All Aboard for Autumn Adventures
Steam through gorgeous aspens on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
By Joy Meadows
An autumn ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is a bucket list adventure that every New Mexican and Coloradan should experience. Avoid all the leaf-peeping traffic and get on board the C&T to immerse yourself in autumn colors as you travel where there are no roads, across mountainsides of aspens, above rocky gorges, and through sun-dappled meadows.
Consistently ranked by the readers of USA Today as one of the nation’s top scenic train rides, the C&T is also the highest, longest, and most authentic steam railroad on the continent. This National Historic Landmark is a museum on wheels, owned by the states of New Mexico and Colorado to preserve travel by historic coal-fired steam locomotives just the way it was when the railroad was built in 1880.
In the fall, the C&T steams between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado, through tens of thousands of colorful aspen trees, twisting and turning for 64 miles through Rocky Mountain wilderness steaming along in comfort as the golden aspens gleam in the crisp autumn air. Trains cross state borders 11 times, steaming through tunnels and over high trestles, along the edge of deep canyons, and up to the summit of Cumbres Pass,10,015 feet above sea level.
There are more than two million acres of aspen trees in Colorado and New Mexico—one billion trees that if placed together would cover Rhode Island and Delaware. Aspen trees in the Rocky Mountains grow from 6,500 to 10,500 feet in elevation. Although many factors make leaves turn color, as a general rule the higher the elevation, the sooner the leaves turn gold. That means that over a period of time, you can often see a variety of shades of color on one mountainside, with deeper golds on top at 10,000 feet, blending to pale yellow in the 8,000-foot range. Since the C&T runs from 7,863 feet to 10,015 feet at the top of Cumbres Pass, you can expect to see pretty fall aspens in varying shades all along the route—a breathtaking sight that makes a ride on the C&T highly sought-after in the fall.
Arrive early so you can visit the yard and watch the engineers and firemen get the locomotive ready for your journey up into the Rocky Mountains. They will blow whistles, let off steam, and move the engines to take on coal and water for the trip. The conductor will give orders to shunt cars into the proper arrangement, as others bring on the food and beverages for the passengers. It’s great fun to walk around the yard and watch the trains being prepared, just as they were in 1880 when the railroad first opened.
The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad has been featured in nearly two dozen films. The unspoiled Western scenery along the route and the railroad’s distinct narrow gauge steam engines bring interest and authenticity to the screen. Some of the films featuring the C&T include: Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, the Oscar-nominated Wyatt Earp, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Hostiles, which featured C&T trains and Chama Depot in the last four minutes.
There’s no doubt that kids love trains, and the C&T brings out the kid in all of us. Younger passengers can take part in the Junior Engineer Program, designed to foster a love for the C&T in youth ages 5–18. The fun and educational activities booklet will teach young passengers about the history of the railroad, how trains work, jobs on the railroad, and more. Booklets can be found at the C&T both in the depots and onboard the train. The program was created by the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
The C&T runs through October 21, 2023, departing from Chama and Antonito. There are several trip options, including full and half-day—and even a few special departures. Fall rides are extremely popular and are selling out fast, so book early to avoid disappointment at cumbrestoltec.com.
Joy Meadows is an avid hiker, history lover, and mother of three. She handles public relations for the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and believes every New Mexico and Colorado resident should experience a ride on the train, which is jointly owned by the two states.