Vision of a Mountain Railroad – Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad NM, CO

One of the many different locomotives still in use on the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad

Like all great projects they claimed it couldn’t be done. Yet in the end all it took was a man, a vision, some industrial ingenuity and the fortitude to make it happen. It was the early 1870’s and prospectors in hunt of gold and precious metals had flooded out west, most making the perilous journey over the Colorado mountains by wagon. Seeing the opportunity William Jackson Palmer founded a new company the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. His dream was the vision of a connection from Denver to El Paso, Texas and he was a man at the forefront of his time.

The terminus and narrow-gauge (3-foot) tracks at Chama, NM
The scenic stop at Cumbres Pass (elev. 10,015 feet)

What gave Palmer the edge was the idea of using narrow-gauge tracks. In the midst of a massive mining boom Palmer drove 3-foot gauge tracks (compared to the standard 4-foot 8 ½ inches) deeper, higher and over more rugged terrain than any other constructor. He built an extensive network of lines into small mountain mining towns in Southern Colorado and by 1890 boasted the largest narrow-gauge railroad line in North America. With competition rife and the advent of larger locomotives however, Palmer was eventually forced to convert most of his tracks to standard gauge, but because of an interesting twist (the Sherman Act of 1893) a precious few remained.

The Cumbres and Toltec Railroad encompasses the modern living history of one of these remaining line. Built in 1880 as Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension, serving the silver mining district of the San Juan mountains, it is the longest (64 miles long) and highest (peaking at 10,015 feet) coal-fired, steam operated narrow-gauge railroad in North America.


Historic shot of a rotary snowplow at work. Drifts sometimes reached 20-feet at Cumbres Pass.

Now, normally I’m not the type to get wound up in a tizzy about railroads, but this thing has been so beautifully preserved by such a passionate group of people that it is positively electrifying. The southern terminal at Chama, NM is gorgeously set at the base of the San Juan Mountains and supports a small museum, original terminus building, 1899 machine shop, tool sheds, coal tipple, stock yards and over 100 historic freight and maintenance-of-way cars including the original Rio Grande steam locomotives.

One of the genius rotary snow plows on display

There are contraptions I’ve never seen or imagined including the genius rotary snow-plow, massive machines that cleared snow drifts over the high passes in winter. Groups of passionate volunteers (Friends of Cumbres and Toltec) are on-hand to answer questions and support the railroad, while cars and the orignal railroad yards are open for self-guided visits. You can then either take a ride on the train or follow the tracks by car on the fabulously scenic Hwy 17 to Antonito, CO.

Whether you’re a rail enthusiast or just an interested tourist, no doubt this is a touch of industrial history worth seeing. It’s the story of a man’s vision preserved  and transformed into a fascinating collection of artifacts. And, you can still get on and take the ride….cool, indeed!

The restored telegraph office at Chama terminus in New Mexico
The car inspectors house at Cumbres Pass (elev. 10,015 feet).
Following the tracks along scenic Hwy 17
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    • libertatemamo says

      Now you may well be right on that one -> based on the lack of a stack, I think it may have been the diesel in the terminal and not the steam..Duh! Changed the caption to match. Thanks for catching that one!

  1. says

    we took the narrow gauge several years ago from Durango Colo to Silverton and back… nice ride but this one was coal burning as I recall.

    • libertatemamo says

      We’re hoping to check that one out when we get to Durango
      this next month. Should be interesting to see and compare the two.

  2. says

    YEAH!!! We first went to Chama about 10 years ago. We met a man, who owned a shop that is no longer there, whose name is Casey. My son is a RR buff and I was looking at his postcards–he went down to his basement and brought up a whole box of old cars he had. He told us the story about how Gene Autry bought steam engine #463 for a movie, and sold it back to the railroad for $1.00, shipping it back to Chama on a flatbed truck. His stories were fascinating.

    Jack and I walked to the terminal every day we were there, last year, where everyone got to know him. I had the pleasure of being camped in a campground right on the line and where many of the friends camped from May until the fall. In the campground, there was a school bus on rails (I have a picture on my blog). I thought it was a joke, but they told me it isn’t–it takes children to school, but I’ve been unable to verify that via the web and wonder whether they were pulling my leg. They were a lot of fun, and truly dedicated to the preservation of the RR. A few days after I left, there was a fire on a trestle just north of Chama so they had to figure out a way to keep it going during tourist season.

    If you’re wondering why I’m such a nut about this, I grew up within feet of a coal yard and train line, and the aroma of the train yard took me right back to childhood. My poor Mother could not keep up with the coal dust that inevitably got into our apartment-the woodwork was painted brown to hide some of it! I apologize for hogging your comment section, Nina, but it’s such a pleasure to travel “with you”.

    • libertatemamo says

      I LOVE all those kinds of stories!! Thanks so much for sharing them.
      Especially enjoy the one about Gene Autry…how cool is that?!

    • libertatemamo says

      We just did the drive up Hwy 17. The train ride looked fabulous, but we didn’t want to spend that much time away from the dog. It was still beautifully scenic on the drive.

  3. Jerry B. says

    Last October we took the whole ride into Antonito but the half would have been plenty. The second half is a bit boring, even though the steam train is a kick. Food is great at the dining hall and the rail buffs love to talk about their train. When we camped at the Rio Chama campground next to the yard, we waved at the train as it went over the trestle but that was a few years ago before the big trestle burned. The recent trip was by bus for a way up the hill but I think they are getting money together to rebuild the trestle. Great story, as usual, thanks again. Isn’t that coal tipple neat? Jerry

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, the tipple is really neat. I found the whole place fascinating and loved
      the fact that we could walk around and check things out. If we come back
      to do the ride I think I’ll take the 1/2 day as you suggest. That seems more
      reasonable than a full-day ride.

  4. says

    Jerry, I camped at Rio Chama, too. The lady in the office offered to watch Jack so I could take the railroad, but I declined. The drive up 17 is beautiful. My husband and daughter rode the Durango/Silverton line and loved it.

    The ride from Chama to Durango is a great ride, too.

  5. Lauren Brown says

    Nina and Paul,
    Just had to leave a post about your visit to this railroad. After departing from Flagstaff after visiting you two on my cross-country bicycle ride, I wound my way across northern AZ and NM, reaching Chama in late May. I was tempted to put my bike and trailer on the train and ride across the Rockies to Antonito CO. But I just watched the wonderful steam engine pull out of the station in Chama. Later I followed the road that paralleled the RR tracks up the mountain. What spendid scenery. I’m really glad you got to see that part of the country. Someday I’m going to head back and treat myself and our family to that ride.

    • libertatemamo says

      I recall your post on it now!! I remember you talking about watching the steam engine pull out, but had forgotten it was at Chama. It’s really amazing that you biked that whole way up the mountain. We did it by car and we were still exhausted :) It’s a stunning ride.

  6. says

    Well, we are finally getting to follow your tracks to adventure. We leave 07-05 to visit Mom in Angel Fire on our way to Chicago, IL where we pick up our rig. We are changing jobs and will be on the road full-time in just a short couple weeks. FINALLY :-) Thanks to the Wheeling It virtual travel brochures, we’ll be making a stop at Eagle Lake and Chama on our way north.

    • libertatemamo says

      Whoo hooo!!! How exciting. I’m really looking forward to following all your travels on the blog. Hopefully we’ll meet up at some point on the road. And give my regards to your mom…she (and you) inspired us to make the trip to Angel Fire. It was an excellent tip!

    • libertatemamo says

      I have to admit that even tho’ I’m not much of a railroad buff I thought this was just the COOLest!
      I can see how people really get into them and become passionate about the whole thing.
      It was really fun to see it!


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