The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a remnant of the Denver & Rio Grande Western's 3-foot narrow gauge empire of the 1880s in Colorado and northern New Mexico, which once extended all the way from Denver, via Pueblo, Walsenburg, LaVeta Pass, and Alamosa, all in Colorado. By the mid 1930s, this line had been standard-gauged all the way to Alamosa, with dual gauge track between Alamosa and Antonito. The line from Antonito to Durango, and the branches thence to Silverton and Farmington, remained narrow gauge to the end of its days in daily freight and passenger service. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is the remaining part of the narrow gauge main line between Alamosa and Durango. It was saved from scrapping by the States of Colorado and New Mexico, after the line closed in 1968, with state purchase concluded in 1970. There have been several successive operators (contracted with the states), usually operating the line from mid-June to mid-October, since then. The line runs from Chama, NM, to Antonito, CO, over Cumbres Pass.
The furthest west remaining section of the line is the wye at the south end of Chama, where the west apex is on the line of the original route westwards towards Dulce and Pagosa Junction, and is on the west side of the highway south of town, with two legs of the wye crossing that highway at separate places. Chama, NM, MP 344.1 (from Denver via Walsenburg), altitude 7,863 feet, has a depot on the west side of the line, and a yard and locomotive depot on the east side of the line, including a complete wooden coal loading stage, as well as water tank, adjacent to MP 344, and locomotive shop. The single track, narrow gauge line, maximum speed 15 mph, heads northeast out of Chama, across the Chama River on a through truss bridge, and then across SR 17 on a grade crossing, after which that highway parallels the line on the southeast side, through the brush and past MP 343..
Moderate climbing starts immediately after crossing the highway, with a concrete retaining wall on the southeast side as the line passes through the "Narrows", past Broads and MP 341, with the highway running above the line on the southeast side, and the 1,190 ft. siding on the north side at Lobato (MP 340.0, el. 8,283 feet). There is a short descent just east of the siding and before reaching the meadows and trestle. Approaching Lobato Meadows, the climb becomes a 4% grade, and there is a 10 mph speed restriction. Lobato Trestle is 310 ft. long, 110 feet above Wolf Creek. Only one locomotive is allowed on the trestle at a time, so double-headers require special operations at this spot. The line turns east near MP 339, where the 10 mph speed restriction ends, and then northeast again, and passes through alpine meadows past Lobo Lodge, which is accessed by a dirt road grade crossing, and Dalton (MP 338.8).
East of MP 338, the highway (SR 17) crosses at grade, and then runs up on the hillside to the northwest, as the line passes MP 337, MP 336, a dirt road grade crossing, the 2,722 ft. siding on the southeast side at Cresco (water) Tank (MP 335.5, at an elevation of 9,183 ft.), MP 335, runs on a ledge above the main valley to the southeast, and enters Colorado near MP 334, past Hamilton Point, which has a good view down the valley to the southwest, and MP 333, and turns north-northwest, crossing the highway again before reaching Coxo (MP 332.2, altitude 9,753 ft.). After passing MP 332, the line turns sharply east (clockwise) and then south, among the aspens and some intermixed firs, and curves counter-clockwise to the northeast around Windy Point, where it runs on a narrow ledge above the valley, past MP 331. Soon after that, bridging over a dirt road, the line reaches Cumbres Pass (MP 330.6, at an altitude of 10,015 feet). Here, the line crosses the highway for the last time, with a wooden depot on the south side of the line, and a water standpipe across from it, west of the road, and a wye for turning helper locomotives on the north side of the line, straddling the road (the east leg of the wye also crosses the road), as the line curves. The tail track of the wye is in a snowshed.
On the west slope of Cumbres Pass, the hillsides are open with scattered clumps of fir trees, varying in density from single trees to quite large forest groves, with yellow grassland in between. Aspens at lower elevations are flaming yellow in glorious autumn colors. East slopes are often quite barren, with little but scrub in the side valleys, mainly due to a forest fire in the 1870s from which the area has never really recovered. There are some large areas of dense forest to be seen at places along the way, especially near Tanglefoot curve.
East of Cumbres, the now-descending line makes a sharp curve to the south-southwest and then south, across the upper end of the Cumbres Creek valley that descends to the east, past MP 330, and then curves counter-clockwise around a very tight almost circular loop until it is heading northwest, and then curves the other way to come back alongside itself but at a much lower level, heading north-northeast. This is known as Tanglefoot Curve. At MP 331, the line then turns south-southeast to run along the north edge of the valley, with the highway above it on the hillside to the north, past MP 328, a dirt road grade crossing, and MP 327, turning north-northeast up the main valley, past MP 326 and Los Piños tank, on the west side of the line, with highway 17 now above and alongside to the west, to the horseshoe curve which leads to the 1,850 ft. siding on the north side at Los Piños (MP 324.8), where the highway finally leaves the line and heads away to the north.
The line crosses the embryonic Los Piños River on a low bridge as it curves south-southeast and south to a narrow ledge, partway up a sloping hillside that is covered in yellow flowers in the spring heading east-southeast, past MP 322, and then east, past MP 321, above the Los Piños River as the main valley turns east into the same heading as the side valley coming down from Tanglefoot Curve. After it crosses 137 ft. high Cascade Trestle, the line almost immediately turns north-northeast up another side valley, back south-southwest again for a very short distance, and then makes a big curve to the south-southeast to reach the 1,900 ft. siding at Osier (MP 320.5, altitude 9,637 ft.), where there is a train order office, a dirt road grade crossing, a section house, a water tank and then the railroad's lunchroom (specially built to replace the use of the section house for this purpose) on the south side of the line. Both tracks are used for parking trains at lunchtime. In general, the locomotives proceed, while the trains return to their starting point with the other locomotive on the front; this avoids the need to run the locomotives and run them around their trains, which would take a more complex track layout.
East of Osier, past MP 318, there is a balloon track on the southwest side of the line, which heads curvily southeast, through a rocky cutting, past MP 317 and the Colorado/New Mexico line, and then high above the spectacular Toltec Gorge (with the Los Piños River at the bottom, 600 ft. below), a quite short narrow and deep section of the Los Piños River valley, which continues east of here as a wider valley, albeit still quite deep. There are aspens alongside the line, both up and down, as well as among the pines across the gorge, which are spectacular in late September or early October. The line passes the Garfield Monument (to the assassinated president), on the south side of the line in New Mexico, heads through 366 ft. tunnel #2 (“rock” tunnel, MP 315.2), and turns north across the state line, past MP 314, to the site of the Toltec Sectional House near MP 313 in Colorado, and then making a sharp curve generally south-southeast, passing through Phantom Curve, near MP 312, where rock formations on the north side (like those at Bryce Canyon in Utah) resemble ghosts along the line, and 342 ft. tunnel #1 (“mud” tunnel, MP 311.3) to the 1,166 ft. siding on the north side at Toltec (MP 310.5), back in New Mexico, where the line turns generally east-southeast. Turning and twisting east-southeastward and then eastward, past MP 310 and MP 309, along a ledge high above the gorge, past MP 308, with firs and pines along the hillside both above and below the line, the line then turns north, past MP 307, up a side valley, east-northeast to the 1,582 ft. siding on the north side at Sublette (MP 306.1, altitude 9,010 ft.), where there is a water standpipe that is still in use, on the north side, and various extant section houses on the south side of the line.
The line heads east-southeast, east-northeast, making a clockwise horseshoe back south-southwest past MP 305, and then south, back to the main gorge at MP 304, north, east, and north up another side valley, past MP 303, gradually reaching the top of the cliffs (because the top is descending faster than the tracks, which themselves are on a 1.4% downgrade), and passing from evergreens into sagebrush. It continues to twist and turn, east, north, east, north past MP 302, around a clockwise horseshoe south, around a counter-clockwise horseshoe around the ridge to the north, past MP 301, and east, past MP 300 and north through the 1,184 ft. siding on the west side at Big Horn (MP 299.4), into Colorado again, and turning east past MP 299 and MP 298, and reaches Whiplash Curve, in Colorado, a pair of 180° hairpin turns, first north, then clockwise east past MP 297, south, and then west southwest, on the south side of one ridge then on the north side of the next, turning sharply counter-clockwise through MP 296 to the site of Big Horn Section House, just into New Mexico, and then just north of east again, in Colorado, on another ridge, turning almost south into New Mexico past MP 295, on a series of descending ridges that cross back and forth, southeast, south down into the upper end of a valley, east northeast out of that valley near MP 294, across another ridge heading southeast, south past MP 293, and then east again, across the sagebrush plain, past MP 292 to Lava Tank (MP 291.5, el. 8,506 ft.), where there is a water tank on the south side of the line.
In a complex series of curves near the latter, the line makes a counter-clockwise hairpin, coming close enough, on the north side and below, to itself that there is a short and steep connector down from Lava Tank, making the turn into a balloon track if needed. The descending line then turns north-northeast at MP 291, northeast past MP 290, counter-clockwise, just in Colorado, to the west-southwest, back in New Mexico, northwest at MP 289, north into Colorado, northeast past MP 288, west-northwest, northeast, east-northeast past MP 287, northeast, north past MP 286 (el. 8,143 ft.), past Hangman's Trestle, and then northeast, past MPs 285 to 282. On a barren volcanic plain populated by sagebrush, not trees, the line reaches its fastest segment as it heads northeast, reaching the bottom of its descent near MP 283. There is a dirt road grade crossing just west of MP 282, a dirt road comes alongside to the southeast, there is a grade crossing, and highway 17 comes alongside to the north near MP 281. The line crosses another grade crossing into Antonito, CO, (MP 280.5, el. 7,888 ft.), 64 miles from Chama, NM, in a broad but essentially barren valley, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. At Antonito, there is a balloon track, starting just east of that grade crossing, the depot is on the southeast side of the more northerly part of the balloon track, inside the balloon. There are storage sidings on the south side of the balloon, near the southwest junction of the balloon. Inside the balloon, there is a two-road engine shed.
The line crosses the state boundary 11 times between Chama and Antonito!