COVER FEATURE: Gold Rush 2016: Living Color, Living History

Tom Hess
September/October 2016

Editor’s note: Viewing aspen from the comfort of a car is by far the most popular means, to experience Colorado’s annual gold rush (see “Autumn road trips: Four base camps”). Yet it can be a hurried experience, especially if there is no safe and legal place to pull over next to an especially vibrant stand of bright yellows, oranges, and reds. And the line of motorists and bikers behind you sometimes don’t appreciate when you slow down or come to a dead stop on a two-lane state or county highway to get that perfect photo, Instagram, or Snap.

In 2015, EnCompass recommended an alternative to car travel, describing the joys of aspen-viewing from the back of a horse (read that article at

In 2016, consider letting another driver—specifically a railroad engineer—guide you through aspen stands so intense you’ll need sunglasses. Several railroads in Colorado take you on rides that not only display great color, but reveal colorful history as well.

Each of the three railroads featured here takes you back in time, to the 1800s. Each provides live and entertaining narration to explain the history of what you see along the way. And it’s wise in each case to wear protective glasses to shield your eyes from authentic ash.

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Everything moved a little slower in the 1800s. And slow is the speed at which the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad travels, crossing back and forth over the Colorado-New Mexico state line, from the dusty plains south of Alamosa to the mountains of northwestern New Mexico. Local topography got in the way of rapid progress in the 19th century, when the railroad first coal-fired its engines, and it still does in the 21st century. This is an area that most people bypass far to the east, on I-25, where they race at interstate speed toward the modern luxuries of Santa Fe or Taos. Those who ride the Cumbres & Toltec enter a bygone era of Spanish land grants, antiquated structures, and families whose generations have all worked the railroad, from the heat and raw power of the engines to the lines of international tourists at the yesteryear ticket offices.

The railroad’s name is a blend of geographic features—a spectacular black-rock gorge, Toltec (a word likely derived from that of an indigenous tribe in Mexico), and a mountain pass, Cumbres—both of which posed great difficulties for the teams that built the railroad in 1880. The train passes through and over both obstacles on its journey, never going much more than 12 miles an hour.

It’s in and near the Toltec Gorge that some of the most gorgeous aspen appeared on the trip that an award-winning travel photographer and I took. Bright gold leaves carpeted the railway gravel bed and framed the clear azure sky with shimmering color. The path through the gorge is so narrow, through perilously blasted rock, that you can almost touch the aspen. But don’t even try it, because you might lose a limb of your own in the process.

You can stand in an open car and listen to a detailed narration of the railway’s history, while smoke and ash swirl around you.  Or you can choose to sit comfortably inside looking out the window and marveling at the effort it took—men and boys working unregulated, uninsured hours—to give you such a rare look back to ancient time.

This is an area so remarkably preserved from modern development that it served as an authentic setting for movies of the Western frontier, most notably the scenes of young Indiana Jones (b. 1899) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ask any real-life railroad staff member about their family’s history in the area, and you’ll hear tales more captivating than any movie.

Ray Martinez is a third-generation Cumbres & Toltec employee who’s framed his father’s and grandfather’s railroad paystubs. © AAA Colorado/Tom Hess

Among those whose stories I heard: the Martinez family—husband Ray (conductor), wife Roberta (reservations manager), and son Evan (brakeman who’s operated engine No. 463). Ray keeps his father Joseph’s railroad paystubs from the 1940s in a frame at his Chama office.

“This place, the Cumbres & Toltec, is literally in our blood,” said Roberta. “For four generations, it is blood, sweat, tears and steam that have kept this place going. It is our heritage.  It is our legacy. It is our history. Still today, we are history in the making.”

Start your ride on the Cumbres & Toltec train from either the Antonito, Colo., or Chama, N.M., stations, and a motor coach will take you back to where you started. The full-day rides begin at 8:30 a.m., and arrive at 5:30 p.m.

I prefer the ride from Chama to Antonito, then back to Chama by shuttle. But first, a few trip details: Included is an hour, mid-day lunch intermission at Osier Station, a remote 19th-century train stop in Conejos County that included a water tank standing high above the Rio de Los Pinos River. Cumbres & Toltec built a dining facility at the spot, with a full kitchen for feeding hundreds of hungry, thirsty passengers. Lunch includes two service lines—one for a meatloaf meal, and the other for turkey. The highlight is a slice of Southern Buttermilk pie, one of several choices on the ample dessert trays.

The Chama station is about 300 miles from Denver, and nearly 250 miles from Colorado Springs. About 150 miles of the distance is two-lane mountain road. At that distance, with the train ride ending in Antonito at 5:30 p.m., with a 45-minute shuttle ride back to Chama, and autumn nightfall fast approaching, it’s best to arrange an overnight stay.

Lodging at either end of the rail line—whether Antonito or Chama—is equally behind the times, and charmingly so. My preference is the AAA Two Diamond rated Gandy Dancer Inn Bed & Breakfast in Chama. Guests can watch Indiana Jones on DVD in their comfy rooms that night, and happily swap stories of their rail adventures around the breakfast table, over a hot, tasty meal, the next morning.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Garfield Peak (aka Gorilla Peak) looms in the distance as a photographer captures the contrast of the black steam locomotive (circa 1923) and the vibrant aspens in this autumn scene. Courtesy of D&SNGRR/Yvonne Lashmett

The most famous train in the self-declared Narrow Gauge Capital of the World is the D&SNGRR. Last year it drew 181,000 paying passengers from across the globe. The train runs through national forest land, with aspen mingled among evergreen, pine, and cottonwood. Aspen color appears at different times along the route, due to elevation, starting at 6,512 feet in Durango and ending at 9,318 feet in Silverton. Aspen colors first appear at higher elevation, due to cooler temperatures, which trigger the chemical reaction that lights up the leaves.

“There is a lot of aspen here,” said Yvonne Lashmett, official D&SNGRR photographer since 1985. “We call them quakies—bright gold, shimmering, just beautiful against a brilliant blue sky.”

An actor aboard the Durango & Silverton portrays William J. Palmer, the industrialist who founded the railway in 1881. Courtesy of the Durango Area Tourism Office/Yvonne Lashmett

Passengers rave back home and on social media about the vivid color, the historic authenticity, the parlor car, and the entertaining narrators. They also suggest that passengers wear sunglasses, to protect their eyes from the ash.

On the last weekend in September each year, the railroad schedules a two-day ride, northbound from Durango, then southbound the next day from Silverton, for photographers, with multiple stops to capture “quakies.” The ride sells out within a month of the online announcement of details. A night shoot is available for just 30 people, and sells out even quicker.

Round-trip on the train, from Durango to Silverton and back, is seven hours. Many people choose to cut that in half, riding a bus for the return trip.

Behind the railyard is a hidden treasure, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Museum. It displays an array of railroad artifacts, including a retired steam engine folks can sit in.

Georgetown Loop Historic Mining and Railroad Park

The Georgetown Loop railroad crosses the Devil’s Gate High Bride above Clear Creek. © Mark Graybill

The historic rail experience nearest the Front Range, Georgetown Loop offers views of the polka-dot aspen stands within Clear Creek Canyon.

Work on the railroad began during the region’s 19th-century silver boom. Clear Creek Canyon is so narrow, with an average grade of 6 percent (six feet of elevation gain for every 100 feet of distance), that is was too steep for most trains to pull a load, not without some special engineering. Union Pacific chief engineer Jacob Blickensderfer devised a solution—a system of curves and bridges, reducing the average grade to 3 percent. The plan included three hairpin turns, four bridges, and a 30-degree horseshoe curve from Georgetown to Silver Plume. The line, widely known as an engineering marvel, became idle as mining faded. It reopened as a tourist experience in 1984, and operates today as a History Colorado Center property.

This steam locomotive originally made daily runs for the West Side Lumber Company in California. Georgetown Loop decided against re-lettering the freight car. © Mark Graybill

The loop requires less drive time from the Front Range, and the ride itself is much shorter from the Front Range than either the Cumbres & Toltec or the D&SNGRR. The aspen photography can be rewarding as well, depending on your timing. It’s worth calling ahead, or checking the U.S. Forest Service webpage for a map of autumn color. Even so, no matter how much color appears, or how bright the gold, the loop is a fun ride, especially for children and grandchildren. Entice the kids to ride on the loop—and perhaps enjoy a surprisingly good meal at nearby AAA-rated restaurants in Georgetown—in exchange for their endurance of your leaf-peeping drive up Guanella Pass. (Find restaurant ratings in a Colorado & Utah TourBook® available at any of AAA Colorado’s 11 retail stores).

Tom Hess is Editor of Encompass.

Colorado’s other historic railroads

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Courtesy of The Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cog Railway

The highest cog railway in the world climbs from Manitou Springs, through aspen stands, to the 14,115-foot summit of America’s Mountain (weather permitting).

Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad

This century-old steam locomotive transports passengers back to the gold mining days of Cripple Creek and Victor, and stops for fall-color photography.

Leadville Colorado & Southern

This train ride, 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River, offers Fall Photo weekends (Sept. 10–11, 17–18, and 24–25) departing from the Leadville depot at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It travels an additional mile and a half beyond its normal route, and offers sweeping views of the valley.

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

The train runs from Alamosa to La Veta. Along the way it stops at an exclusive music venue—the Fur Summit Amphitheater, elevation 9,400 feet. Through Sept. 11, guests enjoy a concert performed on a custom boxcar stage, with BBQ lunches and regional craft brews available for purchase. Bring a camping chair or reserve a chair for a small fee. There are picnic tables and limited covered awnings on a first-come, first-served basis. Coolers are not permitted.

Royal Gorge Route Railroad

The train runs through a deep, tree-less yet uniquely beautiful gorge. From Sept. 10-Oct. 16, the railroad offers a Bier Train, for Oktoberfest—a two-hour dining experience in either the Dome or classic dining car.

Tom Hess is Editor of EnCompass.