3 Must-Do Scenic Train Rides in Colorado

The Cumbres & Toltec steam engine pulls into Sublette Station.

We often say that our plans are set in jello as full-time RVers. Plans sometimes change with little notice, and that’s been our story for most of 2017. Coming to Colorado at all was a major change of plans, with that idea not even considered until the end of July. Two industry events in Denver were the catalyst for this trip, but the excitement for it was sparked by a little research. And just like that, we absolutely had to take a train ride through the Rockies!

Our first event in Denver was the 37th National Narrow Gauge Convention, where we represented our manufacturing customers to model railroad enthusiasts. You can’t be around that many steam train fanatics for long without getting excited about experiencing riding aboard a real train for yourself.

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The Royal Gorge Route Railroad

But we were in no particular rush, and after a week in Denver with its constant noise and heavy traffic, we were ready for some relaxation. So we moved a couple hours south to the Royal Gorge region, parking our rig at the Royal Gorge / Cañon City KOA, where we unwound with the sounds of nature and mountain views in all directions. Now, it just so happens there’s also a scenic train ride out of nearby Cañon City, The Royal Gorge Route Railroad. With our 38th wedding anniversary days away, we splurged and booked an afternoon date for lunch in Club Class.

Ride the Royal Gorge Scenic Railway.

Looking forward from the open-air car toward the engine of the Royal Gorge  Train.

All seats are assigned, and we shared our table with a father and son visiting from the Chicago area. As the train began to roll, we ordered drinks and sandwiches from the menu. Service was quick and efficient and our meals were tasty. This was an unforgettable ride made even better by interesting conversation with complete strangers.

Shortly after departing the Cañon City depot, we entered the beautiful Royal Gorge alongside the Arkansas River. Early explorers called this nearly 10-mile long canyon the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River. In some places, Royal Gorge is over 1200-feet deep, and you look out and up at red granite walls and interesting rock formations. Every so often, the view opens up allowing you to see deep into rugged side canyons and grassy valleys.

If you're into beautiful scenery, good food & trains, you'll love the Royal Gorge RR in CO. #ttot

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At its most narrow point, a 30-foot wide bottleneck, the railroad track is suspended over the river by a hanging bridge, held in place by huge bolts drilled deep into the sheer granite walls. We stopped here and looked down at white water rafters negotiating the rapidly flowing river. The train also passes beneath the Royal Gorge Bridge, which at 1,053 feet above the river is the highest suspension bridge in the USA. We stood outdoors on the open-air car for most of the return trip, so that we would have unobstructed views and could capture photos without any glare from our windows.

The Cumbres & Toltec

A Scenic Train Ride Through the Rockies

A week later, we were ready for our much-anticipated ride on a steam train. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a 1880 vintage line best known for its appearance in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." It’s a 64-mile, one-way steam train ride that begins and ends at either Antonito, Colorado or Chama, New Mexico. 

The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad is best known for its appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

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You begin or complete the loop with a comfortable and scenic ride by motorcoach. We boarded their coach early in the morning at the Antonito depot, then boarded our train at Chama at around 10 a.m. This particular route put us aboard the train as the engine worked its way up the 4% grade between Chama and Cumbres Pass.

The Cumbres and Toltec offers a stunning train ride through the Rockies.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway Offers Stunning Views on a Vintage Train Ride.

We expected much cooler temperatures at elevation so we dressed warmly, and not in our best clothes. You run the risk of soot and cinders landing on you if you spend any time in the open-air gondola car. Jerry spent more time out there than I did because I was quite comfortable and had a great view from inside the car. The windows open wide so that you can poke your camera out past the glass and avoid the glare.

Once again, our attendant narrated the high points of the trip, offering an interesting peek into the history of the route. (Such as, this track was completed in only nine months!) She also made a good Bloody Mary, my very first one. Listening to the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks as it rocks gently side-to-side is unbelievably relaxing. After awhile, that and the hum of conversation around me nearly put me to sleep. And yes, that was before the alcohol.

We saw a herd of yaks, lots of cows (including some on the tracks), elk, and hawks, in addition to breathtaking views of colorful aspen and evergreen forest covered mountains; deep, red granite canyons; and beautiful mountain valleys. The route passes through two tunnels: one bored through 360’ of solid rock, and the other a mud tunnel, requiring wooden support throughout its 342’ length. We crossed at least two trestle bridges. The highest point of the ride is at Cumbres Pass, 10,015’ above sea level, though much of it is quite high and therefore, quite chilly.

At about the halfway point, we stopped for a cafeteria-style lunch at the Osier Depot. Three separate serving areas offer your choice of a turkey or meatloaf meal or a soup and salad bar. An assortment of plated, individual servings of pie and cake were offered for dessert. This isn’t fancy dining, but it fills the empty spot. And the views from the station are stunning.

We arrived back in Antonito around 4:30 p.m., hopped back in our car, and drove back to our site at Twin Rivers Cabins & RV Park. This little park is a real gem, by the way. Although we only planned to stay for one week, we fell in love with the place and wound up staying for three.

You can only get to Osier, CO by train or dirt road. Come for the views - stay for a hearty lunch.

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Pikes Peak Cog Railway

My last visit to Pikes Peak was as a teenager, on a family trip. Dad drove all eight of us up the mountain in our family van. Mom remembers being scared and hating the trip because there weren’t many guard rails and she didn’t like looking straight down over the drop-off from her passenger seat. I remember thinking it was so cool and that once we arrived at the top, it was far beyond cool. Try freezing cold with high winds!

Jerry and I discussed the merits of driving or taking the cog train, and surprise, the cog train won out. So, we moved our motorhome to the Colorado Springs KOA and waited patiently for the weather to cooperate for this particular adventure. From the Tuesday when we arrived in Colorado Springs through Friday, the mountains were shrouded in clouds. When we learned that the weather was supposed to be clear on Saturday, I quickly booked our reservation.

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway is yet another way to take a train ride through the Rockies.

Riding the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway is the highest railway in the USA, the highest cog railway in the world, and has the largest elevation gain, at just over 7,500 feet. It’s not the steepest grade worldwide, but climbing at a rate of 25 feet for every 100 feet traveled, this is way more than any non-cog train could handle. (The honors for steepest grade actually belong to the Pilatus Railway in Switzerland, which climbs an astounding 48 feet for every 100 feet traveled. Can you imagine that?)

The cog train boards in a beautifully restored depot in Manitou Springs. If you go, leave earlier than you think necessary. Heavy weekend traffic slowed us down enough to put us in danger of losing our tickets. You see, if you don’t show 20-minutes before boarding, they offer your tickets to someone on standby. At exactly the 20-minute mark, I hopped out of the car and walked over to claim our tickets while Jerry waited for a parking space. Ahead of me, a man was claiming standby tickets that thankfully were not ours.

As on our other two train rides, seats are assigned. Ours were at the very end of the car, looking backwards out of a full-width, tall window. Large side windows crank open and closed, making it nice for picture-taking. Incidentally, these crank windows are also the only temperature control mechanism.

Seating is three across on one side of the car, two on the other. We shared our grouping of three with a new friend from Louisiana. (Hey there, Debbie!) And on the way back, the process was reversed. The engineer moves to the back of the car, which becomes the front, and we had front row seats back down the mountain. Views are spectacular all along the way. I don’t think there’s a bad location in the car.

In retrospect, Saturday is probably not the best day to visit Pikes Peak. In addition to our individual cog train, we were followed by a double-car cog train, arriving at the peak minutes after us. A steady stream of visitors who drove up were now also at the top - everyone wanting to step inside for a souvenir, a bathroom break, a bite to eat or drink. It made for tight quarters in the visitor station. At 14,114 feet elevation, the air is thin and we were feeling a little lightheaded. That didn’t combine well with being in a confined space so we didn’t spend much time indoors.

From the top of Pikes Peak, you can see hundreds of miles. In fact, on a clear day you can see the highest points in Kansas and Oklahoma! It was unbelievably cold and windy at the top of the mountain, probably with a windchill in the teens. We looked around a bit and got back on the train, where the sun was heating the interior to a no jacket required temperature.

From the top of Pikes Peak in CO, you can see the highest points in KS and OK. #ttot

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Bonus: Even More Train Options

These aren’t the only trains, but three were enough to satisfy us this trip. The Royal Gorge was a diesel, 50’s era train; the Cumbres, a steam engine; and the cog train was another type altogether. Each was interesting in its own way, with its own ambiance and story.

Other trains in the region include the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Georgetown Loop Railroad, Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad that operates out of Alamaso, and the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad. Trains are a fascinating part of Colorado’s history, and especially with the Cumbres & Toltec, it was like stepping back in time.

Trains are a fascinating part of CO's history & the Cumbres & Toltec is like stepping back in time.

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If this has whet your appetite for your own train ride through the Rockies, be sure to check the weather and seasons before booking any travel reservations. Some are open year-round, but not all. In September and October, we only needed a couple days between booking and riding, but other times of year may require more notice.

If you have the luxury of waiting like we did, pay close attention to the weather forecast. We felt sorry for a couple who wound up taking the Cumbres & Toltec on a cold, rainy and windy day. And looking down from Pikes Peak would not be as enjoyable either if there’s heavy cloud cover between you and the view below.

Now it’s your turn: Have you ever been on a train? Did you enjoy it? Please leave a comment about your experience, or about one you’re hoping to have in the future.

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Shari Voigt

Shari Voigt is an author, website developer, and marketing consultant. She’s been working and living on the road with her husband Gerald since July 25, 2013. When she’s not working on the latest marketing idea for herself or her customers, she’s exploring new places and meeting new people from all over the USA.

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