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SIER, Colo. Trains on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway start running each year in late May, as soon as snow is cleared from the tracks at Cumbres Pass. But fall when the aspen trees are a blaze of gold and the Gambel oaks a brilliant red against the dark green mountains is the most popular time for travel on the scenic railroad.
The cinder-spewing steam train, which meanders at 12 mph through the backcountry, is billed as the longest and highest narrow gauge railroad in the country. The 125-year-old railway runs between Antonito, Colo., and Chama, N.M., a 64-mile zigzag back and forth across the state line at elevations reaching 10,000 feet.
The route includes trestles and tunnels, switchbacks and curves, and stunning views of the Toltec Gorge from 600 feet above the river that helped carve it, the Rio de los Pinos.
Everyone has a reserved seat, in coaches or a fancier parlor car. But it's more fun to stand in the open observation car swaying, squinting and trying to dodge the occasional blast of acrid smoke from the coal-fired steam locomotive.
"I see something new every time I come through here," said Jim Ward, an enthusiastic docent aboard the train who has spotted deer, elk, bear and fox during his trips this summer.
The trip takes about six hours including a lunch stop. The season ends Oct. 16.
Cattle, sheep, lumber, coal, oil and mail once were hauled over this line, which was built in 1880 and once was part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad as was the Durango-to-Silverton line in Colorado, which now also operates as a scenic railway.
The Cumbres & Toltec is just one of more than 150 tourist trains operating around the nation, according to Dan Ranger, executive director of the Tourist Railway Association, or TRAIN, an information clearinghouse for such railroads.
But he said only about 15 others are narrow gauge 3 feet between the rails, good for climbing steep terrain, and popular with the lumber and mining industries in the late 1800s.
This year, about 40,000 passengers are expected to ride the Cumbres & Toltec, which is jointly owned by New Mexico and Colorado.
Trains typically leave simultaneously from Chama and Antonito and meet in the middle for a break in the old stagecoach town of Osier now a sprinkling of historic structures alongside a cavernous, modern-day dining hall.
Lunch consists of turkey and all the trimmings, meat loaf, soup and salad bar, or mix and match. Desserts include chocolate cake, peach cobbler and buttermilk pie.
Passengers switch trains at Osier if they're going all the way to the end of the line, or reboard the same train if they're just making a round trip to Osier.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, summer monsoon rains that coincided with lunch kept the Antonito train's passengers in the dining hall during the wait for the Chama crowd. The tourists talked, read, poked around in the gift shop, or sprawled on the benches of the long dining tables, backpacks under their heads.
Wanda Burger and her husband, George, a retired firefighter, from Pilot Point, Texas, had four grandchildren in tow: Brittney, 11, Brenden, 10, and Branson and Bryson, both 8.
The train trip "is fantastic for grandparents, because you get to see their enjoyment," Burger said.
If You Go
TRIP SCHEDULES: Through Oct. 16, one train a day Monday through Thursday, departing Antonito at 10:30 a.m. Monday and Wednesday and departing Chama at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; no service Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, two trains daily, departing Antonito and Chama at 10:30 a.m.
TRIP PRICES: Fares for coach seating range from $54.75 to $69.75 for adults, and $29.50 to $37 for children 2 through 11. Parlor car fares are $108.75 for trains departing Chama and $103.75 for trains departing Antonito. Parlor cars feature complimentary snack and attendant service.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Restrooms on the trains, at the Chama and Antonito depots, and in the dining hall. Snacks, film supplies and souvenirs available on board.
CUMBRES & TOLTEC SCENIC RAILROAD: http://www.cumbresandtoltec.com or 888-286-2737.
FRIENDS OF THE CUMBRES & TOLTEC SCENIC RAILROAD: http://www.cumbrestoltec.org.
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