Ticket to ride
Part 1: Chama to Osier
Back in 2001, I was bringing my first motorhome, "Gertie," from Arizona back to New Jersey. After an exhausting drive through the southern Rockies, I stopped overnight at a lovely commercial RV park along the banks of the Chama river in northern New Mexico. The next morning, I wandered the rail yard of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which was right next door to the campground, taking pictures, but the ticket office wasn't open, so I couldn't ride the train. Instead, I headed on eastward.
Since then, I've been back to the village of Chama many times, mainly because it's the nearest place to get supplies when I'm staying at either Heron Lake State Park or El Vado Lake State Park, as I often do in the summer. The Lowe's supermarket in Chama has a surprisingly broad selection, and there's a pretty decent hardware store under the same roof. There's a nice little laundromat up on the north end of town as well.
And of course there's the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which dominates the town's economy. At 64 miles, it's the longest and highest narrow-gauge railroad in the US, crossing the 10,000-foot La Manga pass before descending into Antonito, Colorado. I've always toyed with the idea of taking that ride, but it's a bit pricey ($90–$170 as of 2013)... and besides, I've driven Route 17 over that pass many a time, so I figured I'd already seen the scenery. Little did I know!
As it happens, I've spent this past week in the Rio Chama RV Park—yes, the same park where I made that brief overnight stop in 2001—and several times a day I can hear the haunting whistle of the Cumbres & Toltec steam locomotives. (The train doesn't run at night, so it doesn't disturb my slumbers.) This is one time when I don't mind having a campsite near the railroad tracks!
In fact, the Chama River borders the campground, and a few yards beyond the fence is the Cumbres & Toltec bridge. I've walked down there a number of times just to watch and photograph the passing trains.
As you can imagine, all of this renewed the urge to take that train ride... and yesterday I finally did. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad offers a number of options for the roughly six-hour train trip: you can ride the train from Chama to Antonito and take a bus back (about an hour via Rt. 17), ride a bus to Antonito and take the train back, or ride the train halfway (to Osier) and then back to Chama. All these excursions include an all-you-can-eat lunch at Osier, prepared by volunteers who drive miles up a dirt road to get there.
It's mid-July, and that means rainy season here in northern New Mexico. In fact, it has rained nearly every afternoon since I got here. Mornings start off bright and sunny; then magnificent cumulus clouds build up, and by late afternoon there's usually a thunderstorm.
It's a pretty regular cycle, and so I figured my best bet was to ride the train in the morning and take the bus back in the afternoon rather than the other way around. That way I'd get the best of the weather on the train ride, and I wouldn't care if it rained while I was returning on the bus.
Having chosen my excursion, I had three choices of accommodations: coach, which is pretty much like regular train seating; "deluxe tourist," which has armchairs facing dinette-like tables (so half the passengers must face the rear of the train); and parlor car, which has nicer armchairs and no tables (so you can face any direction you like). Here's what the brochure says about the parlor car:
Parlor cars offer lounge style comfort and panoramic windows that open to the unspoiled grandeur of the Authentic West. Personal attendants serve a continental breakfast of fresh fruit, delectable confections, fresh coffee, hot chocolate, and your choice of juices. There are snacks and soft drinks available throughout the afternoon and passengers receive a complimentary souvenir pin. Parlor accommodates adults only (21 yrs+).
It was that last line that convinced me. If I'm going to take a six-hour train ride, I'd just as soon not be surrounded by a pack of noisy kids. So I booked a ticket on the last car in the train, the "New Mexico," departing from Chama at 10:00. The cars are obviously meticulously cared for—the Cumbres & Toltec has thousands of volunteers—and look absolutely pristine. The burgundy exteriors reminded me of the Pennsylvania Railroad trains I rode as a child... and also match my motorhome.
Inside, the parlor car was very elegant indeed. Polished wood, gleaming brass oil lamps, and an embossed-metal ceiling promised a posh Victorian-style travel experience, and indeed that was just what I got. One end of the car had a workstation for the attendant, and a small RV-style bathroom.
When I took my seat, I found a plate of fresh fruit, a very nice souvenir tote bag, and a route map waiting for me. Later, the attendant brought us souvenir coffee mugs and the cloisonné pin that you see at the top of this page. (I declined the mug, because I already have four mugs and there simply isn't room for any more in my kitchen cupboard.)
The train's 64-mile route winds through the southern Rockies on the New Mexico-Colorado border, crossing back and forth between the two states multiple times. All those curves you see are because of the mountain peaks and canyons that the railroad has to circumvent. This is why it takes six hours on the train, versus only about an hour on highway 17, which cuts more or less straight through. This is also why the railroad trip is about ten times as scenic as the highway trip! (Don't worry, I'll show you readable versions of this map later on.)
At 10:00 sharp the whistle tooted and the rain pulled out of the Chama station. Here's a video showing how it looked from the ground. (This is actually engine number 488 pulling out of Chama the next day, but it looks exactly the same as our train.)
Note for railfans: engines 488 and 489 are Baldwin Mikado-class (2-8-2) K-36 types, built in 1925. Two of the last ten narrow-gauge locomotives built in the US, they have a tractive power of 36,000 lbs., hence the "-36" designation. For technical information on the K-36 locomotives, see this page. Of these ten nearly hundred-year-old locomotives, nine are still in service: five with the Cumbres & Toltec and four with the Durango & Silverton.
Only a minute or two after leaving the station, we crossed the Chama River on the double-trestle bridge that I had previously photographed from below. Here's a video that shows what it was like. If you look closely off to the right, you'll see the Rio Chama RV park where I'm staying.)
And we were off! The train carried two coach cars, two "deluxe tourist" cars, and in the middle, an open gondola where anyone who wanted to could watch the scenery and get cinders in their hair. Not that I saw anybody with hair aflame...
...but just the same, a cute little gasoline-powered railcar towing a water tank and fire apparatus followed us at a respectful distance all the way to Antonito. Wildfires are such a big concern here that even with a mesh spark arrester on the engine's smokestack, nobody wants to take even the smallest chance of a stray spark starting a fire along the right of way.
Here's a closer look at the "fire car":
Here's a story that explains why these folks take fire prevention so seriously. A few years ago a wildfire (not started by the train!) burned the Lobato trestle just north of Chama, making it impossible to run trains from Chama to Antonito. It took more than a year to get enough state and federal funding to rebuild the trestle, and the tourist-based economies of Chama and Antonito suffered badly. I remember visiting Chama during that time and being shocked at how many stores had closed, even though it was the peak of the tourist season.
As the train rolled along, we highfalutin' parlor car passengers sat back in our comfortable armchairs, enjoying the muffins and freshly made coffee, tea or cocoa brought by our thoughtful attendant. Man, this was the life! Here's a short video of the parlor car in motion.
We had a wonderful view from the large windows, which could be opened so that you could lean out and take photos. Of course, there were times when you didn't want to lean out too far!
The Cumbres & Toltec line climbs from 7,875 feet at Chama to 10,015 feet at Cumbres, the high point of the La Manga pass—a four percent grade, the steepest that the locomotive can handle. The engine works really hard climbing that steep hill, as the labored chuffing of the pistons makes clear.
All that work would make anyone thirsty! This was one of several vintage water towers we passed. Much of the equipment and buildings on the Cumbres & Toltec line is eighty to a hundred years old or more, dating back to the glory days of the silver rush in the 1880s.
After crossing Cascade Creek on a high trestle and hitting the line's high point at Cumbres, we headed eastward with the engine steadilty chuffing along. Next stop: Osier!