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Why You Should Experience Colorado's San Luis Valley By Train

Whether you’re looking for a way back in time or simply want to see the majestic landscape in all its present-day glory, your best bet is to hop aboard the San Luis Valley’s historic Cumbres & Toltec Railroad.

The train depot in downtown Alamosa
The train depot in downtown Alamosa
Rio Grande Scenic Railroad
Rio Grande Scenic Railroad
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

In addition to the unique opportunity to take in the scenery without having to worry about actually steering your vehicle, you’ll be transported to places — and times — you can only experience from the passenger seat of a railway car.

Visit southern Colorado, and you’ll find a landscape that looks much as it did centuries ago, with craggy, towering peaks, windswept plains and, of course, the iconic sand dunes. There are a few hardy communities in this awe-inspiring landscape, but venture outside of those, and you’ll hardly see another soul. As you explore the wild terrain, you might get the sense you’ve stepped back in time.

And, you just might think you’ve gone back to the Old West days if you board the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in Antonito, which allows passengers to experience the rugged San Luis Valley much the same way people did in the late 1800s. Ride through the open plains to Chama, New Mexico, climbing higher than 10,000 feet as the train rumbles through southern Colorado for an exciting way to soak in the beauty of the San Luis Valley and the surrounding mountains.

Railroad History

Like much of the western United States, the San Luis Valley was made infinitely more accessible to the rest of the country when railroad tracks connected it to important industrial centers around North America. In fact, it’s directly responsible for the existence of the Alamosa we know today — the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad shipped buildings to the town site, and, over the course of a single day in May 1878, Alamosa took shape.

For 60 years, passengers and freight alike made the journey to the San Luis Valley. Then, beginning in 1950, the tracks were used only to transport cargo around Colorado and the rest of the country. Passenger services were on hiatus until 2006, when the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad became a heritage railway and offered sightseeing tours until 2019. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad — built in 1881 as part of the Rio Grande's narrow gauge San Juan extension — has been delighting visitors with its services since 1971.

Catching the Train

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2012, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad operates coal-fired, steam-operated, narrow-gauge locomotives that depart from Antonito, Colorado (which is just a 30-minute drive south of Alamosa), and Chama, New Mexico. Originally an extension of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, the Cumbres & Toltec rail line was completed in 1881 with the intention of offering additional support for mining operations in the San Juans, and it connected the San Luis Valley to Durango. The trail is named for Cumbres Pass, which at 10,015 feet is the highest railroad-accessible pass in the U.S., and the Toltec Gorge. Both the pass and the gorge sit along the railway’s route.

As you ride the rails, you'll be treated to spectacular views of white-trunked aspen groves, wildflower-dotted prairies, canyons and plenty of wildlife. The train travels at 12 mph, so you'll have ample opportunity to snap photos of your amazing journey. Along the way, you'll cross the borders of Colorado and New Mexico 11 times. 

On-board docents are eager to answer questions about the local flora, fauna, geology and history of the railroad as you travel through lands no automobile can reach. And don't leave without taking a self-guided tour of the rail yard!

Cumbres & Toltec offers half- and full-day trips, making it possible to experience all the rugged beauty southern Colorado has to offer. Lunch is included with ticket prices, and dinner is offered for the railway’s special events.

A version of this article originally appeared on Alamosa.org.

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