Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

This railroad is the longest (67 miles) remaining narrow-gauge railroad in the world. The narrow gauge allows for tighter turns through the mountains. The trip begins in Antonito, Colorado and ends in Chama, New Mexico. Along the way, it crosses the state border 11 times.

We had assigned seats, but once our tickets were punched, we could sit anywhere we wanted. My wife moved over to the left side of the train, which offered better views, and I wandered back and forth from our car to the open observation car to the platforms at the end of the cars.

The first 15 miles or so were through unexciting sagebrush flats, but then we worked our way up on to the mountains. We bought out tickets last spring and tried to pick a weekend when the colors would be at their best. We may have missed the peak by a few days, but we saw a lot of color and aren’t disappointed.

Sublette Station where railroad workers stayed. We stopped long enough to water the engine. In the first photo, you can see it in the distance across the valley.

Mud Tunnel, 342 feet long. It’s shored up by timbers because the ground is porous. I’m pretty sure one of the opening scenes of the movie Bite the Bullet was filmed right here.

Toltec Gorge in the distance.

Rock Tunnel, 360 feet long.

Monument to President Garfield erected by railroad workers shortly after his assassination.

Our ticket was supposed to include a hot buffet lunch at Osier, but supposedly they’d recently “had a fire.” There was no obvious evidence of this, but instead of buffet, we were given a bag lunch in which was a wet (not moist, wet) ham and cheese sandwich and some other stuff. We didn’t get a reduced fair. The stop at Osier took about an hour while we ate and milled around and while the railroad workers switched engines. A second trainload of tourists had come up from Chama that morning. Some people from that train and our returned to the station or origin while others (us included) went on to the end of the line.

There’s a steep grade 4% from Chama to Osier, so they switched engines so the more powerful one would return to Chama and be available to climb the grade the next morning. Our engine was coupled to the the other train and returned to Antonito.

After we left Osier on our way to Chama, we could see the other train on its way to Antonito. I’m always amazed by how dwarfed trains look in the western landscape.

Looking back at Osier after lunch.

There were many cows in the creek valleys. These were accompanied by a large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds (hanging out on the fence as the train went by).

The valley along this lake was, I’m almost positive, used for many scenes in Bite the Bullet.

Cumbres. The track ran along Route 17 the rest of the way to Chama. The green sign in the background says “Cumbres Pass Summit Elevation 10,022 feet.”

Three views of Windy Point, supposedly famous because the track runs along a shelf carved out of the mountain. The upper cut with the section of trestle, is the railroad. The lower one is Route 17. We drove that rode on our way back to Antonito on the bus.

Lobato Trestle carries the train 100 feet above Wolf Creek.

At one point, I found myself alone on a platform with a conductor. I made the mistake of asking him about his job and got a 15-minute commercial for a train class where participants spend $2,700 for a chance to be a fireman on the engine and be the engineer for about five miles. If the guy was any good at reading body language, he wouldn’t have wasted his time.

When we got to Chama, we immediately boarded a bus to take us back to Antonito. We got the very front seats, which gave us a good view of the mountains as we rode back. The driver cracked corny jokes and told us about stuff along the way. We got back about an hour later than we’d been led to expect. It was a three-and-a-half hour drive home, with a quick stop for a cold Whopper at Burger King in Alamosa.

The train ride was great. I enjoyed it more that Durango Silverton, which goes through more impressive scenery but sticks to the creek side in the valley and so didn’t give long views. Cumbres & Toltec, on the other hand, goes along the ridges or the slopes and gives long views all along the way. Both rides were beautiful, but I prefer this one.

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Southern Colorado “Attractions”

We stayed a night in Fort Garland and then drove south to Antonito to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (next post). Along the way, we made (very) brief stops to see roadside attractions.

Manassa, Colorado—Birthplace of Jack Dempsey

This one caught me by surprise. We were driving through this small town when I saw a statue of a boxer in a park. It triggered a reminder that I’d heard of a boxer named “The Manassa Mauler.” I wasn’t even sure who it was, but I made a quick U-turn and pulled over. Turns out it was Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion from 1919-1926. The cabin had nothing to do with Dempsey—it was just an example of an inn along the Santa Fe Trail.

Antonito, Colorado—Cano’s Castle

Odd building constructed by a Vietnam Vet. The silver covering on the towers is from flattened beer cans. Sightseers aren’t allowed in the yard. We didn’t even get out of the car.

Antonito, Colorado—Indiana Jones Bed and Breakfast

This house was used as Indiana Jones’ boyhood home in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Apparently it isn’t in great shape and the current owner is trying to raise donations to fix it up. We didn’t participate.

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50 Birds!

I hadn’t done any intense birding in a while, so I set out with the goal of seeing 50 birds. In Illinois, in any month other than November-February, this would be easily attainable. Not in Colorado. But I persevered and ended up with exactly 50 birds. I started at Fountain Creek, then went to Clear Spring Ranch, then Big Johnson Reservoir, and finally to Garden of the Gods.

I ended up with three birds on the rare bird report—an Eastern Phoebe at Clear Spring Ranch, and Marbled Godwit and Stilt Sandpiper at Big Johnson. The latter two are no big deal—just a week or two later than expected. The phoebe isn’t that exciting either—I’ve seen them around Pueblo many times.

My goal in going to a very crowded Garden of the Gods was to get photos of a Prairie Falcon. I did, although they aren’t of the quality I would like. For one thing, I was on the shady side of the rock, and for another, it was just too far away for really crisp photos. Still, they’re the best I’ve managed to date.

Eastern Phoebe at Clear Spring Ranch

European Starling at Clear Spring

Wood Duck at Fountain Creek

Great Blue Heron at Fountain Creek

It was a good day. The sun was warm, of course, but it was pleasant in the shade with a bit of a breeze.

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Prewitt Reservoir

Prewitt Reservior State Wildlife Area is two-and-a-half hours from my house, up in the northeast corner of the state. I’d never been there before, and I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it. But the numbers and varieties of birds reported from there on Friday made a trip up on Saturday worthwhile.

I arrived at 9:00 to find many birders already spread out on the huge mudflat at the end of the lake. I’d hardly left my car when I saw a immature Sabine’s Gull. The birds never stopped. There must have been thousands of shorebirds, gulls and terns, ibis, pelicans, and herons spread around that end of the lake.

Before I got too far, I came upon a creek running through the flat. There was no way to cross it without getting my feet wet. On the advice of other birders, I took off my shoes and left them there. I walked barefoot for the next two hours, which enabled me to get much closer to the birds because I wasn’t held back by mud.

Sabine’s Gull

Pectoral Sandpiper

Sanderling. Even though the three of these I saw weren’t following the waves, they still rushed about the flats like a wind-up toy

Short-billed Dowitcher. These are rare in Colorado. This isn’t a great photo—it was 50-yards away and the light was awful for photos, but it does show the tiger-stripe markings on the primaries that distinguish it from Long-billed Dowitcher.

Black Tern (foreground) with a Franklin’s Gull

Stilt Sandpiper. There were a lot of these around

Franklin’s Gulls

Common Tern (on the right) with Franklin’s and Ring-billed Gulls in the second photo.

Forester’s Tern (foreground left)

Ruddy Turnstone (These are rare in Colorado, but I used to see them along the Great Lakes from time to time.)

Wilson’s Phalarope

A lot of woodland migrants had been reported on Friday, and several birders saw some cool stuff early Saturday in the woods in the park, but by the time I got there later in the day, nothing was moving. I did pick this guy out of the willows.

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Reptile/Amphibian #34 — Woodhouse’s Toad

anaxyrus woodhousi

Saturday, August 28, 10:50 am

Chatfield State Park, Colorado

I birded at a couple places in the park in the morning. There were birds around, but nothing spectacular. The day was heating up, and I was headed back to my car through a dry cottonwood grove about 80 yards from the Platte River on the south end of the reservoir. I heard a faint rustle in the trail-side grass and spotted this small but rotund toad making its getaway. It was no great effort to step in front of it and get it turned back toward the trail. Four of five repetitions of this gave me the chance to take the photos I wanted. I then left it to do whatever toads do on hot late-August days.

My search on the internet convinced me it was a Woodhouse’s Toad. The identifying feature are a pair of L-shaped ridges just behind its eye bumps and in front of those blister-looking patches (called paratoid glands). The ridges are not easy to see—they stand out best in this photo.

As you could probably guess from its physique, its hops were not impressive, although it was livelier than some toads I’ve seen. It was maybe two-inches long and almost as wide. The central breast spot is also a good indication that it’s a Woodhouse’s Toad.

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