A Colorado too few know – the San Luis Valley

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Looking back on where we had just travelled

As the two billowing plumes, one white, one black, shot up into the air with loud hisses, we all oohed and aahed. Our six-hour journey on the longest and highest narrow gauge steam railroad in the United States was just beginning.

“This is a little bit of our heritage,” said Rich Muth, volunteer guide for the 2018 opening day ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Travelling for 64 miles between the tiny towns of Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico, this narrow gauge steam railroad is considered the most scenic of all of the remaining such historic trains in the U.S., moving at an average speed of just 12 miles per hour. Built in 1880, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and countless other gunmen and Old West outlaws travelled on this remnant of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. Narrow gauge (3 feet between the rails) was used rather than standard gauge (4 feet, 8 inches) to allow trains to make tighter curves in the mountains, which were being heavily mined at the time.

And this is what the train looks like in all its angry glory © 2018. Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec crosses the border of Colorado and New Mexico 11 times and passes over 136-foot trestles above a rushing river as it travels its way up and over 10,015-foot-high Cumbres Pass, the highest point reached by any steam railroad in America. This scenic railroad is jointly owned by the states of Colorado and New Mexico, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012. While there are many “heritage railroads” in the U.S., most only offer special excursions, or run out and back for a few miles, and often offer diesel service rather than steam locomotives.  There is nothing quite like the Cumbres & Toltec.

“The train is what allowed us to settle the west,” Muth continues. “This is our history, a living museum that you ride on.” Indeed, the Cumbres & Toltec has endeavoured to keep the experience as authentic as possible. The intricate tin-embossed ceilings and old-style lighting sustains the nostalgia, as do the charmingly white-aproned staff in the “parlor” (restaurant) car.

Showcased in many films and documentaries, the train was even featured in the Indiana Jones film in which Indiana “grew up” in a small house in Antonito, which is now an operating B&B..

a flock of shop crossing the line

Passengers may walk freely through the train, ride in the open air gondola (I personally stayed outside for the entire trip, mesmerised by the views and Muth’s narrative,) open their windows, or ride on the open air platforms between passenger cars. The train passes through varied terrain of high desert plains, dense aspen, spruce and pine forests, past meadows of wildflowers and sage, and through a rocky gorge of unusual geologic formations, with the evocative sound of various loud whistles blowing at crossings. Mule deer, pronghorn, elk, foxes and eagles are frequently spotted, and lucky passengers have even seen bears. We were fortunate to see a lone pronghorn dashing alongside us. “Oh, here comes a pronghorn,” Muth cried out about the graceful creature, the fastest mammal in North America. “We’ve seen them outpace the train!”

We also came upon a huge flock of sheep which had been grazing upon the tracks, but were dashing off to the side amid groves of wild irises as we approached, two incredibly agile Border Collies and a shepherd out of a Wild West film driving them away. It was a sight to remember forever.

During the autumn, savvy travellers book in advance to see the spectacular aspen trees turning golden .There are restrooms on each train and a “parlor car.” All trains stop for an included hot buffet lunch of turkey or meatloaf and a salad bar at the midway point, which is the scenic station of Osier. Guides (called docents in the US) have a real wealth of knowledge and history and most of all, enthusiastically share their passion for the railroad and southern Colorado.

Alamosa public art

This area, known as the San Luis Valley, encompasses 8,000 square miles in six mostly rural counties and parts of three others in south-central Colorado, with a small portion of New Mexico as well, and an average elevation of 7,664 feet above sea level. It is the headwaters of the storied Rio Grande.  Spectacular scenery is everywhere, as the valley is tucked between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan towering, snow-capped ranges.

The region enjoys a rich Hispanic culture, as the valley was ceded to the United States by Mexico following the Mexican-American War. During the 1800’s, settlers came to the valley and engaged in mining and irrigated agriculture. Today’s San Luis Valley has a diverse Anglo and Hispanic population, with smaller numbers of other ethnicities, including Amish. During our visit, we enjoyed experiencing the Spanish-language mass at the lovely Mission-style Catholic Church downtown, and seeing the hand-embroidered Virgen of Guadalupe tapestry in the foyer. We also toured the sophisticated and vast Firedworks Gallery on Main Street in Alamosa for truly unique and fine quality artwork in various mediums. One warm evening, we delighted in coming upon an outdoor family birthday party, with a dozen or so Hispanic youngsters competing to break the piñata full of candy, while the adults conversed in both Spanish and English. As we drove through towns, there were signs in Spanish saying such as “Vaya con Dios,” (go with God) and “Hasta la Vista,” (until next time.)

Me and my new friend!

There is much to do and see here, in this under-discovered region. We made Alamosa our base, after a four-hour drive from Denver on the very picturesque Highway 285. The region could also be reached from the Albuquerque, New Mexico airport in about three hours.

We visited Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, which contains the tallest sand dunes in North America and hosts an unlikely “beach scene”( in the centre of the nation!) Happy folks slide down the dunes on special sand sleds and “sand boards,” while others bring their beach chairs and canopies and spend a day enjoying the so-called “Rocky Mountain Beach.” In springtime, Medano Creek flows across the sand, and waders delight in the warm water.

Near the Great Sand Dunes, Zapata Falls is a must-do. The falls were formed when South Zapata Creek wore a groove in the rocks of the Sangre de Cristos. Over millennia, the creek has carved a dim, deep and narrow chasm through which water tum­bles some 30 feet. In the summer, the falls offer a cool respite, as one must wade upon the small rocks through chilly water to get to the best vantage point. In late May, we still saw a huge panel of ice upon the rock wall.

Another enticing (albeit a bit bizarre!) attraction in the area is the Colorado Gators Reptile Park. Originally a tilapia fish farm utilizing the region’s geothermal waters, in 1987, the owners brought in 100 Florida alligators to dispose of the fish waste. Through the years, they added to them hundreds of donated gators and other reptile species from people who owned them, unsuccessfully, as pets. Some 400+ animals live in a sort of sanctuary at the park, in a rather quirky, old-school environment. We loved the baby emus, the three albino gators, and the adorable giant tortoises which walk freely throughout the Park, as well as the enormous alligators, which, we discovered, HISS very loudly when startled!

Don’t try this at home!

The San Luis Valley is home to several natural hot spring pools, and one of the most popular, (deservedly) is the Sand Dunes Recreation, a privately owned resort about 30 minutes north of Alamosa. The main swimming pool is large and family-friendly, replete with diving board, but the true draw here is the adults-only “Greenhouse,” a tropical paradise covered by a translucent roof, with several hot springs pools of differing temperatures as well as one main pool large enough to swim in. Surrounded by a staggering assortment of lush vegetation such as huge rubber trees, pineapple plants, hibiscus and banana trees, the only thing to make it even better is there as well – a bar with a hefty list of craft beers and an excellent menu. What an oasis in the high desert – we can’t wait to go back.

The valley lived up to all my expectations and then some. But the train journey topped everything for providing us with some of the most spectacular views I had seen in this part of America.

All images unless stated are © Mark Rush Photography.

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