nestled in the heart of the New Mexican Rockies. What was once a bustling transportation line for miners nearly fell into abandonment in the late 1960s until the states of Colorado and New Mexico purchased the tracks and trains, creating a National Historic Landmark and an experience like none other for visitors.
Board the train on either end of the line for a full day of jaw-dropping views. You’ll wind through alpine meadows full of wildflowers and trembling aspen forests, rumble through tunnels carved into rock and over trestles spanning raging rivers. The journey will take you up and over 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass and at one point, the train will hug a narrow ledge over Toltec Canyon as you peer 800 dizzying feet down. The country you’re passing through is untouched wilderness. Most of the areas you see are inaccessible by car, so the train gives you an incomparable peek at the area’s scenery and wildlife.
The train makes a lunchtime stop coming from both directions in Osier, Colo. You’ll get out and enjoy one of two meals, the first featuring roast turkey and the second starring homemade meatloaf. While you’re eating lunch and taking in the above-timberline views, the crew will be adding water to the engines to fuel the rest of your journey. From here, you’ll either continue to the end of the line or take the train back to your starting point. If you continue to the end of the line, a motor coach will pick you up and take you back to your car.
“It’s like being on the Titanic,” says Rich Grant, formerly of Visit Denver, “you have this feeling that you’re doing something so different. You can really feel the history; it’s literally a monument that moves.”
The ride won’t be fast. Its max speed is 12mph, and there won’t be cell service, but that’s part of the charm. The train may have to stop to clear rocks or debris from the tracks or to shoo herds of sheep from its path. It’s a chance to slow down and take in the beauty around you.
Besides being a piece of state and rail history, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has also been featured in several movies like A Million Ways to Die in the West and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The house Indy grows up in in The Last Crusade is located in Antonito, Colo. and is now the Indiana Jones Bed & Breakfast. If you’re a Harrison Ford fan, you can make a weekend of following in young Indy’s footsteps.
The railroad offers six standard route options, four different car options and a variety of special train rides. It’s open from Memorial Day Weekend through mid-October and reservations are highly recommended.
For more information and reservations:
Chama, N.M. Depot
500 S Terrace Ave, Chama, NM 87520
Antonito, Colo Depot
5234 B US Hwy 285, Antonito, CO 81120