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Colorado Rockies by Railroad

Colorado is a prime summer destination for travelers interested in rail excursions, as well as train buffs in general.

Not only does the Centennial State’s exceptional mountain scenery provide the perfect backdrop for a trip on a train, but no fewer than eight different opportunities are available. The most celebrated is likely the Durango and Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, popularly referred to as “The Silverton,” a historic steam-powered train that travels from Durango through the spectacular high country of southwestern Colorado. From Manitou Springs, just west of Colorado Springs, the famed Pikes Peak Cog Railway climbs daily from its base station to the summit of the state’s most well-known peak. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad departs from Cañon City and follows the Arkansas River through the splendid Royal Gorge. And for those passing by on I-70, the Georgetown Loop Railroad offers a scenic but relatively brief trip, as well as a silver mine tour.

The less-well-known but still quite worthwhile Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad trip from historic Leadville offers panoramic mountain views and the mammoth Climax molybdenum mine, and the Alamosa-based Rio Grande Scenic Railroad operates full-day trips on the San Luis Express to picturesque La Veta, as well as shorter excursions to Antonito and Monte Vista. One of Amtrak’s most scenic and popular routes is through the heart of the Rockies between Denver and Grand Junction, and vice-versa, on the California Zephyr.

However, my absolute favorite one-day train ride anywhere travels not only through southern Colorado, but also through northern New Mexico. This unique operation, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, has trains departing daily, Memorial Day weekend to mid-October, from both Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. What makes the Cumbres and Toltec special is that it is one of the very few tourist trains available where passengers that wish to enjoy the complete rail excursion are not required to return to their original departure point on the same set of tracks and, thereby, repeat their travel through the same countryside.

Round-trips are also available on the 64-mile-long Cumbres and Toltec, which is jointly owned by the governments of Colorado and New Mexico, but most guests prefer to experience a full day of incredible sightseeing through magnificent, constantly changing mountain scenery, crossing impressive wooden trestles and viewing forestlands, historic mining camps and wildlife. This is accomplished by having the trains from both Antonito and Chama meet midday at the old stagecoach stop of Osier Station, where all passengers are directed to help themselves to a tasty buffet luncheon included in their fares, and then exchange their guests and return “home” after the meal. Thus, those who originated in Antonito conclude their journey in Chama, and vice-versa, so everyone gets to experience the entire route of this historic narrow-gauge line on two similar but different trains. Both will be pulled by puffing, coal-burning steam locomotives, and both offer standard coach seating, open-air cars that are great for photographers and upscale parlor-car options.

At the end of the day, the railroad runs shuttle buses to return those who left their vehicles at either end to their vehicles on the opposite side, although it is easy for tour coaches to pick up their guests by traveling state Highway 17 connecting the two towns while the groups are aboard the trains.

Try it — it’s truly a wonderful trip.