Scenic Colorado railroad only one to cross pass |

Scenic Colorado railroad only one to cross pass

Rick SpitzerVail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily/Rick SpitzerA passenger train tours the west side of Cumbres Pass.

Cumbres Pass is located 12.5 miles east of Chama, N.M., and 36 miles west of Antonito, Colo., on CO 17. It is Colorado’s most southern pass, and also one of its warmest. This does not mean that the area is without snow. The average yearly snowfall on Cumbres Pass is 22 feet. In 1957, two trains carrying 58 men were stranded on the pass for seven days because of a large snowstorm. Trains still run over the pass, and a rail yard for the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad sits at the summit. This rail yard is a living museum. A number of its buildings, including a train depot and a section house, are the restored remains of a small town named Alta.The history of Cumbres Pass goes back to long before there were railroads. Archeological findings indicate that people have inhabited the area for 11,000 years. The 10,022-foot summit of the pass is the high point for a scenic and historic byway called Los Caminos Antiguos, or “The Ancient Roads.” Wagons first began crossing Cumbres Pass in 1876. The journey was both dangerous and difficult. Many wagons had no brakes, so trees were dragged behind them when descending steep hillsides. If the route was extremely steep, it was sometimes necessary to lower the wagons using ropes. In 1880, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad extended their line over Cumbres Pass.Little evidence of civilization enters the view from Cumbres Pass except for the rail yard and some homes and cabins a few miles east of the summit. The Rio Grande National Forest encompasses most of the surrounding land. Its open meadows and fertile valleys join together to create spectacular scenery.

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is a fully operational railroad that allows visitors to enjoy the smoke, whistles and chugs of the now rare narrow gauge locomotives. Paid, professional railroaders operate the equipment, but volunteers from Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad work on restoration and preservation of the structures and equipment. Thousands of tourists enjoy riding this railroad every year.The railroad is the only one in Colorado that crosses a pass. It is also America’s highest and longest narrow gauge railroad, covering 64 winding miles of exposed terrain and stunning views.It also is the last operational section of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad dismantled a huge amount of track along this line before 1970, when the states of New Mexico and Colorado purchased the remaining track, nine steam locomotives, 130 cars and all the rail structures. For $547,120 the scenic railroad became a reality. It began transporting tourists the following summer. Without the efforts of many railroad enthusiasts, this section might well have met the same fate as most of Colorado’s narrow gauge rails. New Mexico and Colorado cooperate to maintain this line through the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, an interstate agency authorized by an act of Congress in 1974. Today the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a nonprofit, helps preserve and interpret the history of the railroad.

A train ascending the west side of Cumbres Pass has a challenge. Between Chama and the summit of Cumbres pass, trains gain 2,159 feet in elevation. The grade is very steep, rising four vertical feet for every 100 feet of track. In order to get up the mountain at a reasonable speed, the operators use a procedure called “double heading.” This involves attaching two locomotives to the front of the train – a strategy that requires a great deal of coordination between the two locomotive engineers. At some points it is necessary to uncouple the locomotives before the train crosses a trestle, since the weight of both of them together could damage the bridge. The first locomotive travels over the trestle by itself. Then the second pulls the rest of the train over. When the entire train is on the other side, the first locomotive is reconnected and the train proceeds on up the line. At the summit of Cumbres pass, one locomotive is disconnected and returns to Chama. The second can now handle the remainder of the trip.E-mail comments about this article to or visit

Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.

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