Not long ago, we drove some 500 miles to a picturesque town in north central New Mexico called Chama. It is tucked into a valley of high mountains surrounded by ranches, forests, nice people and is the terminus of a railroad, which was built in 1880 and called the Cumbres & Toltec.
It is America's longest and highest narrow-gauge railroad and one of our country's best preserved. Originally built by the Rio Grande to haul mineral ore, timber, cattle and sheep, as well as passengers, the line from Chama to Antonito is not long, but is one of the most scenic you will find anywhere in the world.
We departed Chama at 10 a.m. Our train, built in the 1880s, consisted of eight passenger cars, an open platform car from which we could stand outside and photograph the amazing scenery and was pulled by a steam engine built in 1920. The train never exceeds 25 miles per hour and as it curves and bends around the high mountains, we observed some of the most thrilling mountain scenery we have ever experienced.
There are times when the tracks run along the edge of the mountains and one can look straight down some 600 feet into the valleys below.
There are small streams, cattle grazing, full forests of pine and grove after grove of aspen which were just beginning to turn into fall colors.
Chama is at an elevation of 7,863 ft. and the train climbs to 10,015 ft. at one point along the route to Antonito, Colo. In fact, the train enters and departs Colorado 11 times on the way to Antonito.
There are friendly and informative docents stationed everywhere at the railroad stations to answer questions and to impart interesting information, as well as on board the train. There are also attendants stationed in each car to help with questions. We chose the parlor car, since there were fewer seats and better service.
Lunch is served at a little wide spot on the rails called Osier, Colo. at an elevation of 9,637 ft. Before departing Chama, your car attendant will ask if you want the turkey dinner, meat loaf or salad and soup bar.
She takes a count, calls ahead to the lunch facility at Osier and then the good folks there prepare accordingly. After arrival, you find the line for cafeteria service of the turkey, meat loaf or salad and soup bar. There are long family-style tables for seating which overlook the majestic valleys and mountains. There are setups for beverages and desserts on a self-serve basis.
Following lunch, we changed trains for the descent into Antonito. The reason is that the rail cars on the train from Chama to Osier are lighter weight than those on the train from Osier to Antonito. There are some pretty steep grades climbing to Osier and the lighter weight equipment is required.
The windows in our car were open for most of the trip, which made it easy to stick the camera out the window for various shots. After lunch, the train continues through the spectacular mountains and by mid-afternoon begins to descend into the high plains of Colorado. We arrived at Antonito at 4:30 p.m., at which time we boarded coaches for the drive back to Chama, arriving there at 6 p.m.
During the two nights' stay in Chama, we dined at the High Country Restaurant, with a surprise menu of almost-gourmet food. This is the most popular spot in the small town. We stayed at the Branding Iron Motel in the center of town, which was a typical structure probably built in the 1960s.
It's a rather long drive from Payson to Chama and you may wish to break it up with an overnight in Santa Fe, with all its interesting museums and other attractions.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad operates between mid-May and mid-October. Call 1-888-286-2737 for information and reservations.