By Ron Stern, Travel Photojournalist
Growing up as a city boy, my childhood memories of riding an old fashioned steam locomotive were confined to riding around the amusement park at Knotts Berry Farm in Anaheim, California.
Sure it was fun but nothing that could compare to my journey through the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and New Mexico aboard the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.
Based in Chama, New Mexico, this railroad was originally constructed in 1880 and part of what was then the Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension. The main purpose was to transport miners, equipment and ore for the silver industry that was flourishing at the time. A World War and industry regulations eventually brought the line into disrepair.
But, thanks to volunteers and railroad preservationists, the most beautiful parts of the route were saved and in 1970 the states of Colorado and New Mexico purchased the track and nine steam locomotives and started taking tourists on a memory making trip back in time pretty much the same way it was done at the turn of the century.
There are several ways you can take your journey, which can be all day or half that amount. The best route would start in the small town of Antonito, Colorado in Conejos County. This was once a company railroad town that was founded by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1880. You would then ride all the way to Chama, New Mexico and return by motor coach.
You board the train in your choice of coach ($95), deluxe tourist ($129) or ride in ultimate comfort in their parlor lounge ($169) where you are offered fruits, snacks and soft drinks and confections throughout the trip.
The terrain starts off with small, rolling hills covered with silver sage but then starts to wind upwards into the San Juan Mountains with pine trees, narrow gorges, tunnels blasted out of solid rock and colorful canyon walls. Along the way volunteer docents’ will tell you about some of the more interesting history surrounding weird points such as Hangman’s Trestle, Lava Tank, Phantom Curve and Mud Tunnel.
Just about the time I was getting hungry our train stopped along the Rio de Los Pinos River in the town of Osier. There is a large dining hall on the site today, but in 1880 it was another railroad community serving as a section home for the employees.
As we filed into the hall we were divided into lines depending upon our lunch selection which included turkey with all the trimmings, meat loaf, lasagna or soup and salad. I chose the turkey which was remarkably moist and tasty and followed that up with dessert from a large assortment of cakes and pies.
Once you re-board you start heading to Chama through some truly spectacular scenery. If you are into photography, like me, then the place to be is in the open car where you have unobstructed views of the terrain.
This car was loaded with others having the same idea, all of them snapping away and maxing out their memory cards.
What adds to the overall feel of this train is the sound of the locomotive huffing and puffing billowing clouds of grey and white smoke as it makes its way up and down the mountain tracks.
Part of the experience includes getting some of that soot and water vapor in your face and hair so protective eyewear is recommended. Depending upon the weather, I would also bring along a warm coat as you go up in elevation.
As you toll into Chama you realize that you just participated in something historic. These were the same trains that contributed to the prosperity of our country.
The men that ran these were hard working, committed railroad men that had to fix things on the fly as they occurred. The current general manager of the Cumbres and Toltec is John Bush, himself a long-time railroad worker. He started fixing engines when he was just a young boy and his fascination and enthusiasm with these iron giants hasn’t abated.
For me, this was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would recommend to anyone. All of the employees know that they are part of something special that needs to be preserved for future generations. There is a spirit of pride and optimism that railroads seem to impart and that can be seen reflected in the smiles on the faces of passengers as they finally disembark.
FTC Disclosure: Promotional considerations and sponsorship were provided by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
Resources: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad www.cumbrestoltec.com