Newspaper article News Sentinel

Travel - New Mexico Train Ride One of a Kind

Newspaper article News Sentinel

Travel - New Mexico Train Ride One of a Kind

Article excerpt

CHAMA, N.M. - Over sagebrush chaparrals, around rocky spires formed by ancient volcanoes, through tunnels carved to cart silver from frontier mines, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad rolls on.

Guide Bob Ross explains that at the turn of the 20th century these trains used to haul everything from lumber to vegetables to cattle to people. If they were coming through this part of New Mexico and Colorado, all of those long trains had to stop in Chama, about 100 miles northwest of Taos.

"They had to get these cars up the mountain at a 4 percent grade - wasn't any way that was going to happen," he says to tourists gathered on the train's open-air observation car. "So they would divide the train into sections and take them up the hill on several engines. It was a major operation."

It still is a major operation to get the many visitors who come for the 64-mile ride from Chama to Antonito, Colorado, or vice versa. The coal-fired, steam-operated engine chugs at an average of 20 mph over tracks built narrow enough to squeeze through the many rock formations along the way.

Steam trains gloriously chug-chug into the past on numerous history-sharing train rides across America, but this one is topographically and figuratively a class above.

The track heads up more than 10,000 feet through Cumbres Pass, and the views of the San Juan Mountains are spellbinding.

Zigs and zags through pastel rock formations interrupt long looks to the infinite, cowboy-western horizon. The plateaus, palisades and peaks appear as sandstone but, Ross says, they are really made of volcanic rock shaded by the ages with streaks of orange, brown and red.

"This is actually some of the richest ground in America, but there isn't much water," he says.

The old black engines pull about a dozen rail cars, sometimes along twisted switchbacks like the one near Big Horn Peak or Lava Loop, other times through tunnels like the 360-foot Rock Tunnel near the Garfield Monument. …

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