In the Southwest, It’s Full Steam Ahead

By Justin Franz

Photo by Justin Franz

There are hundreds of railroad museums and scenic train rides all across the United States. Many of them offer the opportunity to “step back in time” or “relive yesteryear.”

But few can truly deliver on that promise quite like the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad — a 64-mile, narrow-gauge route across the rugged San Juan Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado that has gone nearly unchanged since the last freight train rumbled over Cumbres Pass 50 years ago this summer. Unlike other museums that are a hodgepodge of old trains from different places, nearly all of the locomotives and cars of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic are original to the railroad they run on today.

“This place is the real deal,” says Stathi Pappas, the assistant general manager of the railroad, who spends most of his days restoring locomotives and passenger cars built more than a century ago. “There really is no place like this on Earth.”

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic was voted the “best train ride in North America” by USA Today readers in 2016 thanks to the spectacular mountain scenery it traverses between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo. But for history buffs and railroad enthusiasts, it’s the dozens of vintage rail cars, smoke-spewing steam locomotives and original buildings that make the journey to the Southwest worthwhile.

What makes the spectacular railroad even more amazing is that it was almost lost for good a half-century ago.

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This story was published by the Washington Post in September 2018.