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Excursion trains in the San Luis Valley

Article by Virginia McConnell Simmons

Transportation – June 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

NEED A VACATION but can’t afford to drive a thousand miles? Look no farther than the San Luis Valley for rail excursions to help you leave behind the heavy stuff, like pain at the pump, water shortages, and the meaning of Tom Cruise’s baby’s name. Your only problems regarding your railroad adventure will be figuring out the names of all the trains, their schedules, and fares; the rest is pure pleasure.

Let’s begin with the best-known and most familiar excursion train in these parts, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS), which has been running narrow-gauge, steam-engine excursions for more than 30 years. This line, connecting Antonito, Colo., and Chama, N.M., is owned by the two adjoining states and operates on 64 miles of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway’s narrow-gauge tracks, which were extended from Alamosa to Durango in 1881.

Crossing the southern San Juan Mountains at Cumbres Pass (elevation 10,022) in a cloud of genuine coal smoke and cinders, this line is on the National Register of Historic Places, and traverses some spectacular scenery. You can start at either Antonito or Chama, eat lunch at Osier as part of the ticket price, proceed on to the end of the line, then ride a bus back to your starting point; or you can go as far as Osier, eat lunch, and return back to your starting point by train. Special trips occasionally offer variations.

Over the years, funding has sometimes been a problem for the Cumbres & Toltec, and this past winter people in the Valley were holding their collective breaths until the Colorado State Legislature came through with enough dollars to get the operation going this season. Senator Lewis Entz and Representative Rafael Gallegos were instrumental in sending $250,000 from Denver in the nick of time to get pre-season work moving on equipment and maintenance. New Mexico’s portion was already available, but additional funding will be needed to deal with the whopping deficit that’s built up in recent years.

Narrow-gauge steam locomotive 487, still in service on the C&TS RR.
Narrow-gauge steam locomotive 487, still in service on the C&TS RR.

The C&TS season starts May 27, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and runs through Sunday, October 15, with trains leaving Antonito and Chama daily at 10:00 a.m. and returning at about 4:00 p.m. For standard coach seats, adult fares are $59 to $72. Prices for youngsters and oldsters differ, and options for the one-way bus and round trip to Osier complicate the fares and schedule, so you should take a look at the C&TS’s information, which is available on the Internet ( or by telephone at 1-888-CUMBRES (or at 1-888-286-2737 for folks like me who don’t enjoy wasting their time deciphering acronyms).

A NEW EXCURSION LINE, the San Luis Express, has been getting good publicity this spring, after its operators generously offered introductory trips for the media, railroad employees, and local residents. In contrast to the C&TS, this excursion will run in a different direction, across different mountains, and with different equipment. The line is between Alamosa (or Antonito if you opt to board there) and the town of La Veta. It crosses the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over what railroad owners, beginning with the Denver and Rio Grande, have for years chosen to call La Veta Pass (el. 9,100), despite the existence of another La Veta Pass. Thus, the route is sometimes called the La Veta Pass Route, but it is several miles south of the one you can see by auto on U.S. Hwy. 160. By whatever name, the excursion line will traverse some beautiful mountain scenery that most passengers will be viewing for the first time, since the higher portion is surrounded by private land.

The owner of the excursion line, Permian Basin Railways (PBR), operates daily freight service on the same route on its San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad, over tracks once owned by the Denver and Rio Grande Western, the Southern Pacific, and the Union Pacific. The line is standard gauge with diesel locomotives, and the excursion train will use comfortable passenger cars from the East Coast, which once saw service on a Long Island commuter line. The joint operators of the San Luis Express are PBR and Don Shank, president of the Denver and Rio Grande Historical Foundation.

The San Luis Express schedule reveals daily roundtrips and one-way trips between the towns of Alamosa in the San Luis Valley and La Veta in Huerfano County from May 27 through October 15. A layover for round-trippers at La Veta will allow lunch and shopping there, while lodges in Alamosa are anticipating that some passengers will be staying overnight with them. Looking at the schedule, I can visualize ardent rail fans deliriously putting together outings that could last anywhere from a half-day or a full day to two days or even four days, as standard-gauge rides between La Veta, Alamosa, and Antonito can connect with the narrow-gauge Cumbres and Toltec (after a short trip to the laundromat).

Just as the options for roundtrips and one-way trips between La Veta, CO, and Chama, NM, are numerous, fares on the new tourist lines vary. The easiest way to get this information and rates, as well as reservations for tickets, is to go to the Internet at or or telephone 1-877-7CO-Rail (this acronym translates to 1-877-726-7245). Fares for adults on the San Luis Express are $30-40, lower for children and seniors.

The San Luis Express, headed toward La Veta Pass.
The San Luis Express, headed toward La Veta Pass.

Two puzzling complications may be in store for you. First, when you dial the number shown above, a voice will announce that you have reached the reservation and information hot line for the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, but don’t hang up because you really have the correct number. This new name is an umbrella for the excursion operations of PBR and Shank. The second quandary is that a ticket you buy from Alamosa down the San Luis & Rio Grande tracks to Antonito with a connection onto the narrow-gauge Cumbres & Toltec train calls this the Toltec Gorge Express.

FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS another excursion train on the west side of the San Luis Valley has been in the wings. This one is Shank’s Denver and Rio Grande Historical Foundation venture between Derrick (South Fork) and Creede. It is not ready to go, as station facilities and repairs on the existing roadbed have not yet been done, but Shank reports that work along the grade will begin this summer.

Meanwhile, the locomotive and most of the rolling stock recently stored near the water tank at South Fork have been dispersed. (Phone calls to the foundation’s office in Monte Vista were answered by a voice mail that said I had reached the office for information and reservations for the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad.) Some of us railroad buffs who live west of Alamosa would enjoy seeing an excursion train running in our direction from Alamosa to connect to Creede some day, but for now we have other options.

Notwithstanding the ongoing drought and fire danger, trains will be running on schedule beginning May 27, and Smokey Bear says they will continue through the summer unless extreme conditions force a change. So, snuff out your cigarettes and campfires and keep your spark arrestor clean. Four toots on the whistle.

Besides being a railroad buff, Virginia McConnell Simmons has written many books of local and regional history.